So far 2013 has not been a vintage year for “the big corporation”. Starbucks, Amazon and Google have all faced scrutiny and public opprobrium  over their tax payment arrangements, while Tesco, Findus and even Ikea saw a backlash after varying levels of horsemeat were found in products advertised as beef. At the time of writing Apple is also under the tax spotlight, prompting Labour party leader Ed Miliband to claim that “there is a culture of irresponsibility among some of the biggest firms and that’s got to change”.

In austere times, it is perhaps unsurprising that any suggestion of a person or company “not paying their fair share” could provoke a strong response. I also noticed that as well as the financial and moral frustrations being aimed at these companies, some commentators picked up on the theme of broken trust running through the anger. CEDR’s Foundation project, ‘Capability in Collaboration’, looks at trust as one of the factors in how businesses and people do (or don’t) collaborate in the work environment, so this is something I’ve also been thinking about. I happen to have seen it at close quarters for the last 20 years working as a mediator reframing broken negotiations.

Trust has close associations with emotional intelligence (EI): generally, individuals with a greater or more sophisticated level of EI find it easier to build trusting relationships with those around them. What isn’t clear is how far we can say that this concept is applicable to companies and corporate entities. Can we say that a company like Starbucks has its own emotional intelligence? Does that EI reside innately in the company  or the brand, or with its set of governing principles, or with its people? Can it be adjusted for different ‘flavours’ – say tax or divisions – like you add caramel to your latte? What does it mean if there is asymmetric EI – if the consumer’s sense of EI is more sophisticated or authentic than that of the company’s? If a company doesn’t have emotional intelligence, how far can we say that there has been a breach of trust in the same way as there might be between two individuals?

Other characteristics of emotional intelligence include things like:

A greater ability to modify one’s behaviour in order to be successful

A greater ability to communicate well, relate to others, handle change and collaborate as a team

A more accurate assessment of self-perception, personality and attitude

A better understanding of rational thought and the impact of emotions on decision making, in the individual and in others.

It’s interesting that many of the qualities and behaviours associated with high levels of emotional intelligence mirror those of a successful business. Following the tax furore, Starbucks was happy for it to be publicly known that it had volunteered to make some £20million in extra payments to HMRC. For some people, however, this made the situation worse. A more emotionally intelligent response might have factored in a range of possible responses from the public, or have avoided the situation entirely by being more self-aware and anticipatory in their outlook; or offered another range of PR flavours in terms of a more layered response.

For me, situations like this demonstrate how real and relevant the concept of emotional intelligence is, and how practical it can be in the workplace: we can place trust in its ability to make a difference to business. It follows that companies need to find ways to hardwire it into their management systems.

by Karl Mackie

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The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) is an independent, non-profit organisation with a mission to cut the cost of conflict and create choice and capability in dispute prevention and resolution. www.cedr.com