Have you come across people who, in all circumstances, are optimistic, compassionate and empathetic? Do they always seem to be in control of their emotions and can express their feelings unabashedly without letting them negatively impact their professional image? Do they seem extremely motivated at all times and have no inertia, self-doubt or impulse? Are they also great with interpersonal relationships and can handle conflicts and negotiations with great chutzpah?
Well then, apart from being ‘God sent’, they are also Goleman’s dream man, woman or transgendered person. These people are possibly using their high Emotional Intelligence (EI) to achieve the elusive win-win outcomes in all situations. But what if emotional self-regulation is not always prosocial? What if having the ideal ‘high EQ’ boss, peer or friend is not the utopian dream you imagined it to be but in fact a murky situation to be in?
Well, Emotional Intelligence is a multidimensional paradigm that can have both negative interpersonal and intrapersonal effects. A 2014 research study by Austrian psychologists, ‘Is There a Dark Intelligence?’ established that there is a positive correlation between EI and Narcissism, specifically “narcissistic exploitativeness” i.e. some self-obsessed people may possibly be using their warmth, charisma and fascinating personality for malevolent reasons. Bingo! Another 2014 study ‘The Relationship between Narcissistic Exploitativeness, Dispositional Empathy, and Emotion Recognition Abilities’ clearly associated 'narcissistic exploitativeness' with 'emotion recognition' — those who were very good at recognizing/reading emotions are invariably prone to manipulating them.
This is because EI doesn’t necessarily mean high Morality Quotient. In fact, EI is ‘morally neutral’ and therefore can be used to promote self at the cost of others. High EI might even lead to sheer Machiavellianism — the art of manipulating others to achieve one's own self-centered needs. And Machiavellianism is one of the dark triad personalities, characterized by a blatant disregard for morality, employment of cunning two faced interpersonal behaviors and an obsessive focus on personal gains.
A 2010 study “Strategic Use of Emotional Intelligence in Organizational Settings: Exploring the Dark Side” reveals that people with high EI would disguise emotions to strategically pursue a personal goal. They have the skills to misrepresent, block or dramatize rumors, gossip, and other types of emotion-laden information.
How does high EI affect the person gifted with one? Well, those who use their skill to manipulate (sometimes unconsciously) aren't immune to being manipulated themselves. Studies have proved that high emotional sensitivity can lead to higher stress reactivity. “Will Get Fooled again”, a 2013 study states that those with higher EI may also be duped more, mostly because of the overconfidence in their ability to read others. The Atlantic in its famous article “The Dark side of EI” argues that people who are have strong ability to read others' emotions many a times are very trusting and fail to perceive trickery in those who displayed distress. To quote ‘they picked up on the distress but not the authenticity; they could read the emotions but not the minds’. Goleman too agreed to the argument in the Atlantic and said “Let’s not idealize emotional intelligence”. He had earlier introduced 3 types of empathy; Cognitive empathy i.e. one’s ability to relate to other people’s perspectives, ideas, opinions and mental models; Emotional Empathy being one’s ability to connect and relate to the other’s emotional state of being; and then there’s Empathic Concern, which is about being sensitive to other’s needs and willingness to support.
He suggests that while a leader can have high EI, he can still lack in empathetic concern. So while they use their cognitive and social empathy to know exactly what makes others tick, they might use that ability to leverage that for their own benefit. For instance they could use one’s fears, anxiety or insecurities to get things done. They might even opportunistically use those times when one is in a good mood, to get certain things that are against your own best interests. Or they may offer constant appreciation, just to flatter so that they can ask you for a favor at an opportune time.
They would possibly be presenting one side of the story, maybe even misrepresenting data to present a certain picture. They may also ask you a lot of questions to know your real motives, without much of self-disclosure. The most important though is the power play they might engage in. They could create a false of power by ignoring you, postponing meetings, acting constantly busy or just giving you very less face time.
So there goes your warning; with a lot of emergent support for ‘dark EI’, one can safely assume that there is no universally beneficial high EI.
If you are one with high EI and you work with someone who has, knowing it’s a double edged sword is pertinent!