Daniel Goleman: An Antidote to the Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

Let’s not idealize emotional intelligence. Like any other human skill set – IQ, hacking skills, strength – it can be used for self-serving ends or for the common good, as addressed in Adam Grant’s recent article for The Atlantic titled The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence.

You see the dark side at work when EI gets used to manipulate others, not for the betterment of an organization. Emotional intelligence (or EI), in my model, refers to our ability to read and understand emotions in ourselves and others, and to handle those feelings effectively. In general, a high level of EI predicts better success in school and in career, in relationships and in leading a fulfilled life. For leaders EI can make the difference between success and failure.

But EI is not just one single ability that we are good at or not – we can have strengths in one part of EI – like excellent self-management, the key to self-discipline, achieving goals, and “grit” – while lacking in other parts, like empathy or social skills. In fact that very pattern is common in the workplace, marking those who are outstanding individual performers (at programming, say) but who are not able to work well as part of a team or as a leader.

Within each component of EI we can make nuanced distinctions. So when it comes to empathy – the ability to understand how another person experiences the world – there are different types, each with its own benefits.

Cognitive empathy refers to being able to sense how another person thinks. It can help us be better communicators by putting things in terms the other person understands. Research shows that managers with this kind of empathy get better-than-expected results from their direct reports. And executives with high cognitive empathy do better at overseas assignments because they can more quickly pick up the implicit social norms and mental models of a new culture.

Emotional empathy means we feel in ourselves the other person’s emotions – our feelings resonate. People adept at emotional empathy can form warm bonds with others, and have good chemistry. Such rapport makes negotiations, teamwork and just about any shared task go better.

Then there’s empathic concern, sensitivity to other people’s needs and the readiness to help if need be. Workers with such concern are the good citizens of any organization, the ones everyone else knows can be counted on to help when the pressure is on. Among leaders, those with empathic concern create a “secure base,” the sense that your boss has your back, will support and protect you as needed, and gives you the security to take risks and try new ways of operating – the key to innovation.

This is the kind of empathy that serves as an antidote to the dark side of emotional intelligence – the manipulative use of talents in EI in the service of one’s own interest, and at the expense of others. Narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths all do this, as I’ve detailed in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. A Norwegian study found that men who lacked empathic concern in childhood were far more likely than others as adults to end up as felons in prison.

Empathic concern means we care about the well-being of the people around us. It’s the opposite motivation of the self-serving types who use whatever influence or other empathy abilities solely in their own interests – the Bernie Madoffs among us. Empathic concern is what to look for when hiring, when promoting, and when developing leadership talent.

Have you encountered a colleague who used emotional intelligence skills for the wrong reasons? Share your experiences in the comments section, or tweet them to @DanielGolemanEI.

Daniel Goleman’s new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence are now available.

His more recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings (More Than Sound). Leadership: A Master Class is Goleman’s comprehensive video series that examines the best practices of top-performing executives.

Related articles:

The signs of a leader’s empathy deficit disorder

Systems blindness: the illusion of understanding

Empathy 101

Multiple intelligences for ethical leadership