Emotional intelligence is now one of the traits leaders prize most, the idea being that it supports an array of other soft skills like connecting with your team. But apparently, it's a little like a sugary cake slathered in way-too-sweet frosting--there's a point where having too much gets icky and sets you back.

Higher EI means lower effectiveness scores

In a study from EMLyon Business School, France and Manchester Metropolitan University, researchers asked workers in the National Health Service to rate the emotional intelligence of their 309 managers. The participants also rated their managers on staff satisfaction, their ability to implement change and the effort they put into their jobs. The researchers accounted for factors like age and gender in interpreting their results.

Surprisingly, the managers in the top 15 percent for emotional intelligence ranked lower for job effort and staff satisfaction than managers whose emotional intelligence was in the top 65 to 85 percent. Managers with the most emotional intelligence also ranked as less effective at implementing reorganizational changes happening within the NHS at the time of the study, although participants rated them well for continuing involvement.

Why too much emotional intelligence backfires

According to study author Dr. Nikos Bozionelos, when a manager or other leader has too much emotional intelligence, their empathy becomes a hurdle. Because the manager is so cued in to how they could hurt their subordinates, they avoid actions that could bring workers discomfort, stress or other burdens. That can have a negative influence on just about everything from setting more aggressive deadlines to enforcing discipline policies. Or put another way, the more emotional intelligence a leader has, the less likely they are to put their foot down and face the nitty gritty of business with tough love.

Previous work by Bozionelos and Sanjay Kumar Singh of Abu Dhabi University confirms that high performers at work tend to be the ones with low or high emotional intelligence. So this new study in no way suggests that emotional intelligence is unimportant. It does, however, reveal that our tendency to link "more is better" with emotional intelligence as a standard in every situation is misguided. Where leadership is concerned, you can have "great" empathy and do better than someone who is "superior". There's a balance between seeing your team and seeing the reality of what has to be done, and you don't necessarily benefit from having someone on your team who can do only the former. Perfection in this case, doesn't mean 100 percent.

Published on: Sep 6, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.