Successful foreign service officers have this ability. Elementary school principals with great leadership skills also have it. Lawyers, medical doctors, other medical providers, and mental health clinicians need it. This ability or skill is called “emotion recognition”. It is very complex and depends upon context. Circumstances may dictate that when it comes to the workplace and colleagues and emotion recognition skill, on occasions “less is more”.
Emotion recognition, a core component of emotional intelligence, is the general ability to recognize emotions. Many definitions of emotional intelligence exist. These definitions vary broadly. Some describe emotional intelligence as an ability. Others describe emotional intelligence as a trait. Yet others combine the two and are called “mixed” models. One factor that the various definitions usually have in common concerns the general ability to recognize emotions. According to the authors of the article featured in this post, “emotion recognition appears to be the most reliably validated component of emotional intelligence”. They state that as a primary reason for their research study which examined the relationship between emotion recognition ability and organizational outcomes.
If you are a consumer of emotional intelligence assessments or interventions, either personally for your own career or personal development, or for your organization, in areas of recruiting, hiring, or training, you may benefit from reading this post. Emotional intelligence is a multi-faceted skill. It is complex, and depends upon context. The researchers make a compelling case and suggest and show that sometimes “less is more” and “one size may not fit all”. Conclusion: use caution.
Important Background: Outcomes, Channels, Types, Context, and Valence
For decades, researchers have known that skill in emotion recognition predicts positive outcomes in a wide range of contexts. From business executives to foreign service officers to elementary school principals, studies have shown a positive association between skill in emotion recognition and success in a wide variety of educational, workplace, or organizational contexts. Sensitivity to the internal states of colleagues, note the authors, can assist in coordinating activities and working independently. Emotion recognition, however, is a complex skill.
A person can express emotion by voice tones, facial expressions, body movements, or a combination of these “channels”. Each channel or combination can communicate a number of different emotions. The emotions can be positive or negative. Skill at emotion recognition and dealing with it in the workplace context depends upon the channel as well as the emotion expressed. The degree to which we can intentionally control our face, voice, and body to express emotion varies. Decades old research has our face as the most controllable emotion communication channel. Our facial expressions are, according to published research, highly controllable, express the information we choose to communicate, and as a result, “this information is more subject to impression management”. Emotion information conveyed through body movement or voice channels, however, may provide, according to the authors, a truer window into a person’s feelings. The ability to control the expression of emotion through these channels is more difficult, and requires more effort. The authors conclude “Thus, there is evidence that people can send the information they would like others to understand through certain types of nonverbal expression, but less so through others.”
Emotion recognition is about reading social cues. The researchers label this skill “nonverbal eavesdropping”. A double-edged problem occurs with this skill, according to the authors. Some people have problems when they lack the ability to read social cues around them. The study authors noted that some people have a different kind of problem with emotion recognition. These individuals, according to the researchers, have the potential to “read too much” in a particular situation.
The authors cite several studies in their discussion about the “mixed blessing” of the ability to use the subtle nonverbal cues from others to gauge their internal states. One study done several decades ago found that people who had special skill at decoding nonverbal messages through the less controllable channels had more difficulties in their social relationships. People with this skill or ability to “read too much” can eavesdrop successfully, apparently, on messages that the source of the message did not intend for them to receive. This is so, according to another study, because negative interpersonal feelings tend to “leak out” from the less controllable emotional channels. Moving from their discussion about interpersonal situations, the study authors turn to considerations of nonverbal eavesdropping and workplace contexts.
In addition to discussing interpersonal situations, the researchers also discussed the correlates of nonverbal eavesdropping ability and the workplace. The authors cited studies that involved medical fieldwork interns in different clinical specialties. The research studies report mixed results. Pediatric fieldwork interns who had better skill at nonverbal eavesdropping and decoding the less controllable channels got better ratings. Better ability to eavesdrop with psychosocial clients impaired the professional relationship. The impaired relationship stemmed from those higher-rated interns’ ability to decode unintended signals. Another study which considered doctors’ ability to decode body cues rather than facial cues. Higher doctor ratings correlated with higher body cue decoding ability. Those patients valued the ability of doctors to understand feelings that the patient could not or did not volunteer.
