Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” is credited with the line “too much of a good thing,” meaning that excess of even the healthiest thing can be harmful.
In the case of emotional intelligence — a trait often considered a major leadership asset — both quantity and quality play a part in its effectiveness. It turns bad when leaders use EQ to manipulate their employees or focus on it so much they are distracted from the task at hand.
The way EQ is used depends on who uses it. In 2013 Wharton professor and author Adam Grant wrote “Give and Take,” a book that outlined three types of leaders: givers, who work hard so others can succeed; takers, who let others do the work and in return take the credit; and matchers, who keep a running tit-for-tat ledger of who takes, who gives and who owes. All three can have and use emotional intelligence, said Grant, whose research spawned a January article in The Atlantic on the dark side of EQ.
“If your leader has high EQ, that’s basically an amplifier of his or her ability to achieve goals,” Grant said. “So if your leader has high EQ and is a very selfish taker, that’s actually the most dangerous combination because that’s the person who’s going to be the most strategic about getting you to do exactly what he or she wants regardless of whether it’s in your best interest or the organization’s.”
Meanwhile, those who are more generous or passionate use EQ to help advance the collective well-being of the organization and its employees.
But what about the matchers, the seekers of justice who tally debits owed and credits received by their co-workers? Grant said he hasn’t done as much research on how this prevalent group works but would guess matchers would use EQ (in a very taker-style way) to masquerade as givers, the jolly benefactors of a company, rather than its karma police.
“As a matcher with high EQ, I can do a better job strategically helping you in ways that would not give you that transactional feeling that a lot of people have with matchers, but I can do a better job manufacturing a sense of good will and caring about you even if I don’t really,” Grant said.
Although emotional intelligence’s impact relies heavily on who uses it, the amount of EQ also plays a role in whether it will have a negative impact. Leaders can be too emotionally intelligent, Grant said. “If you have really high emotional intelligence, you may over-attend your emotions when you’re supposed to be strategizing and creating a vision. If you have this really strong skill of reading what other people are feeling, you may devote excessive amounts of time and attention to reading that all of the time as opposed to doing the other more cognitive parts of your job.”
Kyle Dooley Kinder, founder of Heart and Head Leadership, said that was the case with one of her clients. As a professionally credentialed leadership coach, she has seen leaders distracted from achieving their organization’s mission and strategy because of overly attuned sympathy toward employees.
“The truly emotionally intelligent leader has to balance (emotional intelligence) with the organization’s strategic directives,” Kinder said. “The downside is when somebody works particularly hard to build engagement with their team but not within the bigger framework of the organization.”
Kinder said these issues can be fixed by developing relationship-building skills, teaching organizational politics and refocusing a leader on the organization’s mission and strategies.
But Grant said sometimes it’s not easy — especially when EQ is being used to manipulate rather than distract — even if it’s the chief learning officer’s job to reform takers into givers. To him, it’s easier to teach givers how to control emotional intelligence than it is to teach takers to channel those skills for others’ benefit.
The latter can be done, however, and feedback is a powerful fix. Takers are easy to predict from the standpoint of self-interest, Grant said, and if they’re told their current mode of behavior is going to jeopardize their future success, chances are they’ll mend their ways.
“Unless you fit into the sociopath category, when you notice people’s feelings it is hard to really think about what other people are going through and not empathize with them,” Grant said.
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