HR Insights, Leadership

Cool It With Cunning – It’s Emotional Intelligence That Drives Good Leaders

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I used to work with a woman I am honest-to-God convinced is evil.

I know that some people are uncomfortable with words like “good,” “bad,” “wrong,” and “evil,” but this executive did evil things, such as lie with the intent to harm, manipulate, backstab, betray, spread malicious gossip, bully, and so on and so forth.

So, sue me if you don’t like my assessment.

Now this woman was what I’d call cunning, but she wasn’t particularly smart. She also lacked emotional intelligence (EI), although casual observers are sometimes fooled into thinking that the ability to be slick or sly is the same as being smart about people.

Not exactly. And, since EI (real EI) is so vital to good leadership, it’s important to know and detect the difference.

Emotional intelligence in a nutshell: EI is the ability to accurately perceive how your actions and words are affecting others. It’s also the ability to understand and manage your own emotions. (Now how quick and dirty was that?)

Cunning vs. emotional intelligence

My experience is that many cunning leaders, who’ve apparently obtained their positions by hook and crook rather than hard work and tangible accomplishments, are good at conning people and identifying vulnerable targets to manipulate.

Still, they don’t really “get” people. In fact, they tend to be rather oblivious to what others are thinking and feeling, despite all the signals these parties may be sending.

And, even when it’s abundantly clear that the individual with whom the low EI leader is interacting would rather be somewhere else (anywhere else, please!), those with low EI will ignore the other’s distress and continue talking until it satisfies them to stop. Perhaps this is because those with low levels of EI can be remarkably self-absorbed and lacking in empathy. And empathy is intrinsically tied to EI.

What it all means to you

To repeat, real EI is vital to good leadership. So whether you’re hiring a manager or interviewing with a manager to whom you’ll report, distinguishing the fakers from the real deal is vital.

How do you do that? Good question.

An article published on TLNT last year describes five ways to spot an emotionally intelligent leader. You could read the article (in fact, I recommend you do) and learn from it.

You could also test applicants (but not your future boss, alas) for emotional intelligence — but don’t be surprised if most don’t do so well.

David Caruso, Ph.D, who assisted in the development of an EI test at the Yale School of Management, put it this way:

This makes a lot of sense … someone may think they can read people really well, but if you cannot read signals you don’t get feedback that your ability to read others is faulty.”

In other words, it takes one to know one.

So, if you want to work with people with higher levels of EI, the first thing to do is increase your own level.

The good news

Most everyone agrees that it’s entirely possible to do this. An article in Psychology Today lists 10 ways to enhance EI, including listening to your body, writing down thoughts and feelings, connecting your feelings to your thoughts, and not judging or editing your thoughts too quickly.

Don’t hesitate to ask those around you what they think about your skills, either. While presenting yourself as willing to be criticized takes some bravery, the response can’t be anything but eye-opening.

Finally, whenever you’re interviewing — whether that be with your next subordinate or your next boss — put your preconceived notions aside and don’t be so willing to be taken in by what sounds good. Ask pointed, clarifying questions that get at the heart of what an individual has done, how he’s done it, and how he feels about the people he’s done it with.

It’s true. Anyone who wants a higher level of EI can achieve it.

Except for that woman I used to work with that I mentioned earlier. I’m pretty sure she’s hopeless.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.