There was an interesting article in ‘The Atlantic’ the other day by Adam Grant called “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence“, making the point that:

“Emotional intelligence is important, but the unbridled enthusiasm has obscured a dark side. New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others. When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.”

He also quotes recent studies suggesting that emotional intelligence (or EI) can be a drawback in some jobs:

“For mechanics, scientists, and accountants, emotional intelligence was a liability rather than an asset. Although more research is needed to unpack these results, one promising explanation is that these employees were paying attention to emotions when they should have been focusing on their tasks.”

Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence“, has posted a response on LinkedIn: “An Antidote to the Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence“. In it, addressing that point that high EI can help people to manipulate others, he points out that EI has many components, and you can be strong in some while weak in others. So manipulative leaders may be strong in ‘cognitive empathy’ (understanding how other people think), but lacking in ’empathic concern’ – essentially, caring about other people’s feelings. If they were stronger in empathic concern, they would feel uncomfortable manipulating others.

I would argue that a lack of self-awareness may also be a factor in bad or manipulative leadership. If a leader is self-aware, they are clear about their own motivations and aware of their own weak spots; consequently they will be less likely to fool themselves that they are doing the right thing while acting in a self-serving way. They will also be more concerned with being effective, and with learning and growing, while a leader with low self-awareness may be more concerned with making themselves look good, regardless of results.

To address Grant’s second point about EI being a drawback in some jobs: it’s notable that the job roles he mentions are technical ones, working more with machines, data and figures than with people. Plus, part of the self-management competency of emotional intelligence is about being able to focus on emotions only when appropriate, and being able to put them to one side if they are getting in the way of an essential task.

Nevertheless, once someone in one of these professions is promoted from a technical to a leadership role, they will need some emotional intelligence skills to be effective. Studies quoted in Goleman’s book ‘The New Leaders’ suggest that the higher up the leadership ladder you climb, the more emotional intelligence skills are a predictor of high performance.

Finally, reading the comments on Goleman’s article, it’s interesting to see what the commenters project onto either Goleman or Robert Sutton (Stanford professor and author of the excellent book “The No-Asshole Rule“, who commented on the article, rebuking Goleman for not making explicit that his article was a response to Grant’s article – an omission that Goleman seems to have remedied since, as the first paragraph now carries an explicit acknowledgement and link to Grant’s article). In particular, the response from ‘John S.’, president of TroopTrain Inc, is so extreme that it’s amusing – although I’m sure it would not seem so funny if I was the person it was directed at.

What do you think? Is there a dark side to emotional intelligence? And can any aspect of EI be a drawback in a leadership (as opposed to technical) role?

The ‘Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence’ – And Its Antidote
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