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Can people with high emotional intelligence still be assholes?

Here’s a question that comes up way too often. Before I state the question let me set the context. 

Do you believe the leaders at your organization are good and positive people? Can you talk with your team and feel there is mutual respect? Have you ever been bullied by a brilliant boss?  

Now the question: Can people with high emotional intelligence still be assholes?  

Who better to pose the question to than Dr. Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University? He’s the author of the best seller “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. 

The book has,” he said as we started our discussion, “never gone out of style, since bullying behavior in the workplace worsens morale and productivity.” 

Bob’s endorsement of my book “Don’t Bring It To Work” means a lot to me. However, I told him I was initially resistant to having the word asshole right smack on the front cover of my book.  

He smiled and said, “Look, there’s such an emotional reaction to the word asshole that I’d rather be straight out offensive than ignored.” 

Sutton is NOT a man to be ignored. 

Vivacious, fun, and creative he can go full speed in many directions at once. 

What fascinated me was our discussion concerning the dark side of emotional intelligence.  

Sutton pointed out that E.I. is an important aspect of leadership development. Yet, like everything else in life, the bright side of being aware of your emotions, communicating effectively, aligning with others to help them through their doubt and overwhelm, while important, comes with its shadows. 

“Smart people with keen intelligence can also be brilliant manipulators. They have the language down pat, all the words that touch the emotions, they know how to play the game of ‘good and caring’ except they can truly be, well…. Assholes. This is far too common in the workplace and suddenly, you trusted too much and projects, possibilities, begin to unravel.” Instead, I would like you to be a positive force in the workplace.

Understanding and being able to call out the devious aspects of very smart people can save you lots of angst when hiring, promoting, and developing leadership talent. 

Look, we all have a dark side.  

However, most of us also have a conscience that keeps us from manipulating others and keeps us from standing on their backs to get ahead. 

Yet, you must be prepared to call out those who take advantage before the house of cards falls on you.

Here’s what to look for: 

  • Charm and charisma: these emotional vipers have great verbal skills, with an uncanny ability to find your ego needs and fan the flames of how wonderful you are and how they can help you. 
  • Blazing hot connections: they know ‘all the right people’ they can introduce you to. 
  • Empathy: they understand you, show great compassion, and know what you are feeling and how to help. 
  • Overpromise: paint an appealing picture of how the future will be great as you bond with them. 
  • Underdeliver: easily point finger of blame at others when situation turns sour. 

For your own success, learning to spot those who use emotional intelligence to manipulate is vital. Don’t be swayed by the good-looking, smooth talkers no matter how sparkling they first appear. They often are the biggest assholes you will ever meet. 

Keep this as your mantra “If it seems to be too good to be true, it usually is.” 

Dr Sutton, a pragmatist at heart added, “Some things can look mighty good. But, don’t get trapped into their promises of magic. It’s hard work and integrity that count.”