Cohesive post D1W6

293

Emotional Incompetence or
Gender-Based Stereotyping?

Dan S. Chiaburu
Barbara Gray
The Pennsylvania State University

The authors used a critical incident interview provided by a female manager and her
statements (e.g., “I’m very ineffective emotionally”) as a starting point of an alternative
analysis of the term emotional competence. Using reflexive inquiry and deconstruction,
the authors argue that terms such as emotional competence, rather than being a
reflection of something perceivable as a quality of the subject, are socially produced
using language. However, such language is not value free and neutral but—based on
the analysis—gendered and subject to power differentials. The authors elaborate on
how such terms tend to be regarded as naturalized and reified in more conventional
studies and on the implications for organizational members and organizational change.

Keywords: emotion; gender; deconstruction; emotional competence; emotional
intelligence

The linguistic and ideational construction of management competencies is so deeply
entrenched in our vocabularies of organization and management that its meaning is
rarely examined. Similarly, the importance of emotional competence has more recently
been examined and is gaining similar standing as a management truism (cf. Goleman,
Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002) in an attempt to delineate a repertoire of behaviors distin-
guishing competent from ineffective managerial practice. These behaviors have been

Dan S. Chiaburu is a PhD candidate in the Smeal College of Business at The Pennsylvania State University.

Barbara Gray is professor of organizational behavior and director of the Center for Research in Conflict
and Negotiation in the Smeal College of Business at The Pennsylvania State University.

THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE, Vol. 44 No. 3, September 2008 293-314
DOI: 10.1177/0021886308316704
© 2008 NTL Institute

touted as the keys to managerial success in both the academic and popular literatures
(Goleman et al., 2002), and instruments for assessing them have been proposed
(Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2002; Sala, 2002). However, missing from the landscape
are critical and reflexive inquiries (e.g., Calás & Smircich, 1991; Garnsey & Rees,
1996) that penetrate beyond the labels attached to the terms management competence
and emotional competence and explore how these labels are constructed, maintained,
and interpreted and the consequences for organizations of doing so.

The present exploration centers on emotional competence and is built around sev-
eral questions, organized around two directions of inquiry. First, how do notions
such as “competent manager” and “emotional competence” come into being? What
are the discursive mechanisms contributing to their formation? Second, are such
constructions of meaning universal and invariant across individuals and groups (i.e.,
males vs. females, researchers vs. practitioners)? Because such explorations are dif-
ficult to execute if one uses methods that remain on the surface of the text, we use a
deconstructive analytic strategy (Derrida, 1992; Foucault, 1991; Lyotard, 1984)
aimed at unpacking meaning (Kilduff & Kelemen, 2004) intertwined with a reflex-
ive rather than descriptive or prescriptive approach (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000;
Calás & Smircich, 1999; Cunliffe, 2003) to answer these questions. Such an eleva-
tion beyond immediate, mundane, naturalized, and “given” constructions is perhaps
a sine qua non condition for unpacking alternative interpretations, illuminating cor-
ners that otherwise remain obscure, and bringing to the surface issues that are oth-
erwise exiled from the “normal” discourse on management and organization. These
methods enable us to notice things that became naturalized because of our habitua-
tion with them (Calás & Smircich, 1999; Foucault, 1988).

In the hope of illuminating how meaning about emotional competence in the
managerial domain is constructed and perpetuated, we reanalyze an interview that
illustrates the method used to validate managerial competence models (Boyatzis,
1998). However, rather than relying on the preexisting coding scheme (Boyatzis,
1982; Spencer & Spencer, 1993), we engage in an alternative analysis of this man-
agerial narrative. Our analysis differs from the original one not only in method but
also in other important respects. Specifically, first, we analyze portions of an inter-
view left without interpretation in the original analysis. Second, we deconstruct the
preexisting coding used by Boyatzis (1998) to interpret this event, and we suggest
some possible assumptions about emotional competence embedded in it.

