Can your manager read faces?

Can your manager read faces?

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

I recently completed a mesquite emotional intelligence test. 

This sort of thing happens periodically in the business world. Executives decide that the company needs better management of staff and seeks to upskill it’s managers, usually with limited success. This trend has leaked across into the bureaucracy. Notorious for its dreadful management capabilities and leadership vacuums, the civil service is hoping to fix some of these problems by getting managers to understand their emotional insides. 

So I completed the test. 

Later, I had a fascinating hour-long debrief with the lady from the consulting firm conducting the process. 

Turns out I’m skilled in the area of emotional intelligence, which is encouraging I suppose. Gives the old ego a massage and a feel-good factor for not being a complete dope when it comes to feelings. 

We proceeded to have an interesting conversation about what emotional intelligence brings to the workplace. She soon figured that I needed a bit of emotional uplift and was very complimentary about many of the scores on my test. 

However, one area with a poor score was recognizing emotions in people’s faces. 

The test results decided I wasn’t skilled at finding the tell that flashes across people’s faces before they put on their mask. The signal that people can’t hide before they say, “oh yes, I’m all very fine, thank you” and smile at you. 

The little dip in the eyebrow or the clenching across the mouth indicating that they’re actually either in pain or some form of distress. All those little tells that are the stuff of spy dramas and whodunit mysteries. 

The suggestion was that I might want to improve my skills in this area. Wouldn’t it be great if I could pick a colleague’s emotional state from their facial responses? 

I jumped into my ego and said, “Well actually, I use body language, tone of voice and other information sources not just looking at people’s faces.” 

Yes,  such additional information was conceded as giving up more than the fleeting glance. But I should still get better at face reading. 

The rationale given for improving my skills in facial tells was not to understand people’s emotions better, but so that I could manage those emotions. Now, the word manipulation was never actually said but the notion of managing somebody’s emotions I found disturbing. 

In my world, your emotions are yours, my emotions are mine, and whilst they sometimes clash when triggered, what you feel and how you feel is entirely yours and your responsibility to manage, or not as the case may be. 

I pulled the lady up on her assumption that managers should manage the emotions of their staff with the alternate that I wasn’t interested in managing people’s emotions because that was their responsibility. And whilst I understood that emotions in the workplace might need tweaking to get the best possible outcome for the team, it should be a personal thing, not one for the manager. I was really keen to let her know that I didn’t like the manipulation idea. 

My hunch is I haven’t chosen to actively improve my face reading skills over the years because I don’t want to engage at that level of detail in people’s emotional selves. 

The return argument was this. 

“Well, okay, that’s fair enough, but it’s also always useful to have much more information about how people are feeling in order to be better informed yourself about their state. It helps you with empathy, helps you with understanding and a chance to be kind and thoughtful towards those people. Doesn’t always have to be about manipulating them for a particular end.”

 Fair comment. 

But then she spoilt it by going on to quote the following rationale. Apparently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says emotional intelligence is an important skill that senior managers need to have in order to be successful. 

It’s almost as though because it was the OECD that said it, it must be true. 

So obviously, I jumped on that one. 

With a howitzer, I said, “Why would I listen to the OECD? Why would I be listening to the neoliberal capitalist model that has got us into this mess in the first place? The reason why people are putting on their happy face when in fact inside they’re all chewed up.”

That didn’t go down so well. 

What I found interesting was that this person who was clearly an expert in emotional intelligence had taken on, hook, line, and sinker, that commerce is great. That we should be understanding emotions for the bottom line when for everyone there are many, often more important reasons. 

Emotional intelligence matters to people. It improves our relationships, our intimacy with others, our ability to form strong and meaningful bonds. It gives us the ability to have well-being both inside and outside the trappings of modern life. 

I don’t think the lady got what I was saying and there wasn’t enough time to fully explain. 

Maybe she went away and realised that she was subconsciously peddling a message that she might not even have believed in herself. And this is what we do all the time. We take on board messages subconsciously and we run with them. Often without realizing that we’re doing it even when the topic of the exercise is our inner selves and our emotions. 

I’d like to think that we could move on from these primitive fundamentals. We can take the chance offered by a pandemic to reset some of these core agendas of managers taking control of our emotions and that the OECD must be right as examples of modernity. At the very least to question them and try to decide if they’re actually what we want. 

I think it’s happening. Some people are having conversations to decide what the options might be. And it’s a hugely challenging area. It’s never going to be easy to move the juggernaut that is modern economics in a different direction or even dismantle some of it and put it back together in a different shape and size. 

Anything requiring a transition on that scale is likely to cause an enormous amount of grief and upset. But we have to recognize that the current model is flawed. It’s not supporting all of the people all the time the discrepancy between the rich and the poor is growing. 

In crises like COVID it’s the vulnerable elements of society that are impacted. The poor, the old, the unfit. Groups that occur across the whole of society. 

So I’ve decided that I will have a look at that weaker skill of mine. Maybe learn more about how to look at people’s faces more precisely and try to understand what they’re thinking. There’s plenty of opportunities, particularly in the days of Zoom calls where you can actually stare at people for quite some time without them even realizing it’s happening. 

And we’ll see if that improves my understanding of how the world works and whether it raises empathy or whether it just makes me more annoyed about how people are not able to control their emotions. 

I’ll get back to you on this one.


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