emotional intelligence

July 02, 2020 •

8 min reading

Emotional intelligence: a blessing or a curse?

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An historical excursus

This year, emotional intelligence (EI) celebrates its 30th anniversary. It was 1990 when Peter Salovey and John Mayer published the first scientific article on EI where they defined it as ''The ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and action.” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 189). EI was then popularized by Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book (1995), which introduced EI as the best predictor of success in life.

Over the last 25 years, EI has been the subject of a fervent debate in the scientific arena with detractors trying to kill the emerging idea of pairing intelligence with emotions by claiming that individuals cannot reason with emotions- and hence that EI was an invalid concept (Locke, 2005) - and supporters defending its legitimacy by arguing that EI research was theoretically sound, alive and well (Ashkanasy & Daus, 2005).

Several issues surrounding the validity of EI have been settled, and although some claims about its benefits still appear exaggerated, EI has proven merits in domains as varied as health (Austin, Saklofske, & Egan, 2005), teachers’ well-being (Vesely, Saklofske, & Nordstokke, 2014), interpersonal effectiveness (Fiori, 2015), and job performance (O’Boyle, Humphrey, Pollack, Hawver, & Story, 2011).


Exploring potential side effects of EI

Despite the burgeoning literature showing the positive effects of EI, counterintuitive results about the effect of high levels of EI on several outcomes have been found (Davis & Nichols, 2016). University students high in EI were more vulnerable to depression, suicidal ideation and helplessness (Ciarrochi et al., 2002). Also, individuals with high EI and high testosterone showed stronger stress reactions in a situation of social pressure (Bechtoldt & Schneider, 2016).

Another potential downside of EI was brought up in an engaging debate about whether people in leadership roles need emotional intelligence (Antonakis, Ashkanasy, & Dasborough, 2009). It was suggested that individuals high in EI might be overly empathic to emotions felt by themselves and by others in a way that would hamper their effectiveness as leaders in the workplace. This effect was called the “curse of emotion,” the idea being that high EI leaders might be insufficiently assertive when having to deal with controversial issues, thus compromising their ability to function effectively.


Why emotional intelligence? The logic of feelings

The reasoning behind the alleged impairing function of emotions in leadership echoes the vision of affect and reason as opposite forces, which dominated in business and in pop culture until the 90s. Things have changed since then, but some still struggle to accept the ‘emotional’ side of intelligence. We know that emotions have survived throughout human evolution because of their adaptive function: The ability to interpret emotional signals, such as understanding whether an adversary reacted with fear rather than anger, increased the chances of survival. Furthermore, there is clear evidence of how emotional and cognitive processes are intertwined in human functioning (Bechara, Damasio, & Damasio, 2000; Phelps, 2005), including in decision-making and judgment (Pham, 2014).


Tearing down three false myths about emotionality and (in)effectiveness

1. Emotions do not necessarily bias perception and reasoning.

Emotions in themselves are not right or wrong, good or bad, correct or incorrect. Emotions are simply pieces of information telling us how we are currently navigating our world. Depending on how we understand and use this piece of informationwe may end up being either supported or impaired by emotions.

2. Being emotional does not equal being weak.

Feeling deep emotions, having a higher level of emotional self-awareness, being more accurate in labeling and attributing emotions to others, as well as being more capable to regulate emotions are all characteristics that may foster creativity and overall performance, sustaining the development of one’s full potential. People who disclose their feelings are more authentic and are perceived to be so by others. And yet being able to show sincere and authentic emotions without feeling inadequate is a luxury that only few people can afford; it requires very deep understanding of one’s strength and weaknesses, as well as a solid sense of self-worth. Hence, speaking one’s mind through emotions is a demonstration of power, not a weakness.

3. Being emotionally intelligent is different from being overwhelmed by emotions.

The emotionally intelligent person is someone capable of managing the ups and downs that positive and negative emotions may bring; someone who has a more accurate perception of one’s own emotions and those of others and uses this information to better adjust to the social environment; someonewho has a profound understanding of emotions and shows it through empathic concern; someone who can prevent negative emotions from impeding thinking and who can channel them as a motivational force. Ultimately,the emotionally intelligent person deeply resonates with emotions and,moreimportantly, can handle this characteristic so as to take only the benefits of this utmost quality.

