The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

By Nora Infante, PSYD

As a psychologist and executive coach,  I am as interested in what makes a leader fail as what makes her succeed.  There has been a lot of attention recently on emotional intelligence, not just in the field of leadership, but about life skills in general. Emotional intelligence is credited with better job performance, improved relationships, better overall health, and general life satisfaction.  I spend a lot of time discussing emotional intelligence with executives and so I am passionate about this concept.  Improving one’s emotional intelligence (self-awareness, emotional control, empathy, motivation and social skills) is seen as being one of the most critical factors that if a leader gets right, they will be much more effective listeners, communicators, better decision-makers and more inspiring in the organization.

Recently, I performed an organizational audit where the term “emotional intelligence” was the phrase that surfaced more than any other to describe the capabilities necessary for a leader to succeed.  In some ways, it has become a catch-all phrase for all the good behaviors a leader should demonstrate in order to guarantee positive team and organizational impact.

But what if emotional intelligence is not always an agent of positive impact?  This idea is particularly intriguing to me, as we have all known successful and powerful leaders who are not well-intended.  They have a self-serving agenda and don’t particularly care about the common good.  Yet they create followership and motivate people to support them and work hard blindly.  In the more extreme cases I call this “dark leadership.”   Leaders, as all humans, have a dark side, and in certain circumstances, emotional intelligence can become embroiled in the machinations of what the psychiatrist Carl Jung termed “the shadow” (the dark, and often hidden, side of our personality that is often involved in thoughts and behaviors related to insecurity and feelings of inferiority).

There are studies linking narcissism and the master manipulation of people through deft uses of emotional intelligence.   It appears there is a fine line between understanding people and using them.  It is true that employees who feel appreciated and liked by their boss develop stronger loyalty and willingness to do what is asked of them.  When teaching leaders how to become more emotionally intelligent in order to be more effective in their roles, having them put themselves in the shoes of others and paying closer attention to the impact of their communication style, is par for the course.

But, suppose for a moment, that our leader is looking to serve her own agenda, looking to advance her own cause.  These skills can be quite usefully and convincingly used to meet that goal. Those who are prone to manipulating others, are better at reading the needs, the wishes, the emotions of others.  And unfortunately, there seems to be a link between exploitation and emotional recognition.

A leader using emotional intelligence for self-serving purposes is likely to focus and rally emotion on strategically important targets (his subordinates, rivals, supervisors) and deliberately work to distort, block or amplify rumors, gossip and other types of emotion-laden information.

The easiest best way to “vet” a leader’s authentic emotional intelligence is to measure consistency of certain qualities across all domains (work and personal life), not just during particular situations or opportunities.  Emotionally intelligent leaders consistently:

1) do not blame others

2) do not become excessively emotional

3) do not hide feelings of vulnerability out of fear of what others may think

4) acknowledge their feelings and normalize them for everyone

5) go out of their way to create opportunities for others to succeed, and, genuinely derive pleasure from others’ success.


To make things even more complicated, ironically, some studies have shown that people with high emotional intelligence scores can be more gullible to having empathic responses to situations where they are being duped.  Emotionally intelligent people can develop overconfidence in their ability to know and understand people.

Here, I aim to introduce a healthy skepticism into what is quickly becoming a significant influencer in how individuals are assessed and developed.  I have enough conviction and passion for the concept of emotional intelligence to want to understand its many facets.   Given that it is entirely a human concept and construct about human behavior, it will likely encompass an inherently “shadow” side.  Anytime a leader is searching to improve his or her way of being with others, it is important to keep ones eyes and mind open when it comes to any one concept or theory or practice that promises a solution to the complexity of human behavior.



For help in deciphering heathly vs. “dark side” emotional intelligence, consult with Nora.