Considering their discussion of outcomes from the interpersonal and workplace realms, the authors state “Taken together, these findings argue for the importance of context.” A final topic, positive versus negative emotion in the workplace, concludes the background of the study.
EI is not all positive in workplace applications. Some burdens exist. The authors suggest that prior research allows the conclusion that nonverbal eavesdropping ability “appears to be harmful because it allows one to understand precisely the type of information that colleagues are most reluctant to express.”
Goal of Study and Hypotheses
The researchers considered the extensive background provided by prior research, and stated “the goal of this study was to examine whether the relationship between nonverbal eavesdropping ability and workplace outcomes differs for positive and negative emotions.” They stated a two part hypothesis for their prediction: (1) “there is a significant interaction between nonverbal eavesdropping ability and the positive versus negative valence of emotion in predicting workplace performance”; and (2) “nonverbal eavesdropping ability for positive emotions would be associated with positive outcomes and nonverbal eavesdropping ability for negative emotions would be associated with negative outcomes”.
Participants, Measures, and Results
Sixty-nine full time employees of a nonprofit public service organization constituted the study participant group. All persons were in the 17-23 year old age range due to their enrollment in the organization’s year-long public service program. They worked together in 5-7 person teams.
The study participants completed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) test. See Dr. Stephen Nowicki, PhD faculty page at Emory University, and Dr. Nowicki lab webpage. The DANVA test is a standardized test of emotion recognition. This extensively validated test employs photographs of faces and audiotapes of voices. This test has been used widely and reported in dozens of papers, dissertations, and theses. The study considered the four (4) emotions of anger, fear, happiness, and sadness featured in the test. Anger, fear, and sadness were coded as “negative” emotions in the study. Happiness served as the “positive” emotion.
The researchers stated their conceptualization of “eavesdropping ability” as the “extent to which participants could extract nonverbal information more accurately through the leakier and less intentional communication channel tested.” They calculated an “emotional eavesdropping score” in terms of the DANVA score for the vocal tones over the DANVA score for the facial photographs. To test the main hypothesis of an interaction between channel and valence in predicting workplace outcomes, the researchers calculated a “valence main effect” in terms of the positive over negative emotion. The interaction between channel and valence got calculated by multiplying together the channel and valence terms.
The researchers obtained performance ratings. Senior staff members rated the overall outcome of each person based on his or her success and perceived fit within the organization. Team members evaluated their colleagues and provided performance and liking ratings.
The researchers analyzed and tabulated their results, which are summarized as follows:
Sadness was the easiest emotion to recognize and fear the most difficult;
Accuracy did not differ across positive versus negative emotions’;
Accuracy varied by channel, with emotions easier to recognize through facial photographs than vocal tone;
Emotional eavesdropping ability is generally negative, as participants could more easily recognize emotions expressed using the more controllable channel;
Anger and fear were more easier to recognize in the voice;
Happiness and sadness were relatively easier to recognize in the face;
Emotional eavesdropping ability varied significantly across emotions, with anger and fear were more easily eavesdropped than happiness or sadness;
Emotion recognition ability significantly predicted workplace outcomes, but with complex trends: accuracy with positive emotion expressed through vocal tone predicted positive outcomes, but not so with positive emotion expressed through the face; for negative emotion, accuracy with facial expressions predicts positive outcomes, but not so for vocal tones;
Emotional eavesdropping ability with positive emotion predicts better workplace outcomes;
Emotional eavesdropping ability with negative emotions, sadness excepted, predicts worse workplace outcomes.
Discussion of Results, Limitations, Using What Emotions Tell Us
This subject – emotion recognition and nonverbal eavesdropping and the relationship with organizational outcomes – is not very easy to simplify. In fact, the scholars who did this research describe the relationship as “complex”. The researchers state that they “found that relative skill in eavesdropping on nonverbal cues can be detrimental for negative expressions but can actually be valuable for positive expressions.” Upon considering the results about the effects for nonverbal channels and emotional valence, and the interaction between those two factors, they concluded that total accuracy in the skill of emotion recognition no longer predicted workplace performance.
