Speaking of ethical decisions, those who would be whistleblowers are usually caught by emotional crosswinds, often mentioning the difficulty they have in dealing with their own mixed emotions.

As researchers concluded in “The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Ethical Decision Making at Work,” “Whistleblowing involves an intrapersonal conflict—an internal struggle of conflicting emotions that need to be recognized and regulated. Empathy may also play a part when the whistleblower identifies with potential victims of corporate misbehavior. More common ethical dilemmas involve interpersonal conflict, such as blaming others, discriminating against them, and generally attempting to avoid personal accountability or blame. In these cases, emotions come into play either through a sort of ‘gut check’—recognizing one’s feelings of guilt—or via empathy when an individual anticipates or feels the victim’s emotional reactions.”

Let’s take a look at a few of the most notorious whistleblowers. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, lawyer Colleen Rowley, who was Chief Division Counsel to the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, wrote an analysis for then FBI Director Robert Mueller documenting how FBI headquarters personnel in Washington, D.C., had mishandled and failed to take action on information provided by the Minneapolis office regarding its investigation of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, which information she felt could have averted the 9/11 tragedy.

Rowley has discussed her internal struggle to control conflicting feelings of anger over the FBI’s actions, her positive feelings for the organization that she dedicated many years to (and continued to work for for several years thereafter) and some fear for her own career in wrestling with whether to bring critical information to the attention of Meuller.

After leveling her criticisms, Rowley continued at the FBI and was one of three people awarded Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2002. In February 2003, Rowley wrote a second open letter to Mueller in which she warned her superiors “that the bureau is not prepared to deal with new terrorist strikes that she and many colleagues fear would result from an American war with Iraq.” 

The other two notable whistleblowers honored in 2002 by Time magazine were Sherron Watkins from Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom.

Watkins was Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron Corporation when in August 2001 she alerted then-Enron CEO Kenneth Lay of accounting irregularities in financial reports, although her memo did not reach the public until five months after it was written.

Cynthia Cooper was serving as the Vice President of Internal Audit at WorldCom in 2002 when she and her team, often working at night and in secret, unearthed a $3.8 billion fraud — at the time, the largest incident of accounting fraud in U.S. history.

So what does emotional intelligence have to do with this? What has become clear is that emotional intelligence skills allow a clearer analysis of the situation and support would-be whistleblowers confronted with these ethical dilemmas. Emotional perception skills allow them to see more accurately why they are experiencing emotional disturbances — which might not be evident to the simply rational mind — and therefore make them better able to identify the ethical dimensions. Emotional management skills allow them to eliminate those emotions that are irrelevant to their assessment of the situation. It also allows them to manage their own fears and rebound emotions associated with whistleblowing, so as to embolden them with the courage and optimism to proceed and the resilience to recover from the emotional fallout.

Emotional empathy for victims can also play a part in helping individuals make ethical decisions, and in motivating them to action. Famed legal-clerk-turned-victims’-advocate Erin Brockovich said that it was her empathy for the suffering victims of pollution caused by Pacific Gas and Electric’s irresponsible actions that helped fuel her decision to pursue legal action against the powerful corporation, a case that was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. She said that same empathy motivated her to continue her efforts to help other victims of corporate-caused environmental dangers.

What do these people have in common? Greater emotional intelligence skills are clearly one of them. Being of the female gender looks to be another. The relevance of the two is that as a general matter women score at least marginally and sometimes substantially higher in certain emotional intelligence skills, including empathy, than do men.
So what’s the lesson? Do we add emotionally intelligent women to the list of people we would just as soon not have snooping around the corporate ledgers?

Certainly whistleblowers are of mixed value depending on your perspective. All those personal injury and class action lawyers out there on either side of the fence are rooting for those emotionally intelligent women to break all the ceilings and go for the ethical gold. But any organization interested in avoiding liability and improving function and bottom line results recognizes that encouraging and supporting early “whistleblowing” is the most direct route to those objectives.

Discover your emotional intelligence level and how to raise it personally and in your organizations from our new book The Emotional Intelligence Edge: A Guide for 21st Century Lawyers due out this summer from the ABA.