Why it pays to be tough at work

For decades, women’s ‘softer skills’ were workplace gold. Now, says business writer Lucy Kellaway, it may be time for a rethink


Why it pays to be tough at work

Collette and I first met six months after she had set up her own business. She was bright, charming and sympathetic; the 20 young people she had hired seemed to adore her. Her approach was consensual and she encouraged teamwork. How exciting, I thought. Here are the supposed ‘female’ skills – high on emotional intelligence, low on belligerence – and this is a model of what successful companies will be like in the future.

When I met her again three years later, she was fighting for survival. She told me she had got too involved in the lives of her employees. She had been slow to discipline or fire people who weren’t performing. She had questioned her own opinions. She had tried to make herself likeable. ‘Now, I don’t care if they like me,’ she said. ‘I’m in charge, and they must know that. I care about one thing – saving this company.’

Collette had learned the hard way. To survive and succeed in business, you need toughness. In the battle between the head and the heart, the head must always win. This is not what we have been led to believe. For the past 15 years, the dominant theory of success has been that the people who win are not necessarily the cleverest – they are the ones with the highest levels of emotional intelligence.

This concept was popularised by Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, which is still on the bookshelves of every aspiring business leader and MBA student. Goleman argues that ‘the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence… it is the sine qua non of leadership’ – and we all believed him. There is only one thing the matter with this charming theory: it has little basis in fact.

‘The evidence suggests that people who are disagreeable do better,’ says Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London. ‘The most common lie in business is that emotional intelligence is more important than real intelligence.’

In fact, the evidence points the other way. German researchers found that women who are ‘agreeable’ earned £40,000 less in a lifetime than those who aped more ruthless ‘male’ behaviour patterns.

Yet to say this is almost taboo. Even more so is to suggest that being low on emotional sensitivity is something to be proud of. Not long ago, Jon Moulton, one of London’s most successful venture capitalists, boasted to the Financial Times that one of his three most useful character traits was insensitivity – an admission that was as shocking as it was enlightening. He is quite right: insensitivity can be a powerful asset at work. Not long ago, I asked former CEO of BP Lord Browne what kept him awake at night, and he told me that in his entire career he had not lost one night’s sleep because of work. ‘If you are the sort of person to lose sleep, you shouldn’t be a CEO,’ he said.

There is a lot of academic debate over what emotional intelligence actually is, but most people agree that one of its most important components is empathy. Yet empathy can be a handicap when it comes to succeeding at work.

‘Too much empathy is paralysing,’ says Suzy Welch, former editor of the Harvard Business Review and wife of Jack Welch, one of America’s best-known business leaders. ‘Empathy paralyses you when you need to make tough people decisions or give tough feedback.’ Women, she says, are particularly prone to this. They slip into the role of the ‘good mother’, where they create ‘gardens of entitlement’, in which the seeds are sown for problems in the future.

Another component of emotional intelligence is self-knowledge; this, too, turns out to be a dangerous weapon at work. Not only is it hard to teach, it’s not even necessary for the job. I’ve spent much of my career interviewing CEOs, and precious few of them had any self-knowledge. It can also detract from self-confidence, if it makes you more aware of your failings. Instead, says Furnham, ‘people who get on have hubristic narcissism’.

This is bad news for women. Research suggests men tend to overestimate their abilities, while women tend to underestimate theirs. Women doubt themselves, and self-doubt is not an asset in business. ‘Who wants a leader who doubts themselves?’ asks Welch. Successful male managers, she argues, have no self-doubt, and little curiosity about themselves. ‘They don’t do navel-gazing,’ she says. ‘They’d rather talk about sport.’

And hurrah for that. I have found that working for people who are low on empathy and who talk about sport all day restful, as it places no emotional demands on me. If a manager does not recognise neediness in his staff, the staff are encouraged to behave less neurotically than they otherwise might.
If (relative) emotional stupidity is what sorts out who wins at work, this partly explains why women have not advanced as well as you’d think within companies. Unfortunately, the current advice – that women should play to their emotional strengths – serves to perpetuate the status quo. Even books written by hard-headed businesspeople pay lip service to the role of the emotions.

The most recent, How Remarkable Women Lead written by two female McKinsey management consultants, argues that a woman’s emotional depth helps her be ‘not just a better person but a better leader who can deliver results’.

They quote Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, who claimed that she liked to think of the company like a family. ‘Women are more comfortable talking about love and emotion and passion than men are,’ she says.

That’s all very well, but during her tenure at Xerox, Mulcahy slashed a third of jobs. One would rather hope that she didn’t practise the same sort of trick at home.

The truth is that what is required of us emotionally at home and at work are, and should be, two  different things. At home, there is no level of emotional intelligence that is too high. At work, what is required is some emotional intelligence, but not too much. Success lies in knowing when to use it, and when to bring your more ruthless side to the fore. ‘To me,’ says Welch, ‘emotional intelligence can simply mean maturity. And if that’s all it is,
it’s definitely a good thing.’