by Steven Berglas
Albert Einstein once observed, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I think of this quote often when observing executives with a “little knowledge” of emotional intelligence (also called “EQ”).
Don’t get me wrong; the beneficial insights and managerial advances derived from research on emotional intelligence have been game changing. But appreciating a powerful concept is not the same as understanding it well enough to use it productively. Sometimes, “a little knowledge” about EQ abets the delusion that you know people better than you actually do.
Consider the case of Vernon (not his real name), whose modus operandi was to find a fault in a subordinate and then turn it into a clinical diagnosis. Detail-oriented people were labeled “OCD” while those whose attention wandered in dull meetings had “ADHD.” His “corrective feedback” thus rarely focused on behaviors, but instead came across as a personal attack, and his employees felt bullied – hence his referral to work with me.
While we were working together, one member of his group, James, missed several deadlines – and was often seen scooting out of the office at 4:45. Yet when asked to explain the missed deadlines, James explained that it was teammates who hadn’t held up their end of the bargain, causing his own work to be delayed.
Vernon, who considers himself an excellent judge of character, looked at this available evidence and vented to me that James had a “corner-cutting personality,” was “lazy” and “didn’t take responsibility.”
The problem? It’s not that Vernon isn’t a perceptive person with an intuitive understanding of people; indeed, he’s typically very insightful, and when he wants to be, he can be extremely charming. The problem is that he simply has no way to evaluate whether his analysis about James is accurate. All he can observe is James’s behaviors, not his intentions. (For instance, maybe James was leaving early to care for a sick relative; maybe he was signing on late at night, finishing his work remotely; maybe his coworkers really did torpedo his best efforts.)
Psychologists have long discussed a phenomenon known as “behavior engulfing the field” which describes how we infer that others’ actions reflect that person’s true “inner self,” belief system, and personality. Eg, when someone loses an important document, we say they’re disorganized. When they show up late, it’s because they’re inconsiderate. (Importantly, we give ourselves exceptions to this all the time – when we’re late, it’s because we got stuck in traffic.) Psychologist E. E. Jones did a series of studies in the 1960s to prove how robust this phenomenon is. In one study, a group of students read essays opposing the Fidel Castro and another group read essays endorsing him, and were asked to evaluate the opinions of the writers. Even when the researchers told the readers that the essay-writers had been assigned to take a pro or anti view, the readers still believed the students who wrote pro-Castro essays actually supported him.
So, knowing that we are all subject to such biases, how should Vernon respond to James? By embracing (and applying) one of psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung’s guiding principles: “Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”
If you feel that something is amiss in someone else’s actions, purge yourself of biases toward him or her prior to expressing what you think. Then, when giving your feedback, follow these two bits of advice to avoid letting a little knowledge of EQ cause you to do more harm than good:
And to really insure that you never use your little knowledge about EQ in a maladaptive way, take a page from comedian Dennis Miller’s book, Rants. In it, Miller tears apart everyone and everything that irks him, making his targets look like minced onions at a hamburger bar. Yet at the close of each rant Miller says, “Of course that is just my opinion…I could be wrong!”
With one simple phrase Miller captures a key to evincing EQ vis-à-vis others: Vulnerability. Recognizing the limits of your knowledge is a much safer strategy than letting the little you know lead you into danger