Emotional intelligence. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

On a very basic level, emotional intelligence is defined as “street smarts” rather than “book smarts.” Or, just a heightened state of awareness. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Traci announces she’s leaving her husband.

High EI: The only one who is not surprised: “Traci and her husband always seemed tense together.”
Average EI: One of several people not surprised: “Noticed the tension but didn’t know it was that bad.”
Low EI: The only one totally surprised: “Never noticed anything.”

That’s the basic gist of it. Now, how does emotional intelligence (EI) translate into success in life and work?

The good.

Several studies point to EI being more important than IQ when it comes to success. The Carnegie Institute of Technology carried out a study that showed 85% of financial success is attributed to skills in “human engineering,” personality, and the ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Only 15% depends on technical ability. In other words, people skills or skills related to emotional intelligence are the most crucial.

Case in point: Jeff Bezos. His customer-first approach and finely-tuned customer understanding created the biggest online retailer the world has ever seen. Amazon has always encouraged customers to post reviews, even if they’re critical or negative, and to email the CEO directly with complaints. And customers love it. Bezos never stops measuring customer behavior and adding new features to make his customers happy. This “human engineering” has driven the company’s share price to more than $830. That’s not just impressive, it’s kind of mind-boggling, especially considering the company maintains a profit margin of less than 1%.

If you look at the TV show, The Apprentice, the winner is always the person with the highest EI, not the highest IQ. Why is that? Nobel Prize winning Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that people would rather do business with a person they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if that person is offering a better product at a lower price.

The bad.

With heightened awareness comes heightened sensitivity. When you find yourself in a situation that requires a more objective approach, a high EI can actually hinder you in a couple of ways.
Empathy is considered one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence. High EI-ers tend to see the teardrop of good in an ocean of bad and hang onto it. As a result, you might find yourself making excuses for people, no matter how bad they are. In business, that’s not exactly a recipe for success. And as a boss, that kind of behavior can make you vulnerable to manipulation from opportunistic employees, ignore problems for too long and inflict damage to both morale and strategy.

A heightened sense of awareness, as many high-EI people have, can also make conflict unbearably painful. But avoiding conflict means never coming to a resolution, and there’s a reason you don’t read many biographies of passive leaders: shying away from conflict and its resolution just makes everything worse.

The ugly.

Succeeding in life is highly dependent on succeeding socially. So having a high EI is important. But a growing body of research is uncovering the fact that the concept of emotional intelligence is morally neutral; it can be used for just as much bad as it can be for good.

In the 1990s, emotional intelligence was painted in rosy terms, perhaps as a reaction to decades of hierarchical, command-and-control leadership. That cold, unemotional style, described in the book The Organization Man, was falling out of fashion.

Over time, our understanding of the use of emotions at work has evolved. Updated research has revealed the dark side of emotional intelligence. Studies in 2010 and 2014 found the workplace provides ample opportunities for narcissists to use their EI to manipulate others. Emotional intelligence is, after all, defined as “being able to use your emotions to your advantage.”

Emotional intelligence can also be a trap for those who believe they have a lot of it, creating an unwarranted arrogance. There’s a well-recorded tendency for all of us to think too highly of our own ability, how well we “read a room” or understand the motivations of others — an idea lampooned by Garrison Keillor in his famous Lake Woebegone stories of a place where everyone is above-average. If someone has been praised for their emotional intelligence repeatedly, they may take it for granted — which, in turn, causes them to assume they’re always right about others.

Emotional intelligence can also elicit extreme emotional reactions. Tim Armstrong, the chairman and CEO of AOL, who has exhibited an extremely high EI, famously fired a videographer in the middle of a conference call with more than 1000 people for taking a photograph. Later, he apologized: It was an emotional reaction that had nothing to do with the photographer, but more to do with the shareholder pressure he was under at the time.

To be truly empathetic and emotionally intelligent, it’s important to remember that despite our own interpretations of others’ behavior, they may not have be out to get us or offend us at all.

If you weren’t naturally born with a high EI, you can learn: listen more carefully, be compassionate, pay attention, and stay grounded. Because success in life and work is actually dependent on a balanced combination of emotional awareness and objective reality. Not an easy feat, even for the most gifted among us.