The researchers noted the limitations or weaknesses in their study. The organization whose members participated was described as “atypical”. Future work should include mainstream organizations. The emotion recognition studied occurred on cue, not real-time and not in an interactive social context.
Key conclusions made / suggestions offered by the study authors prior to stating their main summary point noted above include:
the controllable positive expressions are the messages most easily falsified;
positive expressions through less controllable channels are most likely authentic – eavesdropping may be a benefit because the receiver gets a positive message;
workplace etiquette often discourages the expression of negative messages – since the voluntary expression of negativity via the face may be highly informative, it may be detrimental to miss this emotional expression;
as people do not like to share bad news with others and as a result, and this unpleasant feedback leaks into less controllable nonverbal channels, reading negative expressions that were unintended or uncontrollable, has the potential to be unproductive because the negative information can be blown out of proportion;
“Being somewhat oblivious to others’ less controllable negative expressions can allow them some slack and an smooth over the noise of everyday workplace interaction rather than amplify it”;
while the ability to navigate successfully around negative feelings that colleagues do not or cannot volunteer openly may make nonverbal eavesdropping well-regarded, it may be better in certain circumstances to wear “rose-colored glasses” in the workplace;
nonverbal eavesdropping ability may be detrimental for those who are enabled to perceive harmful information, but lack refined ability to use the emotional information processed productively in the workplace setting.
Implications for Workplace Emotional Intelligence Interventions – Caution Advised
The results of this research study, according to the authors, replicate core findings from past research – “the overall positive impact of emotion recognition skill and overall negative impact of eavesdropping skill on workplace outcomes”. This has encouraged a popular trend by organizations to hire, train, and reward individuals for high emotional intelligence skills. But, the results of the study show that caution is advised because “the popular trend of emphasizing emotional intelligence in the workplace has the potential to cause unintended consequences.” This result may occur because the study, according to the authors, “cautions that certain skills – or certain combination of skills – may be counterproductive in contexts where less is more.”
The suggestions made by the study authors over ten years ago apply with equal relevance and force today for workplace members and leaders:
EI is a complex skillset which should be taken as a whole, not piecemeal, in order to create a benefit for organizations;
To use EI in a particular workplace, it is crucial to develop a deep understanding of the relationship between EI skills and the particular contexts, demands, and roles in that workplace;
Before designing, selecting, and implementing an EI intervention, a wide range of organization members should be surveyed for the purpose of providing insight about the types and skills valued in a particular workplace;
If highly successful organization members fit a certain profile among EI skills, then it may be worthwhile to try to recruit and select or to train current members for that profile;
In some circumstances, without surveying an organization’s skillset universe, EI interventions may become counterproductive for otherwise successful members;
Overall, the “findings suggest that in the case of emotional intelligence, one size may not fit all”.
Emotional intelligence became a popular topic in the business world in the mid 1990s. It gained momentum, and hundreds of articles have been published and EI practitioners and “experts” are around every corner. It seems that with the continued efforts by leading scholars like this study’s authors to perform empirical, peer-reviewed research and to publish their results, the fog associated with the EI concept and some initial claims of it being a “cure-all” is beginning to lift. Hindsight shows that the scholars who conducted this research study had much insight into the importance of emotion recognition as an element of EI and the potential benefits and burdens of applying EI in the workplace. Future postings here at Psycholawlogy will show that their cautions are very important, especially for professional service providers, and apply with equal force in today’s workplace.
Source: Elfenbein HA, & Ambady N (2002). Predicting workplace outcomes from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings. The Journal of applied psychology, 87 (5), 963-71 PMID: 12395820. This post’s featured psychological science research article can be accessed at the webpage of the lead author, Professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Ph.D., Olin School of Business, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. See Webpage.
Image Source: “The Eavesdropper” – Eugene de Blaas – Wikipedia
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