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The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent

Mar 29, 2018
Lela Valdez
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 6 min.

Gemma is extremely caring and sensitive. She pays a great deal of attention to others’ emotions and is kind and considerate. Gemma is also quite optimistic. She is usually upbeat and remains positive even in the face of bad news. Her colleagues love working with her because they see her as a beacon of calm. No matter how much stress and pressure there is at work, Gemma is enthusiastic and never loses her cool.

Gemma’s manager enjoys dealing with her, as she rarely complains about anything, is reliable and dependable, and shows great levels of organizational citizenship. Indeed, Gemma is extremely trustworthy and ethical. Furthermore, Gemma’s personality also means that she is generally engaged at work, even when her boss is not doing a great job at managing her.

Who wouldn’t want to hire Gemma? In many ways, she seems like the ideal employee, someone with excellent potential for a career in management. If you agree, you are not alone: Most people would find Gemma’s personality a great asset, and not just in a work context. The main reason for this is Gemma’s high emotional intelligence (EQ), which explains all of the qualities described above.

Though definitions vary, EQ always comprises intrapersonal and interpersonal skills — in particular high adjustment, sociability, sensitivity, and prudence. Thousands of scientific studies have tested the importance of EQ in various domains of life, providing compelling evidence for the benefits of higher EQ with regards to work, health, and relationships. For example, EQ is positively correlated with leadership, job performance, job satisfaction, happiness, and well-being (both physical and emotional). Moreover, EQ is negatively correlated with counterproductive work behaviors, psychopathy, and stress proclivity.

But is higher EQ always beneficial? Although the downside of higher EQ remains largely unexplored, there are many reasons for being cautious about a one-size-fits-all or higher-is-always-better take on EQ. Most things are better in moderation, and there is a downside to every human trait. Let’s focus again on Gemma and explore some of the less favorable implications of her high EQ.

Lower levels of creativity and innovation potential

There is a negative correlation between EQ and many of the traits that predispose individuals toward creativity and innovation. Creativity has long been associated with attributes that are characteristic of low EQ: artistic moodiness, nonconformism, hostile impulsivity, and an excitable (“up-and-down”) personality. While it is of course possible for creative people to be emotionally intelligent, the more common pattern for people like Gemma is to be great at following processes, building relations, and working with others but to lack the necessary levels of nonconformity and unconventionality that can drive them to challenge the status quo and replace it with something new.

Difficulty giving and receiving negative feedback

At first glance, high EQ scorers like Gemma may seem to do well when it comes to giving and receiving feedback, for both involve social interaction. Scratch under the surface, however, and you will see that Gemma’s high interpersonal sensitivity and empathic concern may make it hard for her to deliver critical or negative feedback to others. In addition, high EQ scorers like Gemma can be so highly adjusted and cool-headed that they may be indifferent to any negative feedback they receive. Indeed, high EQ scores can be hard to shake up, since they are generally so calm, adjusted, and positive.

Reluctance to ruffle people’s feathers

One of the main reasons for the appeal of Gemma’s personality is that it epitomizes many of the qualities we look for in followers. Although people like Gemma are psychologically well-endowed for entry-level or midlevel management jobs, senior leadership roles will require the ability to make unpopular choices often, bring about change, and focus on driving results, even at the expense of sacrificing employee relations. Furthermore, senior leaders and executives will only have a substantial impact on their organizations if they can act entrepreneurially to pursue innovation and growth. This requires unpopular decisions, and people like Gemma, who are more focused on getting along than getting ahead, are less likely to make them.

A well-developed ability to manipulate others

Gemma’s high EQ may help her empathize and deliver a message that feels right to the audience — this is often a good thing. Taken too far, however, it can slide from influencing others to engaging in tactics of manipulation. The risk of overusing one’s social skills is in focusing heavily on the emotional aspects of communication while neglecting logical arguments and the more transactional aspects of communication. In that sense, the darker side of EQ is helping people with bad intentions to be overly persuasive and get their way. As with charisma, we tend to regard EQ as a positive trait, but it can be used to achieve unethical goals as well as ethical ones.

An aversion to risk

Most innovative ventures require a balance between risk taking and risk avoidance. People like Gemma are much more likely to play it safe and avoid bold choices. This is because high EQ is associated with higher levels of conscientiousness. In other words, the higher your EQ, the more likely it is that you resist your impulses and make measured decisions. EQ equates with more self-control, yet extreme levels of self-control will translate into counterproductive perfectionism and risk avoidance.

To be clear, Gemma is no doubt a highly desirable employee, but her extremely high EQ makes her more suited to roles where regulating her own emotions and being able to sense and adapt to the emotional needs of others are pivotal. Salespeople, real-estate agents, customer support reps, counselors, and psychologists all benefit from EQ like Gemma’s. In contrast, Gemma’s profile may not be advantageous, and may even be a handicap, in jobs focused on creativity, innovation, leading change, or taking risks. That is not to say that someone like Gemma couldn’t aspire to a senior leadership role. She could, but it would require a fair amount of self-coaching. For example, she would need to start seeking out negative feedback and take it seriously, stop being concerned about avoiding confrontation, and challenge the status quo (or recruit people who do and pay attention to them).

There is no question that EQ is a desirable and highly adaptive trait, and it is understandable that we generally prefer EQ to be high rather than low. However, obsessing over high EQ will create a workforce of emotionally stable, happy, and diplomatic people who potter along and follow rules enthusiastically instead of driving change and innovation. They will be great followers and good managers, but don’t expect them to be visionary leaders or change agents.

Tomas Chamorro-PremuzicAdam Yearsley/Harvard Business Review

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