Back in 1995, Daniel Goleman published the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence. It was based on a concept introduced roughly three decades earlier by Michael Beldoch: Emotionally intelligent individuals have the ability to identify and respond to emotions both in themselves and others. Now, business leaders often stress the importance of emotional intelligence (EI), treating it as an essential soft skill that contributes to success. But according to Agata Blaszcsak-Boxe of Scientific American, a new study suggests that emotional intelligence isn't all honey and roses, and that too much of it can be bad thing.

Up with EI, up with cortisol

In a 2016 study by German psychologists Myriam Bechtoldt and Vanessa Schneider of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, 166 male university students answered a series of questions designed to determine their EI levels. Following the questions, the students had to give job talks to judges with stern facial expressions. Bechtoldt and Schneider measured the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, present in the students' saliva both before and after the job talks. Students with high EI scores showed higher increases of cortisol after the talk than those with lower EI scores.

It's all mirror neurons' fault

From a psychological perspective, all of the university students in the study should have felt some stress, because fear of being judged typically is associated with the primitive fear of rejection and isolation. Failure to translate the stern looks from the judges well, however, likely would keep stress in check, because students wouldn't realize that the risk for rejection and isolation is elevated.

Given the above, Bechtoldt and Schneider's results might best explained by differences in the performance of mirror neurons. These are special cells in the brain that activate both when you complete an activity and when you see someone else complete the activity. Because of mirror neurons, you can empathize, feel what someone else is experiencing and, perhaps most importantly, connect socially.

In Bechtoldt and Schneider's experiment, when students saw the stern faces of the judges, mirror neurons normally activated when the students themselves made stern faces likely started rapidly firing. That, in turn, probably caused an emotional response. People usually don't have stern faces unless there's a lot at stake or they have some reason to be concerned, and when people worry, the fight-or-flight response turns on and cortisol starts flowing. Other emotions, such as anger or anxiety, also connect to this response, so the results of the study theoretically can apply to a variety of situations. Whenever emotionally astute people perceive that others are experiencing emotions that can increase stress, they're at a high risk for feeling that stress themselves.

Top considerations for high EI

With higher EI and higher stress going hand in hand, keep the following in mind:

  • Stress and elevated cortisol is associated with a plethora of health complications, such as high blood pressure, sleep disturbance and increased risk of diabetes and depression. If your EI is high, it's more important for you to counter the stress with activities you enjoy, and to pay close attention to your health with regular checkups, exercise and good diet.
  • You might need more time to complete projects, because you need to need to let go of and cope with the stress you're "absorbing" from others.
  • Others might not understand that the stress you feel is real. They might expect you to be perky and happy because you technically aren't the one facing specific problems. You might need to increase or modify interpersonal communication to keep relationships strong and maintain efficiency.
  • If there are individuals with high EI on your team, be careful to exude positivity whenever you can. Be honest, of course, but remember that you have to model and create the atmosphere you want. Don't let frustration, anger, worry or other negative feelings ruin the mood--and performance--of those around you.

Higher emotional intelligence isn't without its challenges, as Bechtoldt and Schneider clearly demonstrate. But you can make a conscious choice to reach for the good, just by modeling the positivity you want to encourage in others. Keep the power of mirror neurons and biology of leadership in mind through your day to get the best results.