Sometimes the best way to explain how something works is to share examples of when it doesn't work.
Case in point: Emotional intelligence. After writing about the subject for many years, I can share a series of tools and tricks that people can use to improve their emotional intelligence--often, very quickly.
But, there's also value in sharing examples of business leaders whose emotional unintelligent actions gained them notoriety, and then saying: "See what they did? Try not to do that."
I've compiled several of these examples below. But I hope we can agree on two points before diving in.
- First, it might be easy to make fun of these examples, but it's better to think about what these famous leaders were trying to do, and theorize about why a lack of emotional intelligence might have led them to fall short.
- Second, we'll have to make some educated guesses about motivations. I prefer to assume they meant well, and that maybe they were caught during not-particularly-good moments. You can decide for yourself.
With that, here are five clear, somewhat famous examples of what not to do:
Mistake 1. Don't use parallelism when you should be looking for convergence.
This is a rule that sounds so much more complicated than it is. It's one of my favorites: Look for ways to demonstrate convergence, not just parallel experiences.
Who better to illustrate it than Vishal Garg, the CEO of Better.com, whose Zoom call laying off 900 employees went viral in December, for all the wrong reasons. (Video is embedded at the end of this section; go to about 0:26, and prepare to cringe.)
You might recall this. Before he announced the layoffs, Garg went on a lengthy tangent about himself--mainly, how bad he felt about his decision. If we want to assume any kind of good intentions (but completely misguided, at the very least), I think we are left with a handful of key learning points:
- First, expressing emotion can be good, but always look for convergence. Your goal should be to show that you feel the same way that your audience does, and for a similar reason--an emotional convergence.
- The counterpoint to that is to avoid parallelism--describing an unrelated experience that might have some tangential emotional similarity. That's what Garg did here, by talking about how hard it was for him to lay people off--in front of an audience made up of people who were the victims of his decision.
- Finally, remember that sometimes there's simply nothing you can do to make an audience feel better. In that case, maybe the best bet is just to rip off the band-aid, and get out of the way so they can feel what they need to feel.
Mistake No. 2. Don't let your scruples upend your empathy.
A few years ago, the president and CEO of Hilton, Christopher Nassetta, was speaking at a conference. In answer to a moderator's question, he said he "typically" does not tip the staff in hotels--even Hilton hotels.
Controversy ensued. I wrote about it. Then, Nassetta reversed course and said that "going forward" he would tip when traveling both for work and for personal reasons.
The takeaway? If were cynical we might say it's something like: Don't go on stage in front of an industry group and discourage people from rewarding your employees.
But, I think the real lesson is about the difference between advocating for something entirely reasonable (a compensation system in which hard-working people don't have to rely on the gratuitous generosity of strangers), and articulating that advocacy in a way that risks undermines the very people you want to help.
In other words, don't let your scruples get in the way of people who need your empathy--especially when they're your employees. They will certainly notice, and they won't be happy.
Mistake No. 3. Don't assume agreement on contentious issues.
This one hurts to share. Last year, a 7-year-old girl was shot and killed at a McDonald's drive-through in Chicago. In texts with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, which were uncovered via a Freedom of Information Act request, McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski had written the following:
"p.s. tragic shootings in last week, both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam Toldeo [sic; a 13-year-old boy who had been shot to death by police]. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can't say. Even harder to fix."
The most contentious line, which as I wrote when it happened displayed a total lack of emotional intelligence was: "the parents failed those kids."
When the messages were revealed, Kempczinski was pilloried for his "ignorant, racist, and unacceptable" message (critics' words, not mine), while Lightfoot's spokesperson commented: "Victim shaming has no place in this conversation."
I think we can find three lessons from this bad example.
- First, don't assume agreement. "Which I know is something you can't say," assumed, in writing, that Lightfoot felt the same way. If she did, she clearly didn't feel strongly enough to say so in public after the text became public.
- Next, know your limitations. In truth, don't know how Kempczinski could have claimed real insight here--or in what way he might have thought that sending this text might help McDonald's. Better to say nothing.
- Finally, remember your audiences, plural. Yes, Kempczinski was texting to Lightfoot, but it doesn't take much to predict that the mayor of one of America's biggest cities will be under a constant barrage of FOIA requests.
Much smarter to think ahead of time about how these words would sound to McDonald's stakeholders, given that they were almost inevitably going to be revealed.
Mistake No. 4. Don't speak without thinking how your word choices will sound to your audience.
Next up: Jeff Bezos. Last summer, just after touching down from his short trip to space, Bezos was widely mocked for a single sentence in his celebratory remarks:
"I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this."
Was it emotionally intelligent? Heck, no. But, in context, I don't think it's quite as tone-deaf as it sounds. After living a lifelong dream of reaching space, I get the sense that Bezos gave into his emotions and wanted to thank everyone even remotely attached to the moment.
In his effusive state, however, he violated what I think is truly the cardinal rule of emotional intelligence: He didn't stop to think about how his specific word choices would fall on the ears of his audience.
Watch the 1-minute video below and you'll see what I mean. However people feel about Bezos, in this case at t least, it really does seem to be in the context of thanking almost everyone else on Planet Earth. The problem of course is that people don't have time for context.
Emotionally intelligent people understand that, and they take a minute or two to think how their words will sound before speaking, whenever possible.
5. Don't let your emotions lead you to you forget your audience.
Last for now, but certainly not least, we have to point to Martin Shkreli, the so-called "Pharma Bro," and "the Most-Hated CEO in America."
The example that jumps to mind is how Shkreli, after being convicted in federal court of fraud charges that would ultimately send him to prison for many years, held a press conference in 2017 to declare he was "delighted" with the outcome, because the jury acquitted him on several other charges.
As I lawyer myself, I wondered at the time what the heck Shkreli and his attorneys were thinking, but I suspect it had to do with two things:
- Shkreli's personal, emotional need to declare some kind of victory in the case, and
- Forgetting or overlooking the key fact that at that moment, the most important audience for Shkreli wasn't the general public; it was a single person: the judge who held his fate in her hands, and who had not yet passed sentence on him.
I suspect Shkreli gave into his emotions and probably even realized later that it had been a mistake. However, I can't ask him directly, because the judge ultimately sentenced him to seven years in prison; much longer than the 12 to 18 months his attorneys hoped for despite Shkreli's speech outside the courthouse.
Accentuate the positive
There are so many other examples we could share here, but this article is already quite long. If people find this useful I'll follow-up with a second edition.
That said, while negative examples like these are interesting, there's also great utility in the kinds of positive, prescriptive advice you'll find in my free ebook, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence.
The bottom lines? If you remember nothing else, remember (a) to pause before speaking, and, (b) always consider how the words you're about to say will likely land on other people's ears; not just how they'll make you feel for having said them.
Oh, and assume good intentions whenever you can.
Even if you wind up thinking you're too charitable, I think you'll find that you learn a lot more useful lessons in the process.