4 min read

The dark side of emotional intelligence

By Simon Taylor on Mar 20, 2019 1:00:00 PM



So, you will all have heard of Emotional Intelligence (EI). It’s been around a while now, actually since Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book. However, before this, In 1983, Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences introduced the idea that traditional types of intelligence, such as IQ, fail to fully explain cognitive ability.

Gardner introduced the idea of multiple intelligences which included both interpersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people) and intrapersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations). EI is now even taught in schools as early as reception and Y1 and in some form in every school year through to leaving age. Therefore, we have a couple of generations in our organisations who have been exposed to and taught about the theories of Emotional Intelligence.

An essential skill for success

We would all agree, that for leaders, having emotional intelligence is an essential skill for success. Simply, which leader is more likely to succeed, a leader who shouts at his team when under stress, or a leader who stays in control and calmly assesses the situation?

Historically, some of the greatest moments in worldwide history have been fuelled by leaders who had a good sense of emotional intelligence and could win over a ‘crowd’. Think of Hitler, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Mandella and many more. In their own way, they delivered spine-tingling messages to their audiences as they managed not only their own emotions but the emotions of the crowd.

Those of you who are live music fans, will have cunningly had your emotions manipulated by a cleverly and well thought out set list, put together to manage your emotions to a climax and then onwards and upwards, until you can’t get enough of the band and demand an encore and then another one, that is, if they are really good at emotional manipulation.

EI's dark side

If you are studying with us, you will have developed a very good understanding of what EI is and how it is essential to strong and effective leadership. In fact, it is an assessment skill across all the levels of the leadership and management suite of qualifications. However, emerging evidence is beginning to take shape, that recognises that EI can have a ‘Dark Side’. It is becoming clear that as we develop and hone our EI skills, we come better at coercing and manipulating others. It is clear that when you are good at controlling your own emotions, you are able to disguise your true feelings, conversely, when you know what others are feeling, you can use this to your advantage and motivate them to act in certain ways.

Professor Jochen Menges from Cambridge University has been able to demonstrate that when a leader gave an inspirational speech filled with emotional resonance, the audience was less likely to scrutinize the message and remembered less of the content. They call this the ‘awestruck effect’. Studies of the speeches made by Hitler as he became the Fuhrer from 1933 to 1945 have observed his ability to strategically express emotions meant his listeners were so affected by them, they would stop thinking critically and just emote.

Leaders who master EI and emotions generally can too often become ‘icons’ in their organisations. As a tutor, I am privileged in that I get to visit a huge number and variety of organisations and often staff talk about the myths and legends of past leaders in either awestruck or dumbstruck ways.

Is the dark side of EI then, the ‘Stategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends’. (Martin Kilduff. University College London)

Of course, it doesn’t have to be as black and sinister as this and I often see leaders who use their own EI to effectively support, coach and mentor other staff to improve performance and organisational outcomes, as well as getting them to feel better about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

However, in the US, hundreds of studies have found that EI wasn’t consistently linked to better performance. In jobs that required extensive attention to emotions, higher EI does translate to better performance. This includes Sales Staff, Estate Agents, Call-Centre Operatives etc. They all know how to read and regulate emotions and are able to deal effectively with stressful situations face to face and continue to smile. However, in jobs that do not require huge EI skills, the more EI employees were the lower job performers. For Mechanics, Scientists, accountants, engineers, EI is a liability, not an asset. Think Dr Spock in Star Trek!

Final thoughts

So what of all this? We just need to be careful. Instead of naturally assuming that EI is always useful, we need to think more carefully about where and when it matters and who it matters to. The key for leaders is being able to tap into it when and where required. Like all other leadership skills, it needs to be situational, contextual and contingent on what you are trying to achieve. In the armed forces, we can’t afford EI leaders who are about to send troops into a war zone. Equally, in an Oncology department in a Hospital, high levels of EI are always needed.

About Ascento

Ascento learning and development specialise in providing workforce development apprenticeship programmes to both apprenticeship levy paying employers and non levy employers. We work closely with employers to identify the key areas for development and design  strategic solutions to tackle these with programmes that are tailored to each individual learner. With two schools of excellence focusing on Management and Digital Marketing we don’t deliver every qualification under the sun, but focus on what we know best and ensure that quality is at the heart of everything we do.

Simon Taylor

Written by Simon Taylor

Ascento L5 Management Tutor.