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Why Having "Social Skills" Doesn't Make You a Better Manager

The concept of emotional intelligence-and whether women have more of it than men, and whether that makes them better leaders-has stirred up quite a debate on this blog lately. Now we've got some research from The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the University of Amsterdam that addresses the question behind much of the discussion: What's the relationship, if any, between emotional intelligence and character? Does having social skills mean you're a kinder, gentler manager--or more effective one?

Do Nasty, Mean Bosses Have Emotional Intelligence?

Unlike some early work that associated emotional intelligence with good character, this newer study builds on work that finds that bullies, for example, can be highly emotionally intelligent. How else would bullies figure out who to pick on and make their lives so miserable?

The researchers found that so-called emotional intelligence only serves to amplify or dampen the tendencies someone already has. All the emotional intelligence in the world is not going to make a nasty person suddenly become the social lubricant that makes everyone else function better.

  • In one test, researchers asked people to answer questions designed to see how strong their 'moral identity' was, or how strongly they identified themselves as a moral or ethical person. Those with a stronger moral identity did act more altruistically than others, but those who were the most altruistic were those who had both a strong moral identity and were best able to modify their emotions to suit the situation. That ability is a hallmark of emotional intelligence.
  • In the second test, the researchers asked questions designed to determine how conniving or manipulative someone was. For instance, participants were asked if they agreed with the following statement: "Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble." They then were asked if they'd ever done things like embarrassing someone at work. As you might expect, those who described themselves as more Machiavellian were most likely to have committed antisocial behavior. But the worst offenders were those who were both Machiavellian and who had the best ability to manipulate their emotions.
So is this the final word?

The academic literature on this subject has been all over the place. One study I previously wrote about found that the intelligence of team members didn't have that much to do with performance, and that instead, teams needed people with better social skills. Another found that leaders who perceived themselves as powerful tended to have poor social skills, and that their teams suffered for it. In the first case, the researchers found that teams with more women tended to perform better, and argued that more women--who are often thought to have better social skills than men--should be put on teams that weren't working well together.

If only it were so simple. Obviously, women can be just as nasty and uncooperative as men. "The most bullying co-workers I have ever encountered have been women," wrote BNET commenter CBSky. And someone with great social skills who isn't interested in making a contribution isn't likely to be of much help in team-building.

After reading all these studies, I can't help but think that emotional intelligence is sort of like beer. A mean person doesn't become nice when they have too much to drink. They just become a mean drunk. In the grand scheme of things, I wonder how much use emotional intelligence really is in a workplace setting. If women have more emotional intelligence than men, it might only matter if women are also nicer than men. Such an imbalance seems pretty unlikely, to say the least. But would you be better off working with someone who's extremely pleasant but might have ulterior motives, or with someone who's obnoxious but has a good heart?


Image courtesy flickr user Pink Sherbert Photography
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at
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