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Emotional Intelligence

The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

People with high emotional intelligence can use it to unfair advantage.

In 1990, psychologists Peter Salovey (now president of Yale University) and John Mayer wrote a seminal article on Emotional Intelligence (EQ), defining it as "the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions." This concept was popularized by Daniel Goleman's very successful books on the topic.

There is no doubt that EQ is crucial to success in life. During one interview, Goleman related a story about a high school reunion where it was discovered that the most successful man in the group had not been the smartest or hardest working boy in school but the nicest boy who knew how to make everyone feel relaxed and comfortable with him. In the workplace, you may also have noticed this phenomenon: It is not always the best workers who receive raises and promotions but the workers with the best social and political skills.

Research substantiates this simple observation. A 40-year longitudinal investigation of 450 boys found that IQ had little relation to life success. The most significant predictors were being able to handle frustration, control emotions, get along with other people. Another study followed 80 scientists over the course of 40 years and found that social and emotional abilities were four times more important than IQ in determining professional success and prestige. Even more surprising, a study of retired National Football League players found that emotional intelligence predicted 62% of the variation in life success. And finally, a 2011 survey of 2,600 hiring managers found that 71% of them valued EQ over IQ.

When EQ Works Right

When EQ works the way Goleman had in mind, it is a beautiful thing to behold. People use their EQ to achieve prosocial ends. They use their awareness of their own emotions and those of others to achieve prosocial ends—proverbial win-win outcomes in which everyone benefits.

According to nationally recognized relationship expert and executive coach Jeffrey Bernstein, emotional intelligence is a key predictor of children's ability to develop suitable peer relationships, get along at home, develop a well-balanced outlook on life, and reach their academic potential at school. He uses the term EQ to encompass five abilities:

1. Self-awareness: knowing your emotions, recognizing feelings as they occur, and discriminating between them.

2. Mood management: handling feelings so they're relevant to the current situation and you react appropriately

3. Self-motivation: "gathering up" your feelings and directing yourself toward a goal, despite self-doubt, inertia, and impulsiveness

4. Empathy: recognizing feelings in others and tuning into their verbal and nonverbal cues

5. Managing relationships: handling interpersonal interaction, conflict resolution, and negotiations

People who have these skills are the people you want in your corner and in your life. They are capable of not only reading your desires and fears, but they also respect them and help you achieve your goals.

Because EQ is so crucial to success across the board—in personal relationships, in school achievement, in workplace success—developing good EQ skills is equally crucial. As Tali Shenfield, an expert in school and child clinical psychology, points out, emotional intelligence in children develops as a result of their interaction with parents. In some families, emotions are dangerous and shameful things that must be denied even to oneself. In such an environment, it is difficult to learn how to identify and manage one's own emotions, or how to effectively respond to the emotions of others. Accordingly, Shenfield urges parents not to ignore, dismiss, or repress children's emotions, particularly negative emotions. Instead, parents should empathize, accept and acknowledge them, and encourage their children to talk about their feelings. Doing so, teaches them that feelings are important and deserve attention. This approach also reduces their guilt over experiencing "bad feelings,” such as anger and jealousy because they learn that other people experience these, too. Grasping this simple concept helps children manage their social interactions more smoothly.

The Dark Side: When EQ Turns Bad

The problem is that EQ is "morally neutral." It can be used to help, protect, and promote oneself and others, or it can be used to promote oneself at the cost of others. In its extreme form, EQ is sheer Machiavellianismthe art of socially manipulating others in order to achieve one's own selfish ends. When used in this way, other people become social tools to be used to push oneself forward even at considerable expense to them. Some people confuse Machiavellianism with psychopathy or even social impairment syndromes, such as Asperger Syndrome (think Sheldon Cooper on the TV show The Big Bang Theory, as in this video clip). Here's a handy way to distinguish them:

  • An Asperger individual may not know that you're feeling.
  • A psychopath doesn't care what you're feeling.
  • A Machiavellian manipulates your feelings to achieve selfish ends.

