It is completely possible to fake emotional intelligence. Similar to fake accessories, emotions and actions can also be faked to look like the real thing but really aren’t. With the best of intentions, we can see smart leaders charge into sensitive interactions armed with what they believe a combination of deep empathy, attuned listening, and self-awareness but in real is a way to serve their own emotional needs. It is essential to learn to spot these forgeries, especially if you are the one forging it.
Research has in fact led to the documentation of manipulative misuses of emotional intelligence — the intentionally subtle regulating of one’s emotions to engineer responses from others that might not be in their best interest. Since most people are not sociopaths, the more common misuses of emotional intelligence are in fact subconscious in order to safeguard against inadvertently falling prey to them, we need deeper levels of self-examination. Here are three of the more common counterfeits that are seen snaring well-intended leaders.
Being the hero
Empathy is one of the key components of emotional intelligence. The capacity to understand and share others’ emotions creates genuine connection and deepens trust. But a leader’s genuine desire to demonstrate care can transcend healthy boundaries in unintended ways. An example being an officer who handled a potentially volatile conversation. The goal of the conversation was to agree on how he would get the project back on track. When asked how it went, he responded with exuberant relief, “Better than I could have expected.” He went on to explain he was sure to start with empathy, and when time was right, they moved into problem solving.
Over the next two hours, the conversation revealed his need to feel indispensable completely overshadowed what he actually needed: accountability, coaching, and guidance. He felt the conversation had gone well because he felt needed. The senior thought it went great because he was no longer on the hook alone. At first, he defended his intention of being a caring and compassionate leader. But eventually he was able to see that when his expression of care turned to rescue from a difficult situation, it stopped being compassionate, and became selfish. When a leader indulges a codependent need to feel central to another person’s success, it takes away the other person’s power, making them weaker instead.
When expressing empathy for those you lead, pay attention to any need you might have to be the hero. Compassionate understanding for the challenges of others is emotionally intelligent. Rescuing them from the consequences of those challenges may be more cruel than kind.
Masquerade as an active listener.
A fundamental social skill of emotional intelligence is being an effective listener. Being attuned to the spoken and unspoken concerns of others shows a willingness to engage ideas different from ours. Most leaders believe they listen to dissenting ideas, and are willing to have their minds changed when stronger beliefs and facts are presented. But many would also admit, if they were being honest, that letting go of being right is painful.
But unaware of the tension between a genuine desire to take in others’ views and a need to be right, leaders can feign listening while actually trying to lure others to their side without realizing they’re doing it. Trying to sound conciliatory and open-minded, each would attempt to “summarize” the other’s views with statements like, “So what I hear you saying is the only way you’ll agree to those quotas is if….” and “I’m really trying to understand your view on this, given that last month you seemed to be more aligned with….” and “I sense that you’re really frustrated right now, and I’d love to find a solution that can work for both of us, if we could just agree that…” Both believed they were genuinely interested in finding a mutually acceptable compromise. But nobody in the room saw it that way and neither of them believed it about the other. If you have strong views or a critical agenda, own it. It doesn’t mean you don’t care what others think. People are more likely to believe you’re open to hearing their ideas if they feel you’ve been straightforward about where you stand on yours.
A need for approval dressed up as self-awareness.
Self aware leaders detect how others experience them. They solicit critical feedback from others, and accurately acknowledge their strengths and shortfalls. But i fueled by an desire for approval, self-awareness can warp into self-involvement. One executive, who prided himself on his astute self-awareness, regularly asked his team for feedback, believing he really wanted it (and on some level, he probably did). But what they saw was a neurotic plea for affirmation. In a diagnostic interview, one direct-report said, “Every time he asks how I’m doing, we all know the best thing to do is just say ‘Great,’ so we can get on with our day.” Every leader is insecure about something. Genuinely self-aware leaders face that insecurity head on, and don’t put the burden of soothing it on others.
Our ability to express emotional intelligence is sometimes impaired by unacknowledged, unhealthy, emotional needs. If you want to genuinely employ effective emotional intelligence skills, pay attention to the unaddressed scars and voids lurking beneath the surface of your inner emotional landscape. Tend to those honestly and carefully, and you’ll better be able to maintain credibility and strong relationships with others.