Emotional intelligence brings mixed results

The ability to regulate and read emotions may be less of a boon to negotiation than you might expect.

By on / Dealmaking


As you sit down to negotiate with a new colleague over a long-term project being managed by your divisions, you feel a bit nervous. Steve, though, immediately puts you at ease. He is warm and friendly, undaunted by the challenging task confronting you. As you begin your discussion, Steve makes it clear that he is highly motivated to reach an arrangement that will make both of your divisions better off. As talks grow difficult in the weeks ahead, you are struck by how attuned Steve is to your emotions and how quickly he tries to address them. Meanwhile, he rarely seems to be ruffled by the inevitable misunderstandings and delays that crop up as you involve others in the process.

As your admiration for Steve’s social skills grows, you realize that you are dealing with an “emotionally intelligent” negotiator— the kind of sensitive yet unflappable person you have read about in the popular press. Consequently, you have every reason to believe that you will breeze to the finish line with a strong new business relationship and amazing results. Or will you?

In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence burst into the cultural imagination. The book inspired hundreds, even thousands of articles and books on the topic. Educators, managers, and other leaders dared to hope that fostering emotional intelligence could solve a range of social problems, from school bullying to low morale to international conflict, writes Adam Grant in the Atlantic.

Though little research has been conducted on the impact of emotional intelligence on negotiation, experts have predicted that scoring high on this personality trait would offer a clear boost to one’s bargaining outcomes. After all, the qualities that characterize emotional intelligence—awareness of our emotions and how they affect others, the ability to regulate our moods and behavior, empathy, the motivation to meet meaningful personal goals, and strong social skills—seem as if they’d be highly useful in getting what we want from others and finding common ground.

But a new study on emotional intelligence suggests that its benefits for negotiation may be less clear-cut than anticipated. And other research on the topic implies that there is a dark side to the trait that negotiators in particular would be wise to keep in mind.

High rapport, so-so gains
In one of the few studies of emotional intelligence and negotiation, researchers Kihwan Kim (Buena Vista University), Nicole L. A. Cundiff (the University of Alaska, Fairbanks), and Suk Bong Choi (the University of Ulsan, South Korea) recently sought to determine whether the trait correlates with key negotiation outcomes, namely trust building, the desire to work together in the future, and joint gain.

The research team began by having their participants, about 200 undergraduate students, fill out a questionnaire designed to measure emotional intelligence. At a later date, the students were paired and assigned to play the role of personnel manager or new employee in a negotiation over a job contract. They could negotiate issues such as salary, vacation, starting date, and medical coverage, and had opportunities to both create and claim value. Because points were assigned to the various outcomes, the researchers were able to measure participants’ relative success by adding up their points.

Perhaps not surprisingly, higher levels of emotional intelligence were associated with greater rapport within pairs of negotiators. Strong rapport in turn nurtured trust in one’s counterpart and a willingness to work with the other party in the future. Counterintuitively, however, high emotional intelligence was not linked to better joint negotiation outcomes.

Why didn’t emotionally intelligent negotiators leverage their skills to help both parties achieve more? Kim and his team speculated that these negotiators’ keen sense of empathy may have led them to make excessive concessions to their counterparts at the expense of their own gains. Past work has suggested that emotionally intelligent negotiators may be vulnerable to exploitation by their counterparts for this reason.

Strategies for fine-tuning your emotional intelligence

Be aware of empathy’s limitations. In one study, negotiators who were naturally empathetic or encouraged to be empathetic were good at assessing the strength of their connections with others. However, empathy didn’t help them predict their counterparts’ moves in a strategic game.

Take time to cool off. If possible, postpone negotiations or call for a break when you are feeling strong negative emotions or detecting them in a counterpart. Anger can cause us to rely on stereotypes and make risky decisions, and sadness can cause us to make purchases we’ll later regret. We also tend to make excessive concessions to angry counterparts.

Beware the carryover effect. Feelings triggered by an outside event, such as an argument at home or a difficult commute, can linger and have a strong effect on our negotiations. Simply thinking about the source of your mood can help you defuse any negative impact it might have on your performance.

Dangerously persuasive?
Because the emotionally intelligent are excellent at reading others and communicating their own emotions productively, the trait can make people highly persuasive. It can also make them dangerous as leaders and, presumably, as negotiators.

As illustration, Grant describes two highly influential leaders of the 20th century who showed signs of keen emotional intelligence. In his electrifying speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. “chose language that would stir the hearts of his audience,” demonstrating “remarkable skill in managing his own emotions and in sparking emotions that moved his audience to action,” writes Grant. Now consider Adolf Hitler, who spent years honing his body language to enhance its emotional effects until he had become “an absolutely spellbinding public speaker,” according to historian Roger Moorhouse. The two men had polar-opposite values, but they were both powerful communicators.

As the example of Hitler suggests, the better someone is at controlling his emotions and reading others’ feelings, the better equipped he is to manipulate others and persuade them to act against their best interests. Emotional intelligence enables people to “intentionally shape their emotions to fabricate favorable impressions of themselves,” write University of Cambridge professors Martin Kilduff and Jochen I. Menges and Texas A&M professor Dan S. Chiaburu in an article in Research in Organizational Behavior.

Research has not yet examined whether and under what conditions emotional intelligence might inspire manipulative behavior in negotiation. But results from other spheres suggest that it is important to question the arguments of especially poised and persuasive negotiators.

A mixed verdict
Once portrayed as a universal balm for discord and bad behavior, emotional intelligence is now being recognized as a skill that, like any other, can be used for good or bad, suggests Grant. Emotional rapport and other signs of a keen emotional intellect can promote trust and long-term partnerships. But when used to manipulate others, or when it prompts unnecessary concessions, emotional intelligence may undermine the same connections that it is touted to enhance.

Resource: “The Influence of Emotional Intelligence on Negotiation Outcomes and the Mediating Effect of Rapport: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach,” by Kihwan Kim, Nicole L. A. Cundiff, and Suk Bong Choi. Negotiation Journal, January 2014.

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