The Hidden Dangers Of Highly Emotional Intelligent Coworkers

You’ve probably heard by now that emotional intelligence is in hot demand. There’s research to suggest that high levels of emotional intelligence can lead to greater career success than can other factors, like IQ or relevant experience.

But there may be a dark side to emotional intelligence too. Those in your workplace who possess it in abundance may pose some threats to you and your colleagues. Here’s how.

The Upsides To Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ or EI for short, is an individual’s ability to perceive, manipulate, and evaluate emotions. The term was coined by researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in the 1990s, who further pointed out that that capacity also extends to others; those with high emotional intelligence can also adeptly monitor other people’s emotions and guide their own thinking and behavior accordingly.

Salovey and Mayer divided EQ into four branches: perceiving emotions, reasoning with emotions, understanding emotions, and managing or manipulating emotions. In the workplace, an employee with high emotional intelligence can manage a variety of people on his or her team with a level head and clear objectives. They can build relationships between their colleagues and lead and motivate whole companies.

So it’s no surprise that some of the most successful business leaders are highly emotionally intelligent. Talent Smart estimates that up to 90% of high performers in the workplace possess a higher than average emotional intelligence. In fact, a separate Talent Smart study even found that highly emotionally intelligent employees earn an average of $29,000 more per year. For every point increase in emotional intelligence, the researchers found that an employee’s annual salary is set to increase roughly $1,300.

And best of all, emotional intelligence can be taught. Want to advance your career? It might be wise to start sharpening your emotional intelligence, not just your on-the-job experience.

Things To Watch Out For

But before you start investing your energy in that direction, it’s important to recognize that with every good there comes a bad. Employees who are in complete control of their emotions can also manipulate the emotions of those around them, and not always in constructive ways.

For one thing, studies examining the effects of high emotional intelligence have shown startling correlations with narcissism, suggesting that emotionally intelligent people may be more likely to manipulate others’ emotions for their own ends. Emotions can be a powerful tool—they’re necessary for navigating workplaces and working with others, but left they can also lead to more volatile situations that are difficult to manage.

And like it or not, the workplace provides plenty of opportunities for people with high emotional intelligence to exploit their fellow coworkers—whether by targeting specific colleagues in order to advance a personal agenda, or shaming a fellow employee for the sake of self-promotion or an ego boost. Sometimes highly emotionally intelligent people wind up manipulating others unintentionally, but with equally undesirable outcomes.

Worse still, HR departments and senior leaders might not always recognize an employee who’s using their emotional intelligence to affect others’ behaviors because they themselves are being manipulated, too.

Is It Narcissism Or Something Else?

There are some pitfalls to diagnosing someone at work who may be using their high degree of emotional intelligence for unsavory purposes. What may look like narcissism—or a steely, seemingly emotionless self-possession—could turn out to be a form of social impairment.

To the casual observer, it’s actually pretty easy to confuse a Machiavellian mastermind with somebody who may have Asperger’s Syndrome, both of which can be found in people with high IQs. Someone with a social disorder may not understand what you’re feeling, whereas a narcissist simply doesn’t care about your emotions, which they’ll subordinate to their own, personal goals.

According to Brian Lawley, of the 280 group, which offers training in people skills for product managers, “the first step is to reaffirm that their social behavior is actually the work of narcissism and not a social impairment issue.”

Before running as far away as possible from somebody who seemingly disregards your feelings, try to understand where they’re coming from: Does their attitude seem to benefit them in some way? If you can see clear connections between the way they’re behaving to you and their self-interest, you may have a highly emotionally intelligent coworker on your hands that you need to watch out for. You might even want to improve your own emotional intelligence in order to better understand how the rest of your office behaves. Just remember there’s a fine line between using that intelligence to help others succeed and doing it to advance your personal agenda.

The bottom line is that emotions play a huge part in our everyday workplace dealings. People with high emotional intelligence may be more likely to succeed, but sometimes that success comes at the expense of others. If you’re a current or aspiring leader, improving your emotional intelligence gives you the tools to more effectively manage your team, your company, and yourself—just don’t lose your empathy in the process.

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