Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

A few days ago, Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an accomplished psychologist and business professor, co-authored a piece in the Harvard Business Review entitled, The Downsides of Being Very Emotionally Intelligent.

It begins with the story of Gemma, a hypothetical employee who most would describe as ideal. According to the authors, Gemma is:

  • extremely caring and sensitive
  • optimistic
  • reliable and dependable
  • organized
  • trustworthy and ethical
  • a beacon of calm, who never loses her cool, no matter the stress or pressure at work

Sounds like a great hire, right?

But Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic concludes that Gemma’s high EQ (emotional quotient) may reduce her effectiveness in certain roles, including those in senior leadership. He argues that people like Gemma are severely challenged when it comes time to make unpopular choices, bring about change, and “focus on driving results, even at the expense of sacrificing employee relations.”

I actually agree with much of what Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has to say. There’s only one problem.

Most of the issues he describes aren’t due to emotional intelligence. They come from a lack of it.

Emotional vs. Emotional Intelligence

As set out in my forthcoming book, emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to identify emotions (in both themselves and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. Emotional intelligence involves not only understanding how emotions work in a given situation, but the ability to manage a situation to attain a desired result.

Put more simply, emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

Gemma may be extremely caring and sensitive, and that’s generally a good thing. But the moment that sensitivity prevents her from offering necessary feedback, it’s no longer emotionally intelligent.

It’s just emotional.

Emotional intelligence also won’t prevent leaders from making potentially unpopular decisions. Instead, it will help them to develop strategies to effectively manage the changes those decisions bring about (or, identify the right person to develop those strategies).

I believe Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic’s mistake is a common one: considering EQ (emotional quotient) and EI (emotional intelligence) to be interchangeable concepts.

For example, many scientists consider EQ tests as scientifically validated assessments of emotional intelligence. But while these tests may provide insight into your knowledge of emotions and how they work, they won’t evaluate your ability to put that knowledge to work in real, everyday situations.

In other words, emotional intelligence isn’t so much what Gemma knows about emotions.

It’s how she uses what she knows.

Where He’s Right

In contrast, Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic gets one thing absolutely right: He identifies the propensity of some emotionally intelligent individuals to manipulate others.

“The risk of overusing one’s social skills is in focusing heavily on the emotional aspects of communication while neglecting logical arguments and the more transactional aspects of communication,” states Chamorro-Premuzic.

“In that sense, the darker side of EQ is helping people with bad intentions to be overly persuasive and get their way. As with charisma, we tend to regard EQ as a positive trait, but it can be used to achieve unethical goals as well as ethical ones.”

Here, Chamorro-Premuzic hits the nail on the head. Emotional intelligence, like any other type of “intelligence,” cannot be considered inherently virtuous. Just as a brilliant person could become a lifesaving surgeon or a serial killer, those with superior emotional intelligence can choose between two very different paths.

For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • A political candidate who plays on a crowd’s fears and emotions to gain favor, despite his or her hidden agenda
  • A husband or wife who hides an extramarital affair so that (s)he can string along both mate and lover
  • A manager or employee who distorts the truth, or purposefully spreads unconfirmed rumors and gossip to gain a strategic advantage

Each of these persons are using skills of emotional intelligence, albeit in a manipulative and deplorable way.

Of course, the best defense against being manipulated by those with high emotional intelligence is to work to increase your own. That way, you’ll have better chances of recognizing when others use fear, deceit, or other nefarious means to persuade and influence.

Remember This

Learning more about emotions and how they work is an important step. But emotional intelligence is about putting that knowledge to work, to increase your effectiveness and help you reach specific goals.

If you can truly hone that ability, it becomes a powerful tool. The question is, will you use that tool for good or for evil?

I hope we’ll be able to tell.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on