The dark side of emotional intelligence

Higher emotional intelligence is essential to good management, but it is all too easy to misuse

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

In theory, managers should have higher emotional intelligence (EQ).

First, they need to have social skills in order to move up the organisational ladder. Second, having people skills is the key factor distinguishing managers from high-performing employees or technical experts.

However, too much EQ may result in counterproductive habits and behaviours that threaten someone's ability to build effective relationships at work.

For example, very high levels of EQ enable people to hide their emotions, thoughts and intentions, and people with extremely high levels of EQ have been found to be so good at reading and influencing other people's feelings that they often end up manipulating them.

This is where EQ meets Machiavelli. As the famous passage from The Prince states: "He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived." Indeed, it is very tempting for highly emotionally intelligent individuals to prey on their more naive or socially clueless counterparts.

Another dark-side element of EQ is that, at very high levels, it may hinder 'coachability'. That is, when you are extremely relaxed, cool-headed and satisfied with yourself, you will probably not feel any need to change.

Moreover, people with very high EQ will often ignore negative feedback and fail to assume responsibility when things go wrong. Such tendencies may result in greater emotional wellbeing and satisfaction, but they hinder self-improvement and development.

By the same token, individuals who have low EQ are often receptive to negative feedback and willing to learn from their mistakes; they take things seriously and are quick to blame themselves if decisions go wrong.

This may be a miserable state of affairs for them but, when coupled with drive and ambition, it can lead not just to adaptive perfectionism, but also exceptional accomplishments. Most extraordinary achievers are actually quite insecure and use success to self-medicate.

Finally, since EQ has been found to be related to empathy, extremely emotionally intelligent individuals may try too hard not to offend others.

This is particularly problematic in managers. If you are too soft or kind to give people bad news, you will probably end up being a populist or passive-aggressive manager.

Employees need honest feedback, both good and bad, and while EQ can help people convey negative feedback in a gentle way, too much EQ may lead to feedback avoidance.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL

This article was originally published in 2014

Image credit: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP via Getty Images


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