How to Deal With A Boss With Zero Emotional Intelligence

To work well with people with low Emotional Intelligence, you need to learn how to communicate differently. Here's how to make sure they get it.

You might already know that your emotional intelligence can influence your job success. But what about your callously oblivious boss or your ambiguously rigid colleagues?

Boosting your emotional intelligence might mean you are better at your job—but what can you do if your boss or colleagues don't exhibit anything close to emotional intelligence?

The good news is, the situations more hopeful than you think. The bad news is, you might have to have a difficult conversation. But don't worry, we've got you covered.

What emotional intelligence really is

When you say that your boss has low EI, it could mean several things: that she's unconsciously cruel, she's naively stoked about everything, or she doesn't know what her team needs to do their best work.

As University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist Sigal Barsade told us, emotional intelligence is thought of in two ways: the mixed model, a holistic approach espoused by EI superstar Daniel Goleman, and the ability model, in which particular emotional competencies are identified. According to the ability model, emotions (and emotional intelligence) help you to make sense of the world.

To that end, someone solid in EI will have four basic skill sets:

  • They can accurately read their own emotions: they can perceive the emotions with their and others experiences
  • They can use emotion to facilitate thinking: if they need quiet to focus, they put themselves in a quiet place
  • They understand how emotions progress: they know how irritation leads to frustration, frustration leads to rage
  • They can regulate their emotions: they don't suppress their emotions, but they don't become overwhelmed, either

But emotional intelligence isn't goodness

While Martin Luther King demonstrated tremendous EI through the resonance of his speeches, so did Adolf Hitler. It isn't so much about being virtuous: it's more about being able to understand your and others' interior lives and how your actions and environments affect them. To work well with people with low EI, then, you need to accommodate that misapprehension.

"Emotions are information," Barsade says. "In essence, people who are low in EI are lacking the ability to take in, understand, or process a really critical part of the way that we communicate in the world. If they can't read your emotions, they won't be getting all the info you're naturally sending them."

We tend to vilify people with low EI, she continued, but that doesn't make much sense: it's faulting them for a skill set that they don't have.

"They're missing this information," she says, "so you have to clarify."

Gaining clarity

Clarity comes in several flavors.

Let's take the case of sarcasm: if you'd usually use sarcasm to show that what you're saying is different than what you feel, you might want to speak a little more directly, Barsade says. Since they're not going to pick up on the sarcasm, you have to spell it out for them.

Similarly, you can take advantage of behavioral mimicry, the phenomenon where the person you're talking with takes on your tone and body language. So if your boss is super stoked about an idea you think is terrible, don't dump a bucket of water on him—just maintain a calm demeanor and he'll calm down, too.

The last suggestion might be the toughest: giving feedback, whether in real time or as a follow-up. To give a constructive critique, you'll need to sharpen your conversation skills.

How to do the sensitive, information-giving conversation

Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence and a consultant to companies like Burberry, American Airlines, and Verizon, says that low emotional intelligence isn't only seen in people blowing their tops off at work or making fun of their employees. It's also in not being able to handle conflict.

Glaser offers this example: It's the first week of a new job. You're in a team meeting and your boss says something that makes you feel excluded, like your opinion isn't valuable to the team—the sort of thing that often goes unchecked.

"People with low EI are often dogmatic," Glaser says. "They don't get that (emotional) feedback, so a dynamic is created."

So what do you do?

You need to give emotionally unintelligent people a fuller sense of the data they are missing. If you can't name the dynamic as it comes up, Glaser says, then immediately after the meeting, book an appointment with your boss. Then you can follow her framework for sensitive conversations:

  1. Prime the conversation: When you make the appointment, say that you want to have a conversation that will be valuable to your working relationship
  2. Share the story: Begin the meeting by retelling what happened for each of you
  3. Listen in: Attune to the emotions underneath the story
  4. Unpack the meaning: Tell the impact that the meeting had on you
  5. Move forward: Help each other figure out what you could do differently
  6. Reach agreements: Sort out what can be done by everybody to address the situation
  7. Then end on a high note: share why it's such a good thing you two had a would-have-been awkward conversation

By taking on the vulnerability of these conversations, Glaser says, you can help people to see that information that's before them.

[Image: Flickr user Graham Hellewell]

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  • Thanks so much for writing this piece and continually discussing this issue in the workplace. As someone who coaches and has delivered many workshops throughout the country on EQ, I can also share this. Don't expect the "low eq" boss to say , "Sure...come on in and let's talk about our relationship." Many don't care or see the value in it.

    The irony to the advice is....if you're trying to have a "reasonable" conversation with those with low EQ (don't mean to lump everyone in --" low" is reflected differently with different people), you might have difficulty even having it or making it through the conversation successfully for that very reason. They are also not good at taking feedback.

    My added advice would be: 1). Be wise - go slow 2). Work at building a trusted rapport 3). Then stick your toe in the water gently with a few key pieces of direct, short feedback. And in that feedback be consistent and repeat when needed.