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Is Having a High Emotional Intelligence Always a Good Thing in the Workplace?

By: James Cummings

We have all read about the benefits of emotional intelligence (EQ) and why every company needs to hire individuals with top EQ qualities.

In fact, in his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman touts EQ as one of the best hiring strategies recruiters use to ensure workplace harmony. But could EQ act as a double-edged sword? In this post, we analyse the good and dark sides of EQ, and how it may not always be workplace panacea it is always promoted to be.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Before delving into its pros and cons, it is important to understand the true meaning of emotional intelligence. Originally developed by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990, EQ was defined as a subset of social intelligence that comprises of the ability to understand one’s feelings (and emotions) as well as those of others, to differentiate them, and use this information to inform one’s thoughts and actions.

The term became mainstream when Dr. Goleman published his book in 1995, making it a common practice in business circles. In an analogy, he describes the story of a school reunion where the most successful man wasn’t the most diligent or smartest in the class. Rather, he was the nicest, making people feel more comfortable and relaxed around him.

Goleman posits that this calming demeanour, or emotional intelligence, was responsible for the man’s quick rise in the workplace. According to him, it isn’t always the best workers who get praised or promoted, but those with excellent social skills.

According to Brendan Wilde, Marketing Manager at Free Parking NZ , the workplace has its particular traits, and individuals excel depending on their unique personalities. “It takes more than a person’s hard skills to become the professional they are. Their personality and soft skills contribute greatly to their success in business, especially as a closer,” he says.

The elements of emotional intelligence (EQ)

According to renowned psychologist and life coach, Dr. Jeffery Bernstein, EQ is a major determining factor in the ability of a child to form the right peer relationships, cope well at home, perform successfully at school, and form a balanced perspective on life. He also proposed the 5 elements of EQ:


  • Self-awareness


Identifying your personality, knowing how you feel at certain times and differentiating between them as they occur.


  • Mood management


Taking care of your feelings, so they are appropriate for the present situation and enable you react accordingly.


  • Self-motivation


The ability to “get yourself together” and work towards a specific goal in spite of challenges from impulsiveness, self-doubt and unwillingness.


  • Empathy


Identifying with the feelings of others and resonating with their verbal and nonverbal cues.


  • Managing relationships


Handling interpersonal relationships, resolving conflicts and performing negotiations.

The benefits of EQ in the workplace

There is no doubt that people who have these abilities are the kind any organisation would want on their side. In addition to being able recognise your needs and doubts, they can respect them and help you attain your objectives.

When emotional intelligence works this way, it is a powerful tool in any company’s arsenal. People can apply their EQ to achieve prosocial results. They can also use their self knowledge and that of their work colleagues to achieve an organisation’s pro-social goals.

But what about the other side to this? Can EQ be detrimental as well as beneficial?

The other side of emotional intelligence

As some psychologists would argue, everything in life has an opposite; there are always contradicting extremes which strive to balance the initial course.

The issue some scholars have with EQ is that it is assumed to be “morally neutral”, but it may not necessarily be so. It can be used to assist, protect and encourage oneself and team members, but the same abilities could also be used to advance oneself at the expense of others.

In its extreme reverse form, EQ can be absolute Machiavellianism, which is the ability to manipulate others with the purpose of furthering one’s selfish ends.

For example, what stops an overtly ambitious worker from taking advantage of a colleague’s kindness and using their access level password to implicate them in some misdemeanour, especially if the implicated colleague’s abdication leads to the advancement of the other individual’s career?

When EQ is used this way, people become social stepping tools for others to propel themselves forward.

It is important not to confuse Machiavellianism with psychopathy or other social defective conditions such as Asperger's Syndrome.

They can each be distinguished in the following ways:

  • A Machiavellian manipulates an individual’s feelings to attain their selfish desires.
  • A psychopath simply does not care how others feel.
  • Someone with Asperger’s might not even be aware of how you feel.

The defining characteristic is that a Machiavellian knows how people around them feel, and takes advantage of this. There are scientific experiments that prove this in practice.

A case study of the dark side of EQ

In a particular study, a small group of university students were presented with a hypothetical conundrum to solve. They were asked to explain how they would survive being stranded on a mountain with just matches, a rope and 3 ounces of water.

In each set of subjects, there were one or two dominant people, who led the discussion towards certain solutions that tended to downplay others. Perhaps what was most intriguing to the researchers was that these dominant individuals were masters at deception. They were also the ones who performed highest at an EQ test.

When asked to drink a vile-tasting substance and convince the rest of the group that it tasted great, these dominant types proved to be the most effective liars.

Implications for the workplace

As more recruiters turn towards high EQ as a defining factor in hiring, could the decision be opening them to more harm than good?

There is always a chance that within sub teams, some workers are being manipulated to allow for the success of others. There is only so much a person can take, and in the long run, victims may learn to apply their EQ to other unsuspecting workers, leading to a chain of deceit. How impactful can this be towards the productivity of work groups?

Despite this, it can be argued that a majority of high EQ employees add to the overall success of the organisation. This area of study is still a subject of research for many workplace psychologists. But in time, their results could inform the future of the hiring process and the need for other schools of thought.