Our study contributes to both theory and practice. From a theoretical standpoint,
we explore emotional competence, a term with wide circulation in the contemporary
managerial and organization vocabularies. From one perspective, such an exploration
complements conventional (e.g., Shippmann et al., 2000) or critical studies on com-
petencies (e.g., Collin, 1989) by adding a focus on the construal process. More impor-
tant, we illustrate the consequences of reification, objectification, and naturalization
of abstract concepts such as emotional competence. Our exploration suggests that
such uncritical acceptance of particular views as universal might promote a gendered
view of managerial and emotional competence (Calás & Smircich, 1996; Garnsey &
Rees, 1996; Gray, 1994; J. Martin, 1990) and create uniformity, conformity, and erosion
of individuality within managerial practice. Our aim is to contribute to theory by an

294 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2008

effort to disrupt the naturalized order of things as sometimes presented or implied in
more conventional studies, call attention to their gendered implications for organi-
zations and their members, and recommend strategies for ameliorating any negative
organizational or individual consequences from such construals.

Both our analysis and the topic respond to calls to examine the power dynamics
behind texts and to engage in research by using less conventional and more reflex-
ive positions and methodologies (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000; Kilduff & Mehra,
1997; Van Maanen, 1988). Alternatively, and perhaps more important, we provide an
example of a “different form of writing theory,” one allowing for the emergence of
a “different theoretical ‘voice’” (Calás & Smircich, 1999, p. 650). From a practical
perspective, our exploration not only provides a point of departure for individual
reflection but raises questions for organizational change as well. As individuals and
organizations strive to assess and improve managerial and especially emotional com-
petence, understanding how these terms are manufactured, connected, and utilized
for practical purposes can illuminate (and help to eliminate) situations in which con-
struals about emotional competence privilege some individuals over others in organi-
zations. Reflecting on the role of one’s own as well as others’ emotionality (or lack
thereof) in the construction of competence assessments may provide such users with
increased awareness of their own complicity in perpetuating stereotypes associated
with emotionality or in restricting potentially beneficial organizational outcomes
(Callister, Gray, Gibson, Schweitzer, & Tan, 2008). Such reflection can potentially
lead to a richer decision set, more alternatives for action, and greater efficacy for
managers and their employees.

Our study unfolds as follows. To create a context for our exploration, we provide
a selective history of the competency movement and of the emergence of the emo-
tional competence in the next section. This is followed by a description of the
methodological assumptions undergirding the study. We then present our inquiry,
followed by comments on the construction of emotional competence, limitations,
and suggestions for future research.

MANAGERIAL AND EMOTIONAL
COMPETENCE: A BRIEF OVERVIEW

In a widely cited article, Harvard psychologist David McClelland (1973) announced
the failure of intelligence testing in predicting occupational success and advocated
instead the need to introduce competence testing. This line of work subsequently
generated several more detailed texts around the issue of the “competent manager”
and “managerial competency” (Boyatzis, 1982; Spencer & Spencer, 1993). In this
stream of work, emotionality (as it applies to business settings) has been associated
with taking distance from emotions. Rationality (rather than emotionality) is the pre-
ferred model for competent conduct. Emotional expression is viewed as undesirable
and disruptive as this example from the negotiation arena reveals: “Emotional
involvement on one side of an issue makes it difficult to achieve the detachment nec-
essary to think up wise ways of meeting the interests of both sides” (Fisher & Ury,

Chiaburu, Gray / INCOMPETENCE OR STEREOTYPING? 295

1981, p. 62). This kind of stance can be traced back to the Stoics of ancient Greece,
who “argued that thinking was reliable but that feelings were too subjective, idio-
syncratic, and unreliable to be used in constructive ways by society” (Ciarrochi,
Forgas, & Mayer, 2001, p. xii).

