Emotional Intelligence Has a Dark Side. And That’s Exactly Why You Need It

“The power to do good is also the power to do harm.” –Milton Friedman


If you follow my column, you know I’m a fan of developing emotional intelligence.Put simply, emotional intelligence (EI) is a person’s ability to recognize and understand emotions (both his or her own and that of others), and use that information to guide decision making.

I’ve discussed everything from why developing emotional intelligence is so challenging, to how to use emotional intelligence when quitting your job…even three questions that will immediately increase your emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). (I even had one “case study” analyzing EQ in the real world go viral a few months ago.)

But recently, many have been asking me the same question, namely:

If emotional intelligence is so great, why do we see many “successful” people who seem to lack this quality?

The truth is, not everyone who is “successful” at reaching their goals has high EQ; there are countless other factors at play. But while the answer to this question is complex, one aspect might surprise you:

Emotional intelligence can easily be used for “evil”.

The Dark Side

For example, take a moment to 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 examples requires using a certain degree of EQ, albeit in a manipulative and deplorable way.

The truth is, emotional intelligence is a lot like “normal” intelligence, or any other ability for that matter: You can hone your skills and use them for either good orevil. Much like someone with a brilliant mind could become a lifesaving surgeon or a serial killer, one with superior EQ has a choice between two very different paths.

For example, Andrew Giambrone of The Atlantic shared research from one group of Austrian psychologists who reported “a correlation between EI and narcissism, raising the possibility that narcissists with high EI might use their ‘charming, interesting, and even seductive’ qualities for ‘malicious purposes,’ such as deceiving others. Similarly, a 2014 study linked ‘narcissistic exploitativeness’ with ’emotion recognition’–those who were prone to manipulating others were better at reading them.”

Scary, right? It gets worse.

Organizational psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant identified EQ at its worst in his essay, The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence:

“Recognizing the power of emotions…one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century spent years studying the emotional effects of his body language. Practicing his hand gestures and analyzing images of his movements allowed him to become ‘an absolutely spellbinding public speaker,’ says the historian Roger Moorhouse–‘it was something he worked very hard on.’

His name was Adolf Hitler.”

As Grant points out, the unbridled enthusiasm for emotional intelligence has obscured a side we often don’t think about.

“New evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others,” says Grant. “When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests.”

Grant also highlights research by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges. Menges’s studies document that audiences were “less likely to scrutinize” a leader’s message when he or she gave “an inspiring speech filled with emotion”.

Ironically, although audience members claimed to recall more content from the speech than they would typically, they actually remembered less.

Why Emotional Intelligence Is More Important than Ever

So, with all of these potentially dreadful uses of emotional intelligence, does that mean you shouldn’t try to develop yours?

To the contrary, this is all the more reason to work towards heightening your EQ.

Used ethically, emotional intelligence can help gain advantage for both you andthose you are dealing with. Even more importantly, though, if someone attempts to use emotional intelligence for nefarious purposes, EQ can help you identify this–and take appropriate action to counter.

Of course, being careful doesn’t mean you need to be overly suspicious…or constantly impute wrong motives to others. (Emotional intelligence is a useful skill, but it’s not mind reading.)

But high EQ will help you gain more control in a situation, so that you aren’t easily duped or taken advantage of.

Putting It Into Practice

There’s no denying it: Emotions are powerful.

Being mindful of this allows you to use emotions for you, instead of against you. However, like any skill, people will use emotional intelligence for both honorable and devious purposes.

How will you use this remarkable ability?

I’m hoping I’ll be able to tell.


As an author and one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices, I share my thoughts on business and management best practices weekly. My first book, The Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence (working title), is scheduled for release late this summer, 2016.

If you’re interested in free updates regarding the book’s progress or would like to follow my column, subscribe to my free monthly newsletter by clicking here or contact me via email using jbariso[at]insight-global.de. (You can also reach out here on LinkedIn or via Twitter: @JustinJBariso.) 

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