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What to retain about the “curse of emotion” idea? The role of ‘hypersensitivity’

If high EI individuals really are more emotionally intelligent, they ought to be less vulnerable to the “curse of emotion” effect. After all, one would expect people genuinely high in EI to have no problem in managing emotions, intense or otherwise. So, why then have some results started to emerge showing negative effects of EI? Andrew Ortony and I provided a potential explanation of the contrasting effects related to EI, which relies on what we called the hypersensitivity hypothesis: EI would work as a magnifier of emotional experience, such that individuals high in EI feel stronger emotions, pay more attention to emotions, and they amplify the effect of emotions on behavior and social perception (Fiori & Ortony, 2016). Although this function of EI as a magnifying glass should be, in principle, an asset- it would give high EI individuals a deeper, fine-grained apperception and understanding of emotional reactions in oneself and others- the majority of individuals might struggle to manage this.

Hence, high EI individuals are those who can balance the ‘hypersensitive’ function of EI with regulatory processes that would allow retaining only the benefits of EI in a homeostatic condition. In the absence of this balance, individuals might suffer from the kind of “curse of emotion” effect mentioned above. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that current tests measuring EI capture only the hypersensitivity component of EI, and not much of the abilities needed to fully exploit such hypersensitivity. This is a challenge that future research needs to address.


With great power comes great labor

The bottom line is that being truly emotionally intelligent is not for everyone. When EI was popularized it seemed as if this new construct was levering the status of those who did not have high IQ by providing them the necessary skills for being successful in life. It appears clear now that being emotionally intelligent applies to only a small percentage of the population: It requires to be smart in its traditional connotation, plus to be intelligent at using emotions as a way to support thinking and behavior. Indeed, whereas it is relatively common to observe political leaders and professionals in different domains possessing a good dose of intelligence, it is more difficult to spot those who have EI on top of it…


Implications for organizations and the hospitality sector

Should organizations look for emotionally intelligent leaders and employees? EI is a proven predictor of workplace performance, especially for jobs characterized by a high emotional involvement. The hospitality sector is context in which a deep understanding of emotions and the effect of emotions on behavior is fundamental. And yet, two key points should be considered. First, the ‘emotional superpower’ of high EI individuals needs to be accompanied by the capacity to use such superpower to the service of (organizational and individual) performance. We certainly want front office managers to be warm, welcoming, and understanding of the customers’ needs, but we do not want them to pick up so much of, say, a customer’s complaint, that they may not react effectively by proposing a solution. Second, truly high EI individuals possessing both the characteristic of being ‘hypersensitive’ to emotions (or the ‘emotional superpower’) and the capacity to manage such characteristic may be difficult to find, and should be placed in organizational roles in which their characteristics can be fully utilized.


In conclusion

EI is a fascinating construct that has attracted the attention of both the general public and the scientific community. Despite the initial exaggerated claims surrounding its role as the best predictor of success in life, EI is not a fad, it has survived the scrutiny of scientific inquiry showing its merits in predicting important life outcomes.

Upcoming challenges include a better understanding of what being emotionally intelligent entails. High emotionally intelligent individuals may be considered ‘hypersensitive’: They feel more intense emotions, have a more fine grained apperception of effective responses in oneself and others, a more complex understanding of the meaning and effects of emotions, and have stronger abilities to channel emotions in the best possible way to support thinking and behavior. Outdated clichés equating emotionality with weakness may blur the true power of emotions, especially when they are paired with the capacity to handle such power to the service of thinking. In addition, current tests measuring EI may not capture the full range of emotional qualities that individuals high in EI truly possess.

Implications for organizations are that although EI remains an important characteristic for effectively managing and motivating collaborators, and for employees of the hospitality sector to provide a truly personalized service that relies on a deep understanding of the customers’ needs, high EI individuals should be identified not only as those who have emotional ‘superpower’ but also as those who can handle it.

As Alain de Botton aptly noticed (2019) “There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance”. Ultimately emotionally intelligent individuals are, above all, emotionally wiser.



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Visiting Professor at EHL