This view is at least partially continued in the early work on managerial compe-
tence by Boyatzis (1982) and Spencer and Spencer (1993), who popularized man-
agerial competency models. While acknowledging a role for emotional expression,
they view competent emotional expression as involving a significant amount of con-
trol, or at least differential displays of emotions inside versus outside organizational
settings. For instance, the following example is offered on how to distinguish criti-
cal incidents originating from managers showing superior emotional competence
from those offered by managers displaying average emotional competence. Managers
with superior emotional competence show high levels of emotional or behavioral
control: “I knew I was getting upset, so I went out for coffee and walked around until
I calmed down. When I went back to the meeting, I was calm and collected”
(Spencer & Spencer, 1993, p. 139). Conversely, managers coded as having average
emotional competence do not control their emotions: “I blew my stack, pounded on
the desk and told him to get the hell out” (Spencer & Spencer, 1993, p. 139). Here the
alternatives are painted as either blowing up or controlling emotion by leaving the
scene. Recent studies on emotion regulation in organizations however emphasize
simultaneous control and expression of anger. As Frijda (1986) suggested, “People
not only have emotions, they also handle them. . . . Regulation is an essential
component of the emotion process” (pp. 401, 405). Regulation or controlled expres-
sion of emotion has been linked with positive organizational outcomes (Callister et al.,
2008; Gross, 1998; Gross & John, 2003).

Two streams of objection to managerial competence approaches have emerged
however. One stresses the fact that competencies lack clear definitions; are generic;
are limited only to skills, behaviors, and traits; and are poorly validated (Burgoyne,
1993; Collin, 1989). A second grew out of work on emotional intelligence.
Eschewing the idea that intelligence consists of only cognitive prowess and attendant
rational behavior, Gardner (1983) argued for multiple forms of intelligence includ-
ing “the capacity to perceive and symbolize emotions” (Ciarrochi et al., 2001, p. 5).
This view has evolved into a more recent orientation toward emotional intelligence
or emotional competence that views emotions as abilities that can be precisely
tested. During the mid-1990s, however, debates between researchers in the emotional
competence and emotional intelligence streams became evident, culminating in two
prominent but divergent perspectives: an ability-based view (e.g., Mayer, DiPaolo,
& Salovey, 1990) and a managerial or leadership competence–based perspective
(e.g., Goleman et al., 2002). Some of the differences are definitional—emotion-based
abilities can be tested, whereas behaviors or competencies can be observed—and
lead to different forms of assessment: the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence
Test (MSCEIT; Mayer et al., 2002) for the ability-based view and the Emotional
Competence Inventory (ECI; Sala, 2002), a multirater instrument, for the managerial
competence perspective. Currently, debates between both directions of inquiry con-
tinue. For example, researchers argue whether ability-based emotional intelligence

296 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2008

can be measured and whether it predicts work outcomes beyond general intelli-
gence and personality (Davies, Stankov, & Roberts, 1998). Despite this, the term
emotional intelligence has become popular as a managerial and leadership tool, and
Goleman and his coauthors (2002) offered a series of bestsellers packed with prac-
tical managerial advice. Although these recent approaches pay greater heed to emo-
tional expression in organizations, debate continues about what emotional intelligence
and competence are and how they should be measured (e.g., Ashkanasy & Daus,
2005; Boyatzis & Sala, 2004). In addition, research suggesting positive outcomes
from emotional expression (Callister et al., 2008; Glomb & Hulin, 1997; Tafrate,
Kassinove, & Dundin, 2002) or using emotion as a means to achieve self-interested
goals (Kilduff & Chiaburu, 2007) in organizations is also emerging that challenges
current notions of emotion regulation.

