Don't Believe the Hype Around 'Emotional Intelligence'

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On the surface, emotional intelligence – the ability to perceive, identify and manage emotions – sounds like a wonderful thing. Who among us would not want to live and work around people that are self-aware, empathetic and socially conscious? It’s a no-brainer.

If you buy into all the popular hype, emotional intelligence is linked to everything from leadership performance and business success to reduced stress and personal happiness.

But what if none of that were true?

What if I said that emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and control emotions – not just our own but the emotions of others, as well? What if I said it can be used to manipulate behavior? That sounds a bit different, doesn’t it? Not such a no-brainer anymore, is it?

This is not some sort of rhetoric slight of hand nor is that definition controversial. It’s common doctrine. But if authors, consultants and executive coaches were to say that Adolf Hitler was as adept at emotional intelligence as Martin Luther King Jr. – as Adam Grant explains in The Atlantic – they would not sell many books or book a lot of gigs.      

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According to Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, “When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings.” He goes on to say that leaders with selfish motives can use their mastery of emotion as weapons for manipulating others. “The results,” he says, “can be devastating.”

Besides having a decidedly dark side, you might be surprised to learn some facts that proponents of this popular fad tend to omit from their enthusiastic and motivational books, speeches, and coaching sessions.

EQ testing is not scientific. Gaming the test is child’s play.   

I once had the opportunity to take a professional EQ, or emotional quotient, test to measure my emotional intelligence. It took 30 minutes and was made up of 133 questions, each with five possible answers. The test was designed to identify those that might try to manipulate the results. It was quite impressive.

And I scored impressively high, according to the test’s administrators. The thing is, I could have scored higher if I wanted to. I knew exactly how to answer each and every question to achieve the highest EQ score even though the test was designed specifically to keep that from happening.

Does that make me some sort of emotional genius or empathetic savant? Hardly. The problem is that EQ tests are self-tests based on self-perception. While I might say, “It’s easy for me to express my feelings” and “I remain calm under stress,” my wife and employees might say that’s a complete load of BS.

And while the tests ask the same question a number of different ways in an attempt to improve their accuracy, the great irony is that those capable of understanding and controlling their emotions are remarkably adept at telling people what they think they want to hear.

In other words, the more delusional, narcissistic and sociopathic you are, the easier it is for you to game the test and the more likely you are to come out sounding like you’re as self-aware and empathetic as a Zen master or a Buddhist monk.

The truth is, EQ testing is by no means scientific. The results are essentially meaningless.

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Emotional intelligence is not predictive of leadership performance or business success.

Broad claims linking emotional intelligence to everything from leadership performance and business success to reduced stress and personal happiness are simply untrue. A recent comprehensive meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed absolutely no broad correlation between emotional intelligence and job performance.

And claims that CEOs, executives and business leaders with high EQs are more successful are simply ludicrous. Consider some of the most highly accomplished entrepreneurs of our time: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. I’d be surprised to find an ounce of emotional intelligence among them.

Granted, we also have Richard Branson, John Mackey and Tony Hsieh, but that’s the whole point. People are remarkably diverse. There are lots of different ways to become a highly accomplished leader, enjoy a successful career and build a great company. And emotional intelligence is by no means a predictor of any of those things.  

Co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 Travis Bradberry claims that 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence. His EQ testing suggests that these successful people are somehow capable of avoiding nearly every human behavioral flaw. They don’t compare themselves with others, dig in their heels, have pessimistic thoughts, dwell on failure, lose perspective, hang around negative people, lose sleep or hold grudges.

I’ve got a completely different set of data points. In my experience, 100 percent of the highly accomplished people I’ve known and worked with over a 30-something-year executive and consulting career were actually flesh-and-blood humans just like you and me. And the very suggestion that 90 percent of them are so calm, collected and controlled that they never let a negative thought penetrate or dwell inside their perpetually positive heads is ludicrous.  

Emotional awareness does not lead to behavioral change.

One of the principal tenets of emotional-intelligence proponents is that awareness leads to behavioral change. They suggest that by reading a book, taking a test or going to a seminar you become more aware of your emotions and that, with practice, you will become a better leader and more successful at work.  

If that were the case – if it were really that simple – people would not need years of therapy, hard work and discipline to change their behavior. Simple awareness would enable all of us to stamp out our self-destructive tendencies and avoid all the pitfalls that make us less happy and successful than we perhaps could be in a perfect world.

But that’s not reality. The human mind actually consists of layer upon layer of neural pathways that are formed and reinforced over decades. Not only are the inner workings of our emotions and behavior mostly subconscious, there are actually very good reasons why our brains evolved that way.

Indeed, self-awareness is a very good thing in life, but it’s all too easy to mistake what lies on the surface for the genuine feelings buried deep below. That’s why the path to achieving meaningful behavioral change is a long, arduous and often painful one. Study emotional intelligence all you want, it won’t change a thing. 

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