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March 11, 2020

The dark side of emotional intelligence

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Popularised by Daniel Goleman in the 1990s, emotional intelligence (EQ) is widely regarded as an essential quality for leaders and managers. With studies linking it to everything from career success to physical and mental health, the received wisdom is that emotional intelligence is unambiguously a good thing. [1] The higher someone’s EQ, the better off they’ll be.

In his book, Goleman refers to emotional intelligence as "the ability to recognise and regulate emotions in ourselves and others". [2] Even putting aside the research, it seems self-evident that such an ability would come in pretty useful in the workplace.

In spite of this, there’s a growing body of evidence confirming the notion that you can, indeed, have too much of a good thing. Recent studies have identified a variety of contexts where emotional intelligence isn’t helpful, and may even have a negative intrapersonal or interpersonal effect. [3] Put simply, it could be harming our relationships with ourselves and others.

Chief amongst the sceptics is organisational psychologist Adam Grant, whose seminal article The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence reveals that "like any skill, being able to read people can be used for good or evil". [4]

While it should be stressed that emotional intelligence can be hugely beneficial in a range of scenarios, it also has its downsides. Here are a few of the potential drawbacks of too much emotional intelligence.

The ability to manipulate others

When people hone their emotional skills, Grant argues, they become better at manipulating others. As he puts it, "When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests." [5]

In his article, Grant cites research from the University of Cambridge, which found that when a speech is filled with emotion, the audience is less likely to scrutinise its content. [6] And as history shows, depending on its application, emotional intelligence can serve both ethical and unethical ends.

This scenario played out in a University of Toronto study. There, psychologists measured employees’ Machiavellian tendencies, their knowledge of emotion management and how often they intentionally undermined colleagues. The study concluded that Machiavellians with high EQ had the most harmful behaviours, and had no qualms about embarrassing their peers for personal gain. [7]

An excess of empathy

In a recent experiment, German university students were shown a series of images of people’s faces and asked to determine what feeling was being expressed. They then had to give presentations in front of judges displaying stern facial expressions.

Upon measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants, the researchers found that the students who were rated as more emotionally intelligent exhibited a greater stress response than those with lower EQ. It also took longer for their stress levels to return to baseline. [8]

What this tells us is that while emotionally intelligent people are better equipped to interpret how others are feeling, their empathy can lead them to feel everything a little too personally. In a busy, high-pressure working environment, it’s not hard to imagine how this might prevent more emotionally intelligent team members from performing to the best of their ability.

Reluctance to play the ‘bad guy’

On the one hand, it would be natural to assume that emotionally intelligent people should be ideally suited to delivering critical feedback and handling difficult conversations. Their sensitivity to others’ feelings ought to allow them to navigate such potentially tricky situations with tact and diplomacy. Right?

Logical as that might seem, it isn’t always the case. The flipside of the coin is that emotionally intelligent people are so aware of those around them that they shy away from correcting negative behaviours or making decisions that might prove unpopular. While this is understandable, it becomes problematic at the senior levels of an organisation, where leaders are often expected to be the drivers of change and deliver results.

A question of balance 

In summary, recent research into the negative effects of emotional intelligence challenges the triumphalism of the 1990s, but it doesn’t dispute its usefulness in specific contexts. It’s not the panacea for an organisation’s ills, but one of many skills that contribute to effective leadership and management. Like all things, emotional intelligence might be helpful in moderation but harmful in excess.

Sources:

[1] Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Michael Sanger, 'How to Boost Your (and Others') Emotional Intelligence'. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/01/how-to-boost-your-and-others-emotional-intelligence (accessed 18 May 2018).
[2] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury, 1995).
[3] Sarah K. Davis and Rachel Nichols, 'Does Emotional Intelligence have a "Dark" Side? A Review of the Literature'. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01316/full (accessed 18 May 2018).
[4] Adam Grant, 'The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence'. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-emotional-intelligence/282720/ (accessed 18 May 2018).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid
[7] Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, 'Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing'. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/articletoo-much-emotional-intelligence-is-a-bad-thing article  (accessed 18 May 2018).
[8] Ibid.

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