Focusing primarily on the emotional competence line of research, our arguments
are framed more generally: They speak to how emotions are defined, presented, and
interpreted in organizational settings and how they are constructed by researchers. We
draw on four primary theoretical premises for our critique. First, like emotional intel-
ligence researchers, we problematize the positioning of emotion in contrast with and
perhaps in subordination to rationality (Mumby & Putnam, 1992). Second, we ques-
tion the apparent commodification of emotion in organizations embedded in notions
of emotional regulation (Fineman, 2000). Third, we object to the positioning of emo-
tional competence and intelligence as universal rather than subject to interpretation
within historical circumstances (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000; J. Martin, 1990).
Fourth, we raise concerns about organizational practices that may privilege those
individuals with what are perceived to be high levels of emotional competence and
emotional intelligence (e.g., Fineman, 2004; Gray, 1994). These theoretical perspec-
tives inform our focus and analytic approach, which is described in more detail in the
following. Thus, rather than entering the multiple definitional and analytic debates
(see Ashkanasy & Daus, 2005, for a review), we focus on how emotional competence
is constructed. Similar to authors reflecting on how emotions are socially constructed
either by researchers or by individuals (Fineman, 2004; Garnsey & Rees, 1996), we
explore such construal processes and their concomitant impact on the individuals
involved and on managerial and organizational change in particular.

OUR ANALYTICAL APPROACH:
DECONSTRUCTION AND REFLEXIVE INQUIRY

Conventional theoretical and analytic work consisting of “representational
approaches to knowledge production rests on a privileging of the consciousness of the
researcher who is deemed capable of discovering the ‘truth’ about the world of man-
agement and organizations through a series of representations” (Knights, 1992,
p. 515). Conversely, poststructural and postmodern approaches such as deconstruction
and reflexive analysis use less conventional methods (Cunliffe, 2003; Kilduff, 1993;
Knights, 1992; J. Martin, 1990; Mumby & Putnam, 1992). These approaches assist in
abstracting the researchers’ thinking from the immediate, from the (en)closure operated
by definitions or text, and examine such re-presentations and how they are generated.

Chiaburu, Gray / INCOMPETENCE OR STEREOTYPING? 297

In such analytical activities, epistemological, ontological, and methodological posi-
tions are openly recognized as being embedded in the researcher; attempts to present
or describe such methods bring to the fore the researchers, in a well-known postmod-
ern problematization of the author (Knights, 1992). Consequently, if texts are not rep-
resentations of the world “out there” but rather discursive constructions, a process of
reversal can take place. The transparent becomes obscure, the representational
becomes constructed; one explanation becomes a multiplicity of explanations. Texts
intended to illuminate a topic can actually obscure it given their inherent inability to
exhaust the multiplicity of meanings.

Reflexive techniques are ideal to uncover alternative interpretations for the con-
cept of emotional competence because of their versatility in exposing contradictions,
unsettling assumptions, and adoption of “a ‘suspicious’ stance” toward their subject
(Cunliffe, 2003, p. 992). According to Kilduff (1993),

A deconstructive reading opens up the text to renewed debate concerning the limits of the text and
the relationship between the explicit and hidden textual levels. In investigating the limits of the text,
the critic asks: . . . Why are certain themes never questioned, whereas other themes are condemned?
Why, given a set of premises, are certain conclusions not reached? The aim of such questions is not
to point out textual errors but to help the reader to understand the extent to which the text’s objec-
tivity and persuasiveness depend on a set of strategic exclusions [emphasis added]. (p. 15)

Deconstruction is especially helpful when it relies on eventalization, described as

rediscovering the connections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so
on which at a given moment established what subsequently counts as being self-evident, univer-
sal and necessary. In this sense, one is indeed affecting a sort of multiplication or pluralization of
causes. (Foucault, 1991, p. 76)

Thus, eventalization encourages a multiplicity of explanations compared to more
reductionist approaches of conventional research where the tendency is to isolate a
limited number of causes or relationships. It also makes “visible a singularity at
places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate
anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all”
(Foucault, 1991, p. 76).

Because our intention is to examine how emotional competence is constructed,
we utilized deconstruction and the specific focus on eventalization, coupled with a
reflexive approach. To do so, we had to attend to both factual information on which
claims of competence or incompetence are based and to the methodological and
interpretive filters used by previous researchers to arrive at their conclusion as well
as examine the limits of our interpretations.

