Few psychological traits have been celebrated more during the past 20 years than emotional intelligence (EQ). Loosely defined, it’s the ability to keep your own emotions under control, as well as read and influence other people’s emotions. Ever since Daniel Goleman wrote a best-selling book on the topic (popularizing earlier research by two Yale psychologists), organizations are placing increasing importance on EQ when hiring and developing employees and managers.
Sadly, many managers have low EQ, which is a common cause of anxiety and stress for their employees. If you ever worked for someone who is volatile, temperamental, moody, or simply grumpy, you will understand the difficulties of putting up with a low EQ boss. Even if organizations make progress in developing EQ in their managers, you are always going to have to learn how to deal with low EQ individuals, including, at times, a boss. No amount of coaching can turn someone with chronic anger management problems, severe empathy deficits, and lack of social skills, into Oprah Winfrey or the Dalai Lama.
As I highlight in my recent book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and How to Fix It), selecting more leaders on the basis of their EQ would upgrade the overall quality of our leaders—and increase the proportion of women in leadership. But since that is unlikely to happen any time soon, it is essential that you learn to adapt to lower EQ individuals, especially when they are in charge of you. Here are four science-driven recommendations.
Tune in to their current mood states
For all the talk of EQ as an “intelligence,” the best way to interpret it is in terms of emotional reactivity. Think of that ranging from Steve Jobs and Woody Allen on one end (the low EQ/high reactivity) to the Queen of England and Angela Merkel on the other (the high EQ/low reactivity).
Mood swings are common behavioral currency in people with lower EQ, but this is at least predictable. You can adapt to this by carefully tuning in to their emotions and remembering that they are likely to react in an exaggerated manner to both good and bad events. The more someone’s mood fluctuates, and the more they overreact to circumstances and situations, the bigger your need to sync to their emotions and ride their mood waves—so you don’t end up crushed by them.
Make things explicit
People differ in their ability to make sense of ambivalent or ambiguous real-world situations, and most of the people problems we encounter at work fit into this bucket. Regardless of your own EQ, if you work for someone who is not naturally adept at interpreting your own emotions and intentions, it is key that you help them understand you. Use explicit communication, put things in writing, set out clearly what you think and want, and ensure that your message is understood, without assuming that any subtleties may be captured.
Be a source of insights
You will gain a lot of brownie points with your boss if you can leverage your intuition—assuming your EQ is higher than theirs’—and help them interpret other people’s intentions, feelings, and thoughts. In other words, you become an emotional and social “consigliere” to your boss by effectively boosting their ability to make sense of and influence others. This means making them a little bit more streetwise and improving their basic people skills. Note that one of the earliest descriptions of social intelligence from the 1920s was the ability to read people like a book. If you have this gift but your boss doesn’t, then you can share the gift with them.
Avoid being a stress agent
Even if you cannot put in practice the arguably challenging suggestions outlined in the first three points, you should at least avoid being a source of stress for your boss. This means staying calm, reducing the likelihood of conflict, and acting like a soothing and calming influence for them, which essentially is the exact opposite of their behavior. Note that managers–like people in general–have a tendency to prefer working with people who are like them, but this is not the case when they have lower EQ. The more volatile and excitable you are, the more you will enjoy the company of stable and predictable people, even if it means that your employees are doubling as informal therapists or coaches.
Finally, remember that while EQ is generally advantageous at work—you are better off having more of it—quite a few of the most sought-after skillsets actually benefit from lower EQ. For instance, people tasked with creative or artistic jobs, those who need to be skeptical of others (chief legal officer), or be always paranoid about unlikely threats (air traffic controllers), show lower than average EQ levels even among successful performers. Many jobs that require minimal interpersonal contact with others (remote IT or academic jobs) are far less dependent on people skills and EQ.
We must learn to embrace individual differences, not just tolerate them. An organizational culture made purely of high EQ individuals would probably be closer to a happy cult than an innovative and exciting venture.