Education

Interpersonal Intelligence Is Key To Human Resource Management And Every Aspect Of Corporate Life

The importance of interpersonal intelligence is clearest around the management of personnel or human resource development. It is, in fact, continuous with every aspect of corporate life that involves the action and behaviour of human beings.

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Interpersonal Intelligence Is Key To Human Resource Management And Every Aspect Of Corporate Life
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In one of the early stories of Aesop’s Fables, the orator Demades tries to address his Athenian audience. But he finds them highly distracted. So, he asks them if they would like to hear a story. They sit up and take notice.

“The goddess Demeter, a swallow and an eel were walking down the road. When they reached a river, the eel slipped into the water and the swallow flew up in the air.” But Demades stops suddenly. Impatient, the audience asks, “What happened to the goddess Demeter?” Demades replies dramatically, “She is angry at all of you for preferring stories to politics.”

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It is intriguing how Demades’ own story, and the larger story that contains it, both turn into anti-stories. The audience is promised a story only to be reminded, exactly at the point of narrative suspense, that it is their fault that they expect stories and neglect important matters of the state. It says much that an Athenian orator tells this story and is part of a story himself. The orator’s job is to persuade—make arguments that convince others. The art of rhetoric, perennially relevant from the classical to the contemporary times, is
essentially the art of persuasion. This story shows that the persuasive powers of storytelling can overpower other forms of rhetoric, including political ones that were as crucial to classical Greek orators.

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A crucial element of interpersonal communication, persuasion is central to the relation between individuals, and between individuals and larger communities, whether in matters of the state and market or matters more private and intimate. Jeffrey Selingo, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, refers to a striking claim that “40 per cent of our work time is spent selling something—not just products, but trying to persuade, negotiate, and pitch ideas and techniques”. He heard a similar argument from Donn Davis, “Getting a job is a sales job.” Davis ran Revolution, a venture capital investment firm, along with Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, and Ted Leonsis, owner of the three of Washington’s professional sports teams.

As we see from Demades’ story, persuasion is central to sales and many other domains of corporate, professional and political life. What is persuasion, really? It is a form of inter-subjective communication: the transmission of my thought, emotion, belief to someone else; the facilitation of the entry of another individual, or a group, into my mind. It is essentially a foregrounding of one’s subject position. Successful persuasion involves the other party accepting the subject position and the argument rooted in that subjectivity.

Persuasion, and the use of storytelling to achieve that goal, involves the transformation of this private story into a public one.

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Demades’ ‘anti-story’ reminds us that storytelling is a powerful means of persuasion, not least because a story is about singular, often unique subjects and characters. This, in fact, is a key difference between literature and social sciences. The latter is primarily interested in collective human behaviour, usually that of specific social groups. Literature, while recognising that the individual exists against the backdrop of the social, retains a primary and lasting commitment to the private subject. A story is always a unique event. It can be explained by social and historical forces but can never be reduced to them. There is always something in the character’s behaviour that is unique to that particular character and does not add up to the rest of the group. Such is the difference between history and fiction—not that one is made up and the other is not, because fiction is just as often rooted in real life—that the former focuses on the public story, while the latter tells a private one.

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Persuasion, and the use of storytelling to achieve that goal, involves the transformation of this private story into a public one. The scale of the transformation depends on how many people one is communicating with, whether it is a private communication between two people or a statesman addressing a crowd of millions. The power of storytelling to achieve persuasion links the orators of classical Greece to corporate leaders of the 21st century. Selingo cites Disney CEO Bob Iger who says that in job interviews, he tries to get job candidates to craft their career stories as a way of showing who they are. Lauren A Rivera makes a similar argument in her book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. A unique personal narrative has great persuasive power, not only because of the way stories command audience attention but also because it provides a concise yet vivid abstract of the candidate’s personal journey across their educational and professional path, something a prospective employer likes to know.

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The celebration of the subjective is the unique gift of the humanities, which make up a crucial component of a liberal arts education. If the natural sciences seek an objective understanding of reality, the humanities foreground the subjective, with the arts, aesthetics and literature embodying the most intense celebration of the personal, the individual and the idiosyncratic. This is why storytelling is rooted not only in literature, drama and cinema but also in the performing, visual, and plastic arts. There are countless reasons why the arts are fundamental to education and one of the most important reasons is that it teaches one to craft narratives of the self. It provides valuable lessons about harnessing the power of the private in the cause of the public, to transform the former into the latter and enact, in the process, the rhetoric of persuasion. Such rhetoric is of great power and can be used for any purpose, good or bad, moral or immoral, in matters of the state, market and private relationships.

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There are countless reasons why the arts are fundamental to education and one of the most important is that it teaches one to craft narratives of the self.

