The emotional factor

Much has been said about emotional intelligence; some believe it’s a necessary skill to have in today’s workplace. But is it always a good thing?

Dr. Gregory House in House.  Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock. Bobby Axelrod in Billions. Intelligent, task-driven, goal-oriented high achievers who have fascinated millions of television viewers around the globe. But while these fictional characters have oodles of appeal on the small screen, it’s unlikely that in real life many of us would want them as colleagues or managers. While they may be blessed with a high IQ and success in their fields, their emotional intelligence is, to put it bluntly, the pits.

Since the 1990s — when US psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer published their findings on emotional intelligence, and Daniel Goleman popularized it with his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence — the spotlight on emotional intelligence (often used interchangeably with emotional quotient) has grown even brighter, especially when it comes to its impact in the workplace and on business goals.

Salovey and Mayer define emotional intelligence as the ability to perceive and integrate emotions to facilitate thought and to understand and regulate emotions to promote personal growth. In his book, Goleman describes it as an “ability to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and others.” Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is even subtitled “Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” That’s what Russell Cullingworth discovered.

Cullingworth, the founder and president of EQAdvantage Learning and Development Inc., helps individuals and corporations — such as CPA BC — hone emotional intelligence in their teams, leaders and problematic staff. His background is in accounting and finance, with former roles such as controller of CGA Canada and director of finance at a children’s hospice.

“I’d known for a long time that I wasn’t a good fit and I’d felt it from my bosses because, through my performance evaluations for 24 years, it was never about my work; it was always about my personality,” says Cullingworth.

“My preferences are [for] being informal,” he says. “I’m very talkative. I’m more extroverted. Ideally for accounting, to fit into a profession that’s a highly introverted, thinking profession, the messages I got through my evaluations were, ‘You’re too casual, you’re too chatty. How can we trust you if you’re so friendly?’ My bosses didn’t understand how I was managing with my style because I wasn’t managing with the same style as they were.”

On the emotional intelligence scale, it might seem as though Cullingworth had a high degree of self-awareness but was less able to read the emotions of his bosses and regulate his behaviour accordingly. Some may find it surprising that he reached the heights he achieved in his accounting career. Or perhaps it’s not surprising at all.

Emotional intelligence in the workplace is often credited with providing the ability to manage stress, to be a better leader and to build stronger teams — and it’s also a marker for advancement. But recently, emotional intelligence has come under a far less favourable gaze than before. Some researchers and academics have questioned whether its importance or relevance in the workplace has been overstated, especially when compared with cognitive ability.


Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and New York Times writer, is convinced that “emotional intelligence is overrated” and in an article on Pulse, LinkedIn’s blogging platform, he asserts that many studies consistently show cognitive ability trumps emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Grant cites his own study involving salespeople who found “cognitive ability was more than five times more powerful than emotional intelligence.” And, he writes, “even in emotionally demanding work, when it comes to job performance, cognitive ability still proves more consequential than emotional intelligence. Cognitive ability is the capacity to learn.”

However, Marjorie Derven, managing partner with Hudson Research and Consulting in Piermont, NY, and an instructor with Proformative, an online learning resource for finance professionals, believes the dichotomy between emotional intelligence and cognitive ability is misleading.

“Cognitive ability is table stakes,” says Derven. “If you can’t do the work and don’t have the technical skills, you’re not going to be hired. It is a threshold requirement to have the cognitive ability.

“Emotional intelligence helps to differentiate people [from those] who can do the work but get in trouble interacting with other people — they may offend them, make people angry, may be a stress carrier, or may be very closed off and don’t talk to people. There could be so many things that people are doing, and emotional intelligence — given the cognitive ability — is the differentiator.”

Still, there are times when low emotional intelligence isn’t a barrier to rising through the ranks.

“I have run into many examples of situations where someone might have underdeveloped people skills, yet [the employee is] delivering something so extraordinary to the organization that the company chooses to turn a blind eye,” says executive coach Karen Wright. “And in the best cases of this, the [company] would try to sequester the person and find a way to have them not do damage.”

But what about when it’s not a case of low emotional intelligence but high emotional intelligence gone awry?


In an article published in The Atlantic called “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence,” Grant suggests that unbridled enthusiasm for emotional intelligence has made us all a bit blind to the possibility it can be used for nefarious purposes.

Grant cites studies to prove his point, including one workplace study, “The Jekyll and Hyde of Emotional Intelligence,” which found that employees with high emotional intelligence and Machiavellian tendencies were more likely to report manipulating their coworkers. It was led by Stéphane Côté, professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Côté and his team looked at one facet of emotional intelligence — the ability to effectively regulate emotions — and its effect on positive and negative interpersonal behaviour.

Côté explains that when people have pro-social (or positive) intentions to help others, they rely on emotions such as compassion and control pride and anger, both of which are more selfish emotions.

“Conversely, we thought that if people have more selfish intentions, characterized by the trait of Machiavellianism [i.e., where others are regarded as a means to an end], they would be more likely to engage in self-serving behaviour in the workplace if they are able to regulate their emotions so that they actually feel less guilt about doing these types of behaviours or feel less compassion for others.”

To gain insight on Machiavellianism, study participants had to answer survey questions along the lines of, do you see others as a means to an end? or “it’s wise to flatter important people,” says Côté.

Besides emotion regulation knowledge, Côté says, other dimensions of emotional intelligence can be used for self-serving tendencies.

Wright agrees. “I think that any tool can be used for good or evil, so to be equipped with a natural aptitude for discerning emotion is a starting point, and from there you get to choose.”

