Making money out of Jane Austen

22 August 2013

The popularity of RPC's book group shows there are a fair few bookworms around the firm.


Getting together to discuss a book with colleagues is a good opportunity to talk about things other than work, make friends and engage in often lively debate. There are other benefits to reading fiction too, such as reducing stress and improving our vocabulary. However, recent research suggests that reading fiction may also make us better employees. According to Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto, and Raymond Mar, assistant professor at York University, Toronto, reading novels vastly improves our emotional intelligence, which in turn has an impact on our productivity and efficiency within the workplace.

What do we mean by emotional intelligence? Howard Gardner, psychologist and professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, defines emotional intelligence as "an intelligence that allows you to discriminate among your emotions, to label them, to draw upon them, to use them as a means of understanding the world around you and as a way of guiding your behaviour." In essence then, emotional intelligence is about expressing and perceiving emotion accurately.

Oatley and Mar found that individuals who read fiction were better at empathy and social interaction than those who read non-fiction. Reading fiction, they discovered, improves people's social skills because it helps them to perceive others' emotional states and social traits. For example, in one of Oatley and Mar's studies, 94 participants were showed photographs of faces with only the eyes showing and were asked to decipher the emotional state of the person in the photograph. Those who read fiction were much better at identifying the correct emotional state of the person shown than those who did not.

This all seems to make sense, but how can this help business? Peter Salovey, professor of Psychology at Yale University argues convincingly that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and professional success, based on studies carried out in the workplace. One such study monitored 160 claims handlers in an insurance company and discovered a correlation between the emotional intelligence of the claims handler and the level of customer satisfaction both with the interaction and the settlement achieved. Another study of 44 people working in the finance department of a large company showed that those individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence were rated far more positively by their peers and supervisors. Those with higher emotional intelligence were described as more sensitive, more sociable, more tolerant of stress and more likely to create a positive working atmosphere. Interestingly, those with high emotional intelligence were also found to show better leadership potential. But perhaps most persuasive is the finding that showed a correlation between emotional intelligence and salaries: the subjects of the study with the highest emotional intelligence had, one year on, received the highest raises.

When you think about it, it's easy to see how high levels of emotional intelligence can assist us in the workplace. We all know that success in today's corporate world requires more than just a high IQ and strong analytical skills; it is essential to be able to read and respond to the signals that our clients and colleagues send and to communicate our own feelings clearly and tactfully. The aim is to manage both clients and colleagues in a way which puts them instantly at ease, and gives them the feeling that they are at the centre of our universe. This is certainly something we value at RPC, where great emphasis is put on learning people, and "getting personal". For those who find channelling their inner Bill Clinton a bit of a challenge, no need to despair. Salovey's studies have shown that emotional intelligence is not a genetically based skill, but rather a learned one which we can all improve. If Oatley and Mar are to be believed, a good way of developing that skill is through reading fiction.

The message to take away is this: if you already love getting stuck into a good novel, keep at it since it may well be making you a better employee and colleague, as well as helping your pay packet. For those of you who haven't read a novel since school, it's not too late to put your BlackBerry down and pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice – your boss (and your bank balance) will thank you.

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