THE METHOD, FROM A CONVENTIONAL PERSPECTIVE

From a conventional perspective, our method of analysis was structured around
several issues. Specifically, we reanalyzed an interview provided by Boyatzis (1998)
who used it as an illustration for the coding scheme for assessing managerial

298 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2008

competencies (Boyatzis, 1982). The interview with “Mary Simpson,” an MBA student
entering the program, presents three critical incidents and their related coding, with
explanations for why coding decisions were made for specific segments. A reanalysis
and reflection on the interview text and on the coding allows focusing precisely on
portions of text that remained uncoded in the original work, supposedly because of
their lack of relevance from the perspective of the preexisting coding scheme. In what
follows, we present the results of the investigation, providing a reanalysis of the orig-
inal interview (Boyatzis, 1998) using the N-Vivo software package.

The original text records the results of a management assessment and develop-
ment session (Boyatzis, 1998). Students participating in a required MBA course
(leadership assessment and development) are interviewed; the 1-hour audiotaped
sessions contain several critical incidents representing self-identified instances of
managerial work thought of as particularly effective or ineffective. For more details
on the complete assessment process and instruments, we refer the reader to Boyatzis,
Stubbs, and Taylor (2002, pp. 152-153). After transcription, the interviews are coded
by trained coders using an a priori coding scheme leading to the discovery of spe-
cific managerial competencies (Boyatzis, 1982, 1998).

In what follows, we describe how the interviewee constructs a negative incident
by providing a work situation that she thinks she handled ineffectively (Boyatzis,
1998, Incident 2, p. 116). We focus on the only interview that describes an unsuc-
cessful incident; the other two describe successful events and thus were not of inter-
est to our reanalysis. The original coding of the interview as presented by the author
(Boyatzis, 1998) is presented in Figure 1 and described in more detail in the next
section. Our alternative interpretation of the same interview, based on key in vivo
text (i.e., verbatim reproduction of words used by the respondent; Strauss & Corbin,
1990), appears in Figure 2. Labels for the boxes in Figure 2 represent second-order
coding. All the statements in the boxes presented in Figure 2 (except the titles) rep-
resent verbatim extracts from the interview. A description of the coding process and
the resulting contrasts between the two interpretations appears in the next section.

DECONSTRUCTING THE MARY SIMPSON INTERVIEW:
CAPTIVITY IN A GENDERED DISCOURSE

Mary’s self evaluation as “ineffective emotionally.” The incident that gives rise
to Mary Simpson’s reported incompetence involves a malfunctioning in the com-
puter system that puts it down for longer than usual while the system manager
(Mary) is on vacation. In her subsequent interaction with the programmer analyst,
who is one of the employees responsible for restoring the system, Mary describes
her behavior as “getting more curt,” “pouncing on him,” and using sarcastic remarks
such as “thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.” As a result of this interaction, Mary char-
acterizes herself as “very ineffective emotionally” (Boyatzis, 1998, p. 116).

Interestingly, the description of this incident is prefaced by an apparently inco-
herent explanation placed at the beginning of the interview in which Mary feels the
need to provide some context to her interpretation of the (negative) incident. This

Chiaburu, Gray / INCOMPETENCE OR STEREOTYPING? 299

differs from the other two (positive) incidents for which no prefaces were offered.
Instead, they start in a matter-of-fact language and plunge directly into behaviors
related to specific projects. Conversely, the interview describing the negative inci-
dent opens with a rather long explanation positioned before the main story. “I think
to preface an ineffective one for me,” says Mary Simpson. “I’m a person that, I need
time to think about something. I’m not fast at anything. I don’t read fast. I don’t think
fast, and it’s not that I don’t want to, I just, I don’t seem to be able to.” Mary pre-
sents somewhat contradictory statements here however because on one hand, she
claims that she is not “fast at anything” but on the other, she reports reactive behav-
ior: “When you’re dealing with another human being, or it’s a very heated situation,
I tend to react versus sitting back.” In finalizing her preface, the female manager
qualifies the last statement by saying, “I react, but it’s not really the way that I am.”
Mary’s opening conveys a strong self-evaluative tone (“I’m very ineffective”),
apparently in response to her noncompliance with a possible normative situation (“I
don’t seem able to,” “not that I don’t want to”), resulting in a dissociation from the
situation (“it’s not really the way I am”). It is also worth noting that this preface is
left uncoded in the original interpretation of the text (Boyatzis, 1998, p. 116).

