Emotional intelligence (EI) is a controversial topic. There are human resource professionals that swear by Daniel Goleman’s seminal book, Emotional Intelligence, and believe it to be the best indicator of success. Others are unconvinced, viewing instead that the concept is mysticism and overhype. Where then does the truth lie?

Daniel Goleman’s book became particularly important in the years following its release in 1995 because it focused upon several poorly understood aspects of soft skills and professional development, such as personality and character. Because of this influence, emotional intelligence is often viewed as an important part of working in the modern world. It is important to understand that emotional intelligence is not itself a trait, and is instead the combination of several skills and traits.

The mixed model of emotional intelligence is comprised of five parts. These five were introduced in Goleman’s follow-up 1998 article “What Makes a Leader” for the Harvard Business Review:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skill

It is my belief that the most important aspect of emotional intelligence is empathy, which is the ability to relate and attempt to understand how actions and events might make others feel. Furthermore, I assert that this capacity to identify emotions and use that information to guide our actions is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

The traits and qualities that comprise emotional intelligence are neither inherently good nor bad, and rely entirely upon the intentions of the individual using them.

Adam Grant, in his article “The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence”, extrapolates this dilemma.

He writes, “If we can cultivate emotional intelligence among leaders and doctors, we’ll have more caring workplaces and more compassionate healthcare. As a result, emotional intelligence is now taught widely in secondary schools, business schools, and medical schools.”

Grant continues, “Emotional intelligence is important, but the unbridled enthusiasm has obscured a dark side.”

He goes on to suggest that cultivating emotional skill grants you the ability to more easily manipulate others. Grant’s line of thought is that the more self-aware and capable you are of masking your own emotions, the better you then become at manipulating the emotions of others.

Ultimately this goes to show that emotional intelligence is not as simple as it might otherwise be portrayed. The subject is nuanced and can benefit those with both honorable or unethical intentions. In all the talk about emotional intelligence, it can become homogenized as the most important factor of success. I believe that it is a mistake to view emotional intelligence in this manner, because emotional intelligence is only a label that describes a set of behaviors and skills that can contribute to the development of a well-rounded individual.

Do you utilize emotional intelligence primarily as a tool to manipulate others, or do you practice it to understand and help others grow? From this perspective, it becomes clear that the power of emotional intelligence is in the eyes of the beholder. The skills and traits that encompass emotional intelligence are as they have always been: only as good as the person using them.