Intelligence Versus Emotions: Are You Too Smart for Your Own Good?

Managers and partners time and again tell me about employees and associates who are super intelligent and yet, are not candidates for promotion.   What’s holding them back? In every case, it boils down to communication issues. These folks always know the right answer, but they don’t know how to properly communicate it in a meeting with executives or other colleagues. Don’t let this happen to you. I present below some ways that we can help others and ourselves to communicate better.

When I give talks on emotional intelligence, I always get the following question:  “I have an employee who is brilliant, but I just can’t promote her.”   When I ask why I get a response that goes something like this: “She offends either management or her colleagues by blurting out the answer or stating the answer in a way that puts others down.” The universal concern is that the employee or associate is not aware of this behavior and how it affects others.   She often has been promoted in the past because of her intelligence. Yet, that intelligence alone is not enough to go higher up the corporate ladder or make partner.

I also hear repeatedly from people that their general counsel is not the smartest guy, but he knows how to handle people and motivate them to perform.   These general counsels have emotional intelligence and use it to their advantage. Learn how you can do the same.

This is not magic, but a skill that these general counsels and other top executives have learned and honed over the years.

Being Smart is Not Enough

What’s the point if you are smart but can’t communicate your knowledge effectively? We all must be able to work with people in a constructive manner to be successful. Being intelligent is necessary, but given that you have the requisite amount of intelligence to do a particular job, being more intelligent than others usually is not the key to promotion. The most important differentiator of people for promotion is emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman has done a lot of research on the importance of emotional intelligence in the corporate world. In his book, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters, he states:

“The higher the rank of the person considered to be a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities showed up as the reason for his or her effectiveness.” Daniel Goleman

I also experienced this phenomenon firsthand while managing lawyers at two federal agencies. Sometimes I would work with lawyers who always knew the right answer and who I could rely upon without question. When it came time to promote people, these same individuals were sometimes left behind just because some of them were not the most effective people to work with or worse yet, were annoying to others in the way they communicated. In every case, it was a communication issue.

I’m sure that you have seen it before. It’s that person that was in the front row in your college classes that was always raising their hand and waving it to answer the question and show how smart they are. It may work in college, but it’s super annoying in the business world. No one wants to work with this eager “know-it-all.” They may be able to work in the backroom, but they will not be promoted to a senior position.

Another way this often plays out is that the person will shout out the answer before anyone else has an opportunity to respond. He also frequently states the answer in a way that is demeaning of others or puts them down, although most times unintentionally. This often is done subtly, but it still happens.   His answer likely is correct, but it is communicated in an off-putting way.

Emotional Intelligence Skills Are Needed

These folks are not a lost cause. We can help them by strengthening their communication skills. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the key and it can be learned.

EI is a set of emotional and social skills that affect our thoughts, interactions, coping strategies, motivations, and general psychological well-being. It affects our behavior every second of our waking hours and also controls our relationships with our family, business associates, partners, and clients.

Like IQ, EI can be measured. The EQ-i 2,.0 is an assessment tool composed of 16 elements. Your score on the EQ-i relates to your potential for performance—it’s not a performance measure itself.

IQ is fixed at about age 17. So, we can acquire more knowledge by reading more books, but we will not improve our intelligence. On the other hand, EI can be trained (learned) and altered (increased or decreased) throughout the lifespan. This provides hope for those poor communicators.

We can help these super-smart people who should be promoted by helping them to recognize and appreciate their EI strengths and weaknesses. There is an assessment tool that will determine this person’s strengths and weaknesses and it only takes about 15 minutes to complete. The EQ-i 2.0 assessment tool plays an important role in helping our employees and associates become more self-aware of their communication issues. They receive a detailed report of their EI scores on all 16 elements and it is available almost instantaneously after taking the assessment.

I have found in my practice that it’s much easier for people to see their communication issues when it’s presented to them in a written report. If we just tell them about their behavior, it many times doesn’t sink in. With a typical client, I go over their scores and discuss their strengths and weaknesses as well as any surprises in the results. This gives us a starting point to discuss the elements that the person might benefit from increasing or decreasing, and how to go about doing that. I can then put together a strategy for enhancing their communication skills with goals for improvement.

It’s important to take an interest in your staff and show them that you care. Your employees and associates will better understand what is required to be promoted and how to go about strengthening those skills.

Emotional Intelligence Skills to Focus On

The emotional intelligence skills to focus on depends on the person and their strengths and weaknesses. However, here are some emotional intelligence skills that are key to effective communication:

  • Self Awareness–your feelings and emotions affect your decisions, relationships with others and job performance. Self-awareness requires a good understanding of your strengths and a recognition of your weaknesses. The EQ-i 2.0 assessment tool is a great vehicle to raise awareness.  Are you aware of how you’re feeling and how those emotions affect your decisions, analyses and interactions?
  • Impulse Control–managing your emotions and actions with others creates trust and a sense of fairness.  It is characterized by thoughtfulness and reflection. Super intelligent folks know the answer quickly and often blurt it out before anyone else has a chance to respond.   This behavior is self-defeating and annoying to others. Also, managers and partners cannot fly off the handle, get short or say something demeaning to their subordinates. We all get annoyed, but as the expression goes, “everything that comes up does not have to come out.” Keep your negative thoughts to yourself. Take the time to reflect and respond when you are less upset. Feedback is effective ONLY if it is communicated properly. Do you fly off the handle or act without vetting an issue fully?  Do you talk too much in meetings?  Do you always respond first?
  • Empathy—ability to appreciate another’s perspective and feelings. Empathy is important to making good decisions and making others feel appreciated and heard.   It also enables you to be more sensitive to other cultures and ethnicities. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and ask yourself “how would I feel if I was in her position?” If you can tune into the other person’s perspective, your communication will be much more effective.   Do you take time to get a sense of what the other person is feeling? Do you understand the business needs and constraints of your client?
  • Interpersonal Relationships--we all need to establish and manage relationships effectively.  This is important in our personal as well as our work lives.   Motivation and empathy are not very useful if you don’t have an opportunity to use it.   This is the skill where you learn to connect with people by showing compassion and genuine concern for their lives.   It’s all about creating a connection.  Do you take the time to get to know the folks that you work with and develop an interest in their lives?   Are you a loner or do other people come to you for advice and insight?   
  • Stress Tolerance–self-confidence that we can operate effectively under pressure and the ability to handle stressful situations.   This requires a balanced life and the ability to center ourselves through exercise, mediation, eating healthy or other techniques.   A balanced life is important to handle stress.   For a discussion of techniques for handling stress take a look at my prior article, Combatting Lawyer Burnout and Recharging Your Career   Do you get anxious when placed in a stressful situation?   Does the anxiety inhibit you from surgically addressing the issue and having a clear mind?   What are your “go-to” coping mechanisms?   Do you get short with others in stressful situations?

Be the Best You Can Be

Look at yourself and your staff honestly. If you or a member of your team is being held back because of poor communication skills, help them to become more self-aware and give them the tools to improve. It’s not enough to just criticize their behavior at an annual performance review. Instead, let’s all challenge ourselves and show that we care.

If you want more information on how to use your emotional intelligence skills to ahead and be more effective, please contact me.