Bringing into Light – The Dark Side of EI (How much EI is too much)

Bringing into Light – The Dark Side of EI (How much EI is too much)

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is one of the most raved about soft skills. However, just like everything else, the excess of EI could also have its downsides. Sounds debatable? The author pens some interesting arguments to build a case for ‘how much EI is too much EI’. Read on.

Meet Anamika*, a Human Resources Manager. Her team loves her. She is an extremely caring and sensitive manager. She is always prompt to recognize others emotions and feelings and manoeuvres her conversations accordingly. She is the epicentre of positivity and calm in the team. Nothing perturbs her and she never lets the pressure trickle to the team. She is usually upbeat and remains positive even in the face of bad news. Her peer group loves working with her because they see her as a go-to person for problem-solving. No matter how much stress and pressure there is at work, Anamikais enthusiastic and never loses her cool.

Anamika is always ready to put in extra efforts and take on additional responsibilities. She enjoys her work and is so extremely reliable and dependable that the manager can forget the job after she has taken it up. She is also so committed to delivering with excellence that her engagement levels at the workplace are always very high.

Anamika is a perfect candidate for hire, right? Who wouldn’t want to hire Anamika? She does seem like the ideal employee any organisation would like to have. She seems perfect in so many ways for a career that involves extensive people management. This is because of her very high emotional intelligence (EI) that is measured by an emotional quotient (EQ).

How did EI make Anamika perfect? Before we understand that let’s decode all the facets of EI. It is all about being social, sensitive, thoughtful and empathetic in your interpersonal skills. Thousands of scientific studies have tested the importance of EI 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).

Now let us explore, does EI have a disadvantage? Are all professionals with high EQ experts in navigating frustration and work stress? Is there a dark side to EI at all? Yes, like all other behavioural traits, EI is also one that needs to be adopted in moderation. Too much of EI at all times does have a downside to it. Let’s focus again on Anamika and explore some of the less favourable implications of her high EQ.

Pleasing everyone every time: Since Anamika’s personality is like that of a crowd puller, she stands out like the fairy tale ‘Pied Piper’. She develops followers very easily and thrives with that feeling. Consequently, this also results in a somewhat undesirable side effect of wanting to keep everyone happy at all times. Her role demands taking decisions for the organisation but sometimes unpopular with few colleagues. Anamika finds it extremely stressful and difficult to take those unpopular decisions at times to move forward. This dependency on her high EQ sometimes becomes a deterrent to her quick decision making.

Risk aversion: Anamika, at times struggles to make bold choices. She almost always prefers to play it safe. This is because high EI is associated with high levels of conscientiousness. It resists impulsiveness and pushes towards making measured decisions. A highly emotionally intelligent Anamika works with extreme self-control, focusses on the ultimate level of perfection so as to avoid any unpleasant responses. While it is, of course, possible for creative people to be emotionally intelligent, the more common pattern for people like Anamika 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. This sometimes turns counterproductive for her role as she needs to work more on the balance between calculated risk-taking and risk avoidance.

The risk of overusing one’s social skills is in focusing heavily on the emotional aspects of communication and the darker side of EI is helping people with bad intentions to be overly persuasive and get their way. Therefore, EI may get misused towards unethical and undesired behaviour.

Difficulty giving and receiving negative feedback: On the outset, one would feel that Anamika is the best person to give feedback to and take feedback from as we know that she is sensitive to emotions. This empathetic approach is so important for social interactions. If we go deeper into her interactions with her team you will notice that she struggles while giving difficult feedback. Her response to criticism from peers and managers is that of slight indifference as she tends to take them lightly and does not get perturbed. Indeed, highly emotionally intelligent persons can be hard to shake up, since they are generally so calm, adjusted, and positive.

Habitual Procrastination: Anamika being extremely sensitive to people and their emotions tend to give a benefit of doubt to faults or failures by others and takes on too much on her platter. This sometimes leads her to spread herself too thin and reach burnout faster. She could even swing to an extreme of procrastinating instead of getting others to take accountability.

Developing or facing manipulative behaviour: Anamika was once accused of being manipulative. How did that happen in spite of high EQ? All her actions deliver the message that feels right to the audience, and that is definitely great! But, if it goes very far like it once did, people may perceive her as someone who manipulates emotions to get an easy buy-in and move ahead on the strength of popularity. Here is where one can see the spectrum ranging from influencing to manipulation. The risk of overusing one’s social skills is in focusing heavily on the emotional aspects of communication and the darker side of EI is helping people with bad intentions to be overly persuasive and get their way. Therefore, EI may get misused towards unethical and undesired behaviour.

In summary, Anamika is no doubt a highly desirable employee, but her extremely high EQ requires her to be used appropriately. When she is required to wear the hat of a people champion, she should utilize her EI. When she dons the hat of a business leader, she may need to play softly on the EI. 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.

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. In the words of American actor David Caruso, “It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart overhead – it is the unique intersection of both”. Therefore, tread with caution!

Disclaimer: Anamika is a fictional character of the author’s stories. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.

A dynamic HR leader who has a strong purpose of making a positive impact on people and the quality of their lives, Harini has a Master’s in Business Administration (Human Resources) from ICFAI. A design thinking practitioner, behavioural analyst, transactional analyst, and innovator, she is a strong advocate of the concept of Happy Workplaces. Harini has been leading the HR function in MNCs and is a guest faculty at prominent B schools and universities. She is currently a Partner at SSI India and Advisor to the Board at Caere Pvt. Ltd.


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