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May 12, 2014

Emotional intelligence: Needed or not?

Some self-awareness and empathy is essential for leaders

By Dave Crisp

In the evolving landscape around human resources,  it’s great to see progress on several fronts. Issues we’ve been talking about for years are finally beginning to take root more solidly, or so it would appear — analytics, emotional intelligence (EI) and collaboration to name a few.

At the same time it’s always good to step back and ask ourselves if we’re sure these are actually useful. Are there dangers as well as benefits?

2 dangers of any new strategy

There are two general dangers with any new strategies. First that the buzzwords will take root, but not a real understanding of the issues, so everyone will implement some imitation or an ineffective version of the concepts. The end result would be everyone coming to believe this was just a temporary bandwagon everyone jumped on, only to find it went nowhere.

Second it’s possible everyone will get so enamored with the ideas they will pursue them beyond common sense to the exclusion of other important issues, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

To get some idea of the spread of the conversations today around EI, it helps to take a look at how much is starting to percolate around us in casual vehicles — such as this blog post on If you click the embedded video, you not only get one idea, but at the end it offers up a dozen other clips from Youtube on the subject, some quite different. The range of jargon, interpretations and applications is very wide — from long term researcher Daniel Goleman to Harvard offering a 20-minute segment on how to learn body language to improve your EI skills.

We learn that a wide variety of activities — such as play as children, fencing and coping with hearing problems — all help build understanding of body language skills, which in turn allow us to read emotions such as whether someone will vote for a particular candidate or not. (Just a note, you can reset the page by refreshing it and then skip to the end of the embedded video to see what other clips it links to).

EI can be called on too often

Just as with analytics, EI can be called on too often. With analytics, a key danger is latching onto whatever we can measure whether it’s useful or not, which creates two problems — we waste time measuring meaningless stuff or we shy away from important areas because we can’t see ways to measure them. A subset of the first is measuring so many factors that individuals have no freedom to innovate because everything is dictated by numbers or the mass of data is just too confusing for anyone to make heads or tails of.

In some ways, an addiction to analytics might seem the polar opposite of emotional intelligence for some. Why bother trying to understand people when what we need to do is measure what they want and deliver that? Or, some might argue, analytics is the way toward emotional intelligence. If you haven’t got empathy, at least you could measure what others want and substitute that information for attempting to figure out their preferences for yourself.

The bottom line, as these LinkedIn writers assert, it isn’t one or the other, but whatever it takes to get good, reflective leaders in place to dig out and use effectively whatever information is available. At some point information or analytics simply isn’t enough. Some self-knowledge, empathy, ability to reflect and anticipating others’ needs is essential. Guesses have to be made and they are far better made by human beings with these skills than without. Is there a danger we’ll emphasize that too much? Always, as with any one view of what leaders need to focus on.

Balance is critical, but for now EI seems to be the element in greatest demand because so little has been visible among the majority of senior leaders in the past.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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