This dark side of EQ is relatively easy to demonstrate in laboratory settings. In one set of studies, a small group of college students were given a hypothetical problem to solve, namely, determining how they would survive following a plane crash in a remote mountain area with only rope, matches, and 3 ounces of water. In each group, one or two individuals came to dominate the group, steering the discussion down particular paths and emphasizing some offered solutions over others. Now here is the interesting part: These dominant individuals also turned out to be people who were best at deception. For example, when asked to take a sip of a truly foul-tasting liquid and then tell others that the liquid tastes great, these dominant individuals were more convincing than others. It was on the whole difficult to tell when they were lying. This was true even when the study was repeated with preschool children. Again, the dominant kids were best at deception.

In another study, young adults played a game that pitted the common good against their own self-interest. Participants were allowed to take points from a common lottery pool up to a maximum of 10. and the more points they took, the greater their odds of winning a lottery. The hitch was that if everyone took the maximum number of points they were entitled to take, all of the points would be depleted and there would be no lottery. In past research, people usually took a little under 4 points for themselves, leaving the rest for the common pool. The results showed people who had obtained high EQ scores on a pre-test took significantly fewer points for themselves than expected on past research—but only if they also scored high on pretest that assessed moral commitments.

These results are not restricted to contrived laboratory settings. They hold true in real word workplace settings. The same researchers showed this in a second study (reported in the same paper). The participants were university employees rather than students. In addition to taking the EQ test, the participants also took a test to measure their Machiavellian tendencies. Then they were asked to fill out an interpersonal deviance survey which asked to indicate how often they engaged in seven antisocial behaviors using a scale from 1 (never) to 7 (daily). A sample item is “I publicly embarrassed someone at work.” You might think people would be unwilling to answer these questions honestly. But you would be wrong. In past research, this self-report survey yielded scores that correlated strongly with supervisor reports of these behaviors. Meta-analytic research also found the same results when self-reports were included than when they were excluded. Finally, the study authors were careful to emphasize that the survey was confidential and solely for research purposes.

The results were striking: People who scored high on EQ and Machiavellianism scored remarkably high on the interpersonal deviance scale: They used their emotional skills to demean and embarrass their peers for personal gain. Among participants who scored low on Machiavellianism, EQ mattered little: They scored low in interpersonal deviance. The authors concluded that simply having high EQ doesn’t necessarily promote kindness and compassion. Having high EQ can be used to promote bad behavior.

In a comprehensive review of the dark side of emotional intelligence, Martin Kildare, Chair of Organizational Behavior at University College London, noted that emotionally intelligent people “intentionally shape their emotions to fabricate favorable impressions of themselves…The strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviors evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors where power and influence are traded.”

Stanford Professor Joanne Martin has argued for the introduction of "bounded emotionality" in the workplace, a managerial approach that "encourages the constrained expression of emotions at work in order to encourage community building and personal well-being in the workplace." The term "bounded emotionality" is a play on "bounded rationality," a term introduced by Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon to describe decision-making in the real world. He pointed out that because people have limited time and cognitive/memory resources to make decisions in real life, we frequently seek satisfactory solutions rather than optimal ones that require much more time and deep thinking. From this view, we are rational decision-makers, but our rationality is "bounded" by constrained by limited decision-making resources. Professor Martin applied the same concept to emotions. It is not reasonable to assume people will simply check their emotions at the workplace door and conduct business like Star Trek Vulcans, particularly when much of that business involves dealing with co-workers and customers. But because too much emotion can overwhelm good thinking, emotion must be "bounded" or constrained in principled ways.

In order to explore this concept, a research team led by Martin conducted an in-depth investigation of workplace dynamics at The Body Shop, an international franchise that sells bath and beauty supplies. In the report based on this study, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick explained her preferred way to use emotion in the workplace: “Whenever we wanted to persuade our staff to support a particular project we always tried to break their hearts.” Techniques to achieve this end were employed strategically. For example, Roddick instructed employees it was acceptable to cry, but that weeping "has to be used … Here, cry at this point in the ... meeting.” Some would argue that such tactics cross the fine line between motivation and manipulation. So although Martin conceived of "bounded emotionality" as a means of promoting workplace well-being, in actual practice, that is not necessarily how it played out.

The Bottom Line

Succeeding in life depends in large part on succeeding socially, and a large part of social success depends on EQ. But as a growing body of research shows, EQ can be to orchestrate win-lose as well as win-win outcomes.

Copyright Denise Cummins, August 14, 2014.

Denise Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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