What is central to the arts and humanities is what the educationist Howard Gardner has termed “personal intelligences”, as part of his Multiple Intelligence theory that has come to displace the monolith of the IQ, because they are rooted in the person. The arts supplement the personal intelligences with faculties relevant to their medium: linguistic intelligence in the case of literature, musical intelligence with the musical arts, spatial intelligence with the visual arts, bodily kinaesthetic intelligence with the performing arts; a combination of all of these when it comes to forms such as cinema and theatre. But the personal intelligences are foundational to all of them. The arts are always personal and make up the greatest language of celebrating personhood known to humanity.

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The importance of the personal intelligences extends far beyond persuasion. Their larger significance is aptly captured through Peter Drucker’s evocative term: how we manage ourselves. The plurality of ‘ourselves’ is the key. The personal intelligences are split into two further components: intrapersonal and interpersonal. Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to access and manage one’s own feelings and inner life, express them in socially recognised symbolic codes and act in accordance with them. Interpersonal intelligence, on the other hand, is the individual’s ability to read and detect others’ moods, motivations and intentions and use such knowledge to direct them to a specific course of action. It is clear that both kinds are crucial to corporate life. The importance of interpersonal intelligence is clearest around the management of personnel or human resource development. It is, in fact, continuous with every aspect of corporate life that involves the action and behaviour of human beings. Intrapersonal intelligence, Gardner reminds us, is especially crucial when neither an employee nor a corporation can dwell in the luxury of a situation where one works with a single institution throughout life. We live in a globalised world that is simultaneously interconnected in space and curiously disconnected in time. Jobs and roles, as well as individual and institutional preferences, exist today in a constant state of flux, unlike in the past when employees spent their entire lifetimes in the same job, often at the same place. This is a world where it is more important than ever for individuals to have the best possible sense of their personal goals, desires and learning and functioning abilities.

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Interpersonal intelligence is the individual’s ability to read and detect others’ moods, motivations and intentions and use such knowledge to direct them to a specific course of action.

The biggest barrier between college and the world of work is that college education, in many of its versions around the world, often falls short of the proactive and entrepreneurial spirit that places it in real continuity with life. Even in the American university system, where multi- and interdisciplinary liberal art–science has thrived most richly, critics point out, education has not been adequately self-directed. College education is still something handed over to them. Its difference from high school, where parents, teachers and counsellors more or less told them what to do and how to learn, is not recognised as clearly as it should be. “Until students graduate from college,” writes Selingo, “much of what they learn is necessarily guided by the teacher’s syllabus or graduation requirements. But after college and for the rest of our lives, learning is self-directed.”

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He tells us what John Leutner, the head of global learning at Xerox, told him, “People know how to take a course, but they need to learn how to learn.” At Xerox, young employees commonly request professional development courses on time management. As fresh college graduates, they are used to someone else setting priorities for them. “College,” Selingo reminds us, “is very task based: take an exam, finish a paper, attend a club meeting, and go to practice. Meanwhile, the workplace is more of a mash-up of activities with no scheduled end.”

Educationist Paul Hanstedt gives the example of an architect who might draw up a design in the morning, go to the site and discuss construction plans and, later in the afternoon, meet a client to discuss the possible construction of a synagogue to finally end the day with a meeting with the city council to obtain zoning permits. The range of fields involved in the various activities might be obvious: drawing and engineering, management and sociology, religion, history and politics. But where does one field end and the other begin? In the business of life and work, there is no comfort of syllabi with course title and number on top.

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The disciplines are all there but not their labels, and they swerve and glide and commingle far more promiscuously than in the most interdisciplinary combination the university can think of. “Is the discussion of the new synagogue,” Hanstedt wonders, “engineering, religion, politics, history, and sociology? Is the town council meeting more about business, sociology, politics, or management?”

Internships make up the crucial hands-on component of college education. Indeed, they are the apprenticeships of the 21st century. Not only do they push students toward proactive bridges between learning and life but they also have become the clearest pathway to successful employment after college. Doubtless internships and co-op programmes, which offer a more intense mix of classroom instruction and on-the-job training, are important ways of worlding a successful liberal art–science education. But I think the larger point about making students more proactive and entrepreneurial stakeholders in the process of education extends beyond individual measures such as these.

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It must pervade the entirety of the educational experience: the pedagogy of individual classrooms, the rich tension between contrasting disciplines and the crowning experience of the transition from consumption to production, from learning to creation—the production of original research. But it is also more than the sum of all of these, something ineffable perhaps, except in their expression in real time, which leads to the enrichment of something more vital than either knowledge or skill. Far more essential, it leads to personal, social and professional success. For want of a better phrase, this might be described as cognitive ability, which Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google, has defined as “the capacity to learn”.

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But learn what? That is, in the final instance, the touchstone of the liberal nature of liberal art–science education. To recall Peter Salovey’s evocative formulation—there is a fluidity about the enduring qualities with which a successful college education leaves the student: critical thinking, analytical aptitude, communicative and persuasive abilities, the skill to process complex information—that in the end, it does not greatly matter how one learns them and through what discipline.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Art of Persuasion")

(Views expressed are personal)

Saikat Majumdar a professor at Ashoka University, is the author of several books, including College: Pathways of Possibility

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