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Niceness or Emotional Intelligence?

People still mistake emotional intelligence for passivity or “niceness.”

By  Por Daniel Goleman*
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Photos: Shutterstock

 

In the 25 years since my book, Emotional Intelligence, was first published, one of the most persistent errors people have made about the central concept is that emotional intelligence amounts to the same thing as being “nice.” It doesn’t and this misunderstanding can get people into trouble.

The first thing that often comes to mind when someone says a colleague is nice is that they’re pleasant to work with. But this attitude can obscure more subtle issues. Take, for example, the question of to whom the person is being nice. I think of a manager I knew who was charming, polite, and very willing to please — at least when it came to clients and her boss. She was undeniably nice to them. But when I spoke to people who had worked for her, I found that she had created a toxic workplace for her direct reports. She was hypercritical, aloof, and abrasive. All of these relationships are relevant when it comes to developing your emotional intelligence.

On the flip side, especially in some competitive business contexts, I also see “niceness” interpreted as a sign that someone tries to avoid confrontation and is thus easily manipulated. Why would you want to work on building emotional intelligence if it just means that people are going to walk all over you? Or, if you’re responsible for human resources development, why would you want to create a company of “nice” folks? Don’t you want to create a company of people who are “strong”?

In fact, being skilled in each of the four components of emotional intelligence allows you to have a confrontation when you need to, and do it more strategically and productively. As I’ve written elsewhere, the components of emotional intelligence are:

• Self-awareness

• Self-management

• Social awareness

• Relationship management

You’ll notice that none of these is aligned with “niceness.”

How do these concepts apply to handling a confrontation? If you’re worried about being walked all over, you might tend to err in the other direction, venting your anger at the people involved and exacerbating the situation. If you are truly conflict-averse, you might avoid confrontation altogether. Emotional intelligence provides a middle way between these extremes. Strong self-awareness and self-management would allow you to control your initial angry impulses or any anxiety you might have around a difficult conversation. 

A highly developed sense of empathy — which is a part of social awareness — would allow you to see the situation from the other person’s point of view, so that you could present your argument to them in a way that makes them feel heard, or that speaks to their own interests. And handling conflict is an important part of relationship management. You say what you have to say, clearly and strongly, and in a way that the other person can actually hear.

Take, for example, the founder and CEO of a company I know. He has always avoided conflict, and it had become a particular problem for his company because he avoided telling employees when they needed to work harder. It got so bad that his better workers were calling him to complain that the negligent ones were keeping them from doing their own jobs.

 The CEO began working with a coach, who helped him speak to the laggards and tell them clearly what he expected of them — without threatening or blaming, but also without passivity. To his surprise, the conversations went smoothly and the neglectful workers started pulling their own weight.

This is a common story. I’ve seen many people develop their ability to manage confrontations strategically in this way. This is emotional intelligence at its best, and I don’t want people to miss out on its benefits because they dismiss it as a form of passivity.

It is also possible, however, for people who display certain kinds of emotional intelligence to be overly strategic in their approach. (This disadvantage tends to get obscured if you think of it as merely being “nice.”) 

That’s because having strong emotional intelligence means that, to some degree, you have the ability to manage the emotions of those around you as well as your own. This can quickly become problematic.

Take empathy

There are three different kinds of empathy, each of which resides in a different part of the brain:

• Cognitive: I know how you think.

• Emotional: I know how you feel.

• Empathetic Concern: I care about you.

Let’s say you’re really good at the first two of these, but not the third. Alone, they can easily be used to manipulate people. We see this in many overachieving bosses in command-and-control cultures: they tend to be pacesetters who are often promoted because they have very high personal standards of excellence. 

They are great at pushing people to meet short-term targets — they communicate well because of their cognitive empathy, and know their words will carry weight with their employees because of their emotional empathy — but because they lack empathetic concern, they don’t care what the costs are to the people involved. In addition to being morally wrong, this can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

One CFO at a health care system, for example, was fixated on the organization’s bottom line. In order to increase profits, he used what he knew about the top management team to convince them to raise the number of patients each physician was required to see in a given period. He was not concerned about the emotional cost and physical toll this took on his physicians. 

Eventually, amid signs of depression and anxiety among the medical staff as well as a high turnover rate, an executive coach pointed out how badly the CFO needed to boost his empathetic engagement. It turned out that he was already adept at displaying empathetic concern for family and friends, but he had not demonstrated it at the office. Under the coach’s guidance, he was able to adapt this skill for application to a high-intensity workplace. He began listening to the complaints of his medical staff and collaborating with them to identify a more humane workload.

Leaders who deliberately develop their emotional intelligence will be more attuned to all aspects of empathy as well as all four components of emotional intelligence in every relationship they encounter. Believing that emotional intelligence simply means being “nice” obscures what makes this framework so useful — and prevents leaders from having powerful, productive conversations that increase their ability to influence and lead in all their relationships.

*Daniel Goleman, best known for his writing on emotional intelligence, is co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University.