The preface of Mary Simpson is an important point in our reading of the text
because it provides a hiatus from the rest of the narrative, similar to what J. Martin
(1990) called discontinuities—“places where the text is disrupted, where a contra-
diction or a glimpse of meaningless reveals a subtext that may be inconsistent with
the texts’ apparent message” (p. 345). Moreover, when reading such contradictory
statements in a receptive state of mind and with the objective of illuminating more
obscure corners and opening up the text to new interpretations (Kilduff & Kelemen,
2004), new connections are possible. It is as if the system manager cannot manage
her self in the face of a presumed normative expectation.

300 THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE September 2008

Although she says she listened and did not say anything at
first, she then says she “got piqued at him.”

Although she says it is not typical of her, she does say she was
“pouncing on him” and “giving him a heck.”

She also later got feedback from her boss after the person
had lunch with her boss.

She goes on in the following segment of the interview to
describe how she was getting increasingly “curt” with him. She lost

control
Not coded for
self-control

Coder’s
interpretation
of the event

Coder’s interpretation of the critical incident and
explanatory notes

Coder’s
decision to

code

FIGURE 1: Analysis of Mary Simpson’s Emotional Competence According to Boyatzis (1998)
NOTE: Interpretation provided in Boyatzis (1998, p. 125). The text in the solid boxes is verbatim from
Boyatzis. The text in dashed boxes is our explanation of the coding process. In the coding system provided
by Boyatzis, not being coded for a competency is interpreted as a need to develop that specific competency.

Problematizing Mary’s “ineffectiveness.” Mary’s potential ineffectiveness in handling
the situation notwithstanding, there are several other components that can shed new
light on the incident in which she describes herself as ineffective. First, the segment
where the female manager describes the main part of the incident is coded in the
original coding system as “she lost control [emphasis added]” (see behavioral cod-
ing scheme and indicators from Boyatzis, 1998, in Figure 1). Based on the compe-
tency model then, one of the components of emotional competence is maintaining
control: Such self-disciplined employees need to control their emotions and to care-
fully select what they display, to whom, and in what settings. The importance of con-
trol over subordinates as a normative injunction is also well illustrated in one of
Mary Simpson’s statements, “I seem to be ineffective in showing the people the way
I really want them to see an issue.” It is also worth mentioning that being in control
(or having power over the other person or the situation) is typically a characteristic
associated with masculinity (Gilligan, 1982), and the focal manager in this incident,
a woman, seems to be very uncomfortable with not living up to this masculine stan-
dard and apparently concerned that the critical ingredient of emotional control is
missing from her managerial repertoire.

A further illustration of how the issue is framed is provided by Mary’s subordi-
nate during a lunch with Mary’s manager: “I don’t really understand her that well,”
“I don’t understand her moods”1 (Boyatzis, 1998, p. 117). It is interesting that the
male subordinate, who was at least in part responsible for the incident, attributes the
poor quality of the interaction to the female manager’s moods instead of to some-
thing else (e.g., his inability to read others’ emotions). Would this attribution be
made if his boss were another male? Would he go to lunch if the boss of his boss
were a female? These are questions worth asking because they might illuminate the
bases of his attributions but remain unanswered in the original text.

Chiaburu, Gray / INCOMPETENCE OR STEREOTYPING? 301

Normative Statements (General)

I tend to be more afraid to be wrong
I seem to be ineffective in showing people
the way I really want them to see an issue
It’s good that I recognize it
I have the ability to come off that way
I should have been praising him for doing
the best he could do

Evaluative Statements (General)

I tend to react versus sitting back
Ineffectiveness might be my
emotions
It makes me very ineffective
I’m very ineffective emotionally

Emotional Suppression

I react, but it’s not really the
way that I am
So I’m quiet
I don’t …

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