She adds that it’s impossible to inspire successfully or manipulate extensively without emotional intelligence because these abilities involve understanding human emotion and what causes people to make certain choices.

Wright gives an example from her earlier career in sales and marketing of an executive who used his emotional intelligence for nefarious purposes.

“He was extremely charming and gregarious and made it very easy for people to be comfortable,” she says. However, he “used his charms on the female members of the organization in an unfortunate way.”

Some emotional quotient professionals, however, dispute whether using emotional intelligence for negative purposes is emotionally intelligent, and it seems they’re on to something.

Emotional intelligence is a set of abilities, not just one ability. So it’s possible to be very self-aware, for example, but have less of an ability to read emotions in others or to choose appropriate action.

Côté’s research, for example, looked at just one aspect of emotional intelligence, and while it didn’t extend to the long-term impact manipulators have in the workplace, he speculates that some highly emotionally intelligent people might be able to get away with manipulation for a very long time but others might be found out and face negative repercussions, such as a bad reputation or high employee turnover.

Cullingworth says manipulation is a win-lose situation. “When people talk about using emotional intelligence as a manipulative tool, emotionally intelligent people recognize that manipulation is a short-term gain, and harmful to trust, connection and long-term influence. People may try to mimic [emotional quotient], but that doesn’t mean they’re emotionally intelligent.”

Both Goleman and Wright address another important aspect of emotional intelligence: empathy. In response to Grant’s article, Goleman refers to empathy as an antidote to the dark side of emotional intelligence.

“Real emotional intelligence, well-rounded emotional intelligence, does include empathy,” says Wright, “and if real empathy is part of the mix, it is harder to use emotional intelligence for the purposes of manipulation.”


A growing area of research and practice combines diversity and inclusion training with emotional intelligence training. Why? Emotional intelligence alone is no automatic boon to conducting business across different national or ethnic cultures. Also, it’s possible to be highly emotionally intelligent in one business setting, but not necessarily in another.

Diversity and inclusion training is a core part of Derven’s consulting practice. “The dynamics of the world are such that it’s really becoming an imperative to understand [diversity and inclusion] in whatever you’re doing to be able to be more effective in your day-to-day relationships and at work,” she says.

It’s a reality that businesses with diverse workforces and global ties need to seriously consider.

“Emotional intelligence in and of itself isn’t going to give you the knowledge of different cultures. That’s something that you’re going to have to study and learn,” says Derven, pointing to cultural differences such as hierarchy, how people should be addressed and expectations about socializing before getting down to business.


Perhaps it’s not a question of whether emotional intelligence is necessary for success in the workplace — it’s how much is needed.

In his follow-up book Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman writes that “emotional intelligence skills are synergistic with cognitive ones; top performers have both.” Even Grant, who lectures about emotional intelligence at Wharton, concedes that it has a role to play in business.

Also, the prevailing wisdom is that some jobs — such as those involving minimal contact with people — don’t require high emotional intelligence, and that it’s more important to have if you interact a lot with colleagues or you’re a manager or business leader.

Côté suggests that businesses or HR departments can “test whether emotional intelligence matters, and see if it correlates with performance in their own organization. If it doesn’t seem to matter in their organization for whatever reason, then focus on something else.”

Cullingworth, however, does not advocate testing emotional intelligence and Derven acknowledges that in some circles testing is highly controversial.

When it comes to findings that emotional intelligence can be wielded for evil instead of good, the same applies to cognitive intelligence — and emotional intelligence can be improved.

“I’ve learnt that emotional intelligence can be trained in anybody,” says Cullingworth. “It’s really the intent as to whether that person wants to embark on that journey that makes the difference.”


Where cognitive ability leaves off, “learnability” begins. It’s set to replace emotional intelligence as the most important skill in the workplace for determining success.

“To put it in a nutshell, all the forces that are occurring in the world of work — technology, demographics, how individual choice is changing, customer sophistication — are creating a lot of change,” says Mara Swan, executive vice-president, global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, who has written about learnability for Harvard Business Review.

“Business models are changing quicker. As a result, skills are shifting quicker and, in order to achieve their business strategy, companies have to have talent that can adjust and be more agile in changing skills more quickly,” she says.

Learnability, or being a “learning animal,” is about having the curiosity, adventurousness, imagination and intellectual motivation to learn new skills, says Swan. It’s an intellectual hunger to learn.

Swan points out that in the past, the need for different skills to meet business priorities meant letting people go or continuing to hire new employees with the needed skills rather than teaching current employees new skills, but changing demographics make that more challenging. Employees with high learnability who can change their skill sets and have the desire to do so are increasingly critical for companies.

Some of the changing demographics Swan mentions include the decline of working-age populations due to birth rates and a less talent-rich marketplace. Add to that a growing reluctance in companies to properly train new employees and the situation becomes difficult for companies that are already feeling the competitive pinch and are still focusing on hard skills and academic credentials at hiring time.

It’s up to leaders to foster a learnability culture, says Swan. “You can do that by creating certain kinds of environments as a boss. You have to find ways to encourage it.” She suggests giving employees “different projects outside their normal roles, and challenging them to learn new skill sets and ways of working.”

Learnability could become even more essential in the workplace of the future, which will be more project-based, according to the documentary Generation Jobless. Employees with the ability to quickly learn and use new skills and systems, grasp ever-changing priorities and swiftly adapt to new technology will have an edge over other workers and will give their companies an edge over their competitors.