Is there a downside to being emotionally intelligent?

by Lauren Acurantes17 Jan 2017
Employees with emotional intelligence (EQ) have the ability to understand, control, and express their emotions, while handling interpersonal relationships empathetically.

But according to business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and global head of talent management at Red Bull, Adam Yearsley, there is a downside to employees with high EQ.

“Most things are better in moderation, and there is a downside to every human trait,” they wrote at Harvard Business Review, citing five ways that being too emotionally intelligent at work might be more of a handicap than a help.

Lower potential to be creative and innovative
According to Chamorro-Premuzic and Yearsley, people with high emotional intelligence are less likely to be creative. This is because creativity is often associated with traits more commonly found in individuals with low EQ: artistic moodiness, nonconformism and impulsiveness. 

On the flip side, they argue that individuals with high EQ are more suited to roles that follow processes and build relationships rather than challenging the status quo.

Inability to give and receive negative feedback
Their empathic nature could make it difficult for high EQ employees to give negative feedback for fear of hurting others.

Inability to make ‘unpopular’ choices
While suited to entry-level of mid-management jobs, Chamorro-Premuzic and Yearsley argue that people with high levels of empathy may not be cut for senior leadership roles due to their reluctance to “make unpopular changes often, bring about change, and focus on driving results, even at the expense of sacrificing employee relations”.

Ability to manipulate others
“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,” they said.

‘An aversion to risk’
People with a high EQ are more likely to play it safe and while this self-control may be good for some areas of the business, “extreme levels of self-control will translate into counterproductive perfectionism and risk avoidance”.

“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 said.

“They will be great followers and good managers, but don’t expect them to be visionary leaders or change agents,” they added.

If individuals with a high EQ aspire to hold senior leadership positions, the authors recommended “a fair amount of self-coaching” such as seeking out negative feedback and facing confrontations head on.

Related stories:

Adam Grant explains how to identify ‘disagreeable’ candidates

Why you should have an ‘emotional wellness’ plan 

How to give better feedback

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