Another look at The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent by business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and global head of talent management at Red Bull, Adam Yearsley has attracted considerable attention in EQ circles.

The article begins by describing an employee, Gemma, who is extremely caring and sensitive. She pays a great deal of attention to others’ emotions and is kind and considerate. Gemma is also quite optimistic. She is usually upbeat and remains positive even in the face of bad news. Her colleagues love working with her because they see her as a beacon of calm. No matter how much stress and pressure there is at work, Gemma is enthusiastic and never loses her cool. Gemma’s manager enjoys dealing with her, as she rarely complains about anything, is reliable and dependable, and shows great levels of organizational citizenship. Indeed, Gemma is extremely trustworthy and ethical. Furthermore, Gemma’s personality also means that she is generally engaged at work.

According to the authors Gemma is someone with high EQ. Though definitions vary, EQ always comprises intrapersonal and interpersonal skills — in particular high adjustment, sociability, sensitivity, and prudence. All four of these are found in Gemma. However Chamorro-Premuzic and Yearsley then argue that there are significant downsides to Gemma being promoted to a manager. According to them Gemma would be a poor manager because she has:

  1. Lower potential to be creative and innovative because creativity is associated with artistic moodiness, nonconformism and impulsiveness. Individuals with high EQ are more suited to roles that follow processes and build relationships rather than challenging the status quo.
  2. Inability to give and receive negative feedback for fear of hurting others.
  3. Inability to make ‘unpopular’ choices. Senior managers often make unpopular changes and focus on driving results, even at the expense of sacrificing employee relations
  4. An aversion to risk due to extreme levels that translates counterproductive perfectionism and risk avoidance”.
  5. Ability to manipulate others due to high EQ people being overly persuasive which can be used achieve unethical goals as well as ethical ones.

I confess I find the last point particularly difficult to believe with regard to Gemma as she is described extremely trustworthy and ethical.

If you read the article wearing 7MTF glasses Gemma is a perfect combination of Regulator, Socialiser and Doublechecker. She is certainly an excellent employee and would be described as emotionally intelligent by most people but that does not mean she would make a good manager. Managers above all need a high Politician component otherwise they will suffer from weaknesses 2 & 3 listed above.

Also if the Artist is low it weakens the ability to be creative and innovative. However high IQ is probably just as if not more important to being inventive.

Finally as Doublecheckers are driven by a desire for security they have high aversion to risk. This is why if put in management positions they should be positions where risk aversion is a positive trait such as Chief Financial Officer.

Also it is important to distinguish between Gemma’s compassionate empathy and a successful leader’s cognitive empathy. The first can not sacrifice employee relations, the second can. When I first read the paper I thought there were elements of the straw man fallacy, but on reflection I concluded that was too harsh a view.

On the other hand one statement by Chamorro-Premuzic and Yearsley really resonated, “Most things are better in moderation, and there is a downside to every human trait.” In my emotional intelligence courses those two messages are repeated as I think recognising them is a key to lifting your emotional intelligence.

If you are interested in emotional intelligence the article and the comments (with author’s replies) are well worth reading.


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Chris Golis - Author


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