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Is there a dark side to emotional intelligence?


Can too much emotional intelligence be a bad thing?

If you’re interested in finding out more and also how to measure and increase the EQ levels in yourself and colleagues this article takes about two minutes to read.
Do people with higher EQ levels have heightened levels of stress?

In a recent study psychologists Myriam Bechtoldt and Vanessa Schneider asked 166 university students a series of questions to measure their level of EQ.  In particular they measured the ability to recognise subtle emotional signals   sent by other people (one of the core aspects of EQ).
For example, they showed photographs of people's faces and asked them to what extent feelings such as happiness or fear were being expressed. The students were then asked to give job talks in front of people displaying stern facial expressions.
The scientists measured concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in the students' saliva before and after the talk.  They found that those students with a high level of ability to pick up subtle facial cues actually experienced greater spikes in cortisol and experienced those spikes for a longer period than students with lower abilities in this area.

So is ignorance bliss? 

Is it useful to be poor at picking up facial signals rather than have a heightened ability? 

The most widely accepted definition of EQ was developed by two researchers, Peter Salavoy and John Mayer, and popularised by Dan Goleman in his 1996 book.
They define EQ as the ability to observe emotions, both in others and ourselves and use that information in order to enhance our cognitive abilities. 
The ability to do this is neatly explained by their RUUM model and enhanced abilities in these areas have a clear positive impact in the workplace:
R - Recognise emotions – be able to anticipate the social signals being sent by clients and colleagues.  This helps us share information effectively and for example we are more likely to satisfy expectations and upsell to customers.
U - Use emotions – be able to generate new emotions, which are relevant to the task at hand.  This is an essential skill when handling heightened workloads or dealing with challenging customers, suppliers or colleagues. Being able to use emotions also includes the ability to describe what an emotion feels like (which is a key part of recognising our own emotions and being able to imagine what another persons emotions might feel like – a cornerstone of empathy)
U - Understand emotions – if we know why emotions arise and what actions people are most likely to take, we are well placed to manage teams and anticipate customer requirements and time lines.
M - Manage emotions – emotions provide information about whether our own goals or other people’s goals have been obstructed or satisfied.  Knowing how to use this information and apply useful strategies to embed the learning helps us grow and develop resilience
Each of us has a different ability in each of these areas.  Knowledge of our unique profile enables us to introduce evidenced based techniques, which, with practice, will improve our ability in each area. Mayers, Salovey and Caruso went on to develop an emotional intelligence ability test called MSCEIT, which aims to measure these four key areas.  It is widely used as a tool for developing EQ in individuals and teams.
There is however a schism in the world of emotional intelligence.  The model described above is a based on the premise that EQ is an ability whereas there are other self reports measurement tools which are trait based.
Trait measures include a large array of non-cognitive abilities related to success, such as self-control. Items on such measures ask individuals to rate themselves on statements such as: 'I generally know what other people are feeling.'   There are many drawbacks to a self-report approach . The greatest criticism of these measures are that they are open to easy manipulation by the person taking the test and also that in reality they are little more than a measure of personality rather than EQ.

But does a heightened EQ ability lead to greater stress? 

The German study, which suggests heightened stress levels for people with higher EQ levels, uses MSCEIT. 
On closer examination of the study they find that although there is a correlation between elevated stress and the ability to observe and judge facial expressions, this is just one aspect of EQ.  There was less of a relationship between a high score in each of the other three areas (using, understanding and managing emotions) and stress. Indeed the research suggests that having higher scores in the other areas may protect us from the potential adverse impact of being highly attuned to other people’s emotions.  This was not made clear in the journal and is an area for further research.
When I give MSCEIT feedbacks, in coaching sessions, I often emphasise that if people have a heightened ability to pick up facial signals, but lack the ability to generate new emotions, understand why emotions arise or manage those emotions, this can often lead to stress.  The journal article and subsequent press reports failed to make clear that if one has a good ability to observe and judge facial expressions, which is a coupled with heightened skills in understanding, using and managing emotions, that this protects us from stress.
The study was also unclear as to how much elevated stress was generated by the people with heightened abilities to pick up facial signals .  Clearly not all stress is bad. Stress hormones help us sharpen attention to the task at hand. There is no discussion in the study about the potential positive benefits of slightly elevated stress levels on workplace performance.


The real conclusion from this study is not that elevated EQ levels lead to heightened stress but it is a clear indication of the usefulness of knowing ones own unique EQ profile.  For example once we may be aware that we are susceptible to picking up other peoples emotions, partly because of our enhanced ability to recognise subtle facial cues, then we can work to develop greater skills  of resilience.  For example we can learn to re frame situations and learn techniques to occasionally close down to emotional signals in our environment.
MSCEIT provides a powerful tool for raising self-awareness about how we may be in the world and how we interact with loved ones and colleagues.  It is not a measure of social intelligence, likability or even our ability to perform at a high level in an organisation.
Unlike some team development tests, which measure personality, the results are not sugar coated.  Useful tests such as DISC and Myers Briggs provide all participants with an uplifting story of who they may be in the world.  MSCEIT provides people with an understanding of their underlying emotional framework.  Once we have this knowledge we can introduce evidenced based techniques, which enable us to increase our abilities to recognise, use, understand and mange our emotions . 
This German study indicates the need to balance our abilities in each of these four areas.  The overall EQ level is not as important to a persons efficiency at work, ability to handles stress or share information with colleagues as the underlying profile.  What is most important is how our unique profile informs how we think and behave.  Effective coaching brings these four areas into balance and raises our overall level of EQ
Over the last three years I have used MSCEIT testing and coaching at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, PwC, The Australian Pork Association, The Bank of Queensland and many smaller organisations.
To take the test or find out about how your team can take the test go to MSCEIT test, reports and coaching 
Stress predicted by higher EQ levels
Predicting stress from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings: Emotional intelligence and testosterone jointly predict cortisol reactivity.
Bechtoldt, Myriam N.; Schneider, Vanessa K.
Emotion, Vol 16(6), Sep 2016, 815-825.