Is there a Downside to People Skills?

Ask anyone.  It’s a good thing to have people skills, no matter what the job.  Have you ever seen a job ad asking for poor people skills?  No, for everyone knows that effective organizations need people who can get along with others and work well in teams.

This stance is supported by management research.   The idea of Emotional Intelligence (EI), as a measure of people skills, has inspired a mountain of research.   You may have read of it in Daniel Goleman’s 1990s book that popularized the term.  This research shows that people with high EI do a better job, have fewer health problems and are more satisfied with their life than those with a lesser level of EI.  Great, so where is the problem?

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine suggests that EI, like other management ideas, can be taken too far, for there can be a “dark side” to people skills. Research shows a strong link between understanding people (having high EI) and using them.  People with high EI have the greater capacity to manipulate people and some with high EI will use this capability for malicious purposes.  At the extreme we are referring to the sociopaths, or “con artists”, of our world.   And the workplace provides ample opportunities for high EI people to behave deviously.  For a current example think financial planning scandals in major banks.

Workplaces can be competitive and so many people act competitively.  But this is usually a healthy competition done with a sense of moral responsibility.  However sociopaths (and con artists) go well beyond this.  They have no regard for the feelings of others and an ability to lie, cheat, and manipulate others without shame or remorse.  Our shared experience is that a sociopath in the workplace can be disastrous for the organization and destructive of the careers of her/his managers and colleagues.  When things blow up, as they invariably do, there is never a satisfactory answer to the question of “how did we let this happen?” and so a shadow is thrown over the careers of all involved.   To put it plainly, all have been “conned”, and all are embarrassed.

Current research rings a further alarm bell.  When trickery is about the most likely to be conned are those with high EI (those with good people skills).  Why?  It seems that high EI people can overestimate their own ability to understand people.  They can also confuse their sensitivity to the feelings of others with being able to “read the minds” of others – something they cannot possibly do. So the message is that if there is a sociopath or con artist at loose in the workplace the manager may be the last to realise it.

So how do you spot a sociopath?  Well don’t expect it to be easy.  Con artists don’t get far until they gain the trust of their mark, and you don’t build trust by behaving in an anti-social manner.  In the literature sociopaths are commonly described as good communicators, charismatic and “charming”.   So it might take some time to realise that this “charm” is being used to manipulate and intimidate people.  You need to be wary when you find evidence of the following traits or behaviours:

  • An unhealthy sense of entitlement –  nothing off limits if it benefits No 1.
  • Lack of empathy – that is, no understanding of other people’s emotions.
  • Lack of basic ethics and morality.
  • Spreading lies in order to abuse, manipulate or intimidate individuals who they wish to exploit or dominate.

Leaders can protect themselves and their team members from becoming victims of a sociopath by adopting management practices such as these:

  1. Communicate strong ethical values (by what you say and what you do) and make it clear you expect the same from your team members.
  2. Reinforce this by having the Team create their own “rules of engagement” – specific behaviours and values.
  3. Maintain transparency in all dealings with team members.  Be scrupulously fair.   Never do a favour or grant a special privilege in secret.  If a favour is done make sure everyone knows about it and why.
  4. Don’t confuse people skills and “the gift of the gab” with performance (achieving tangible results).
  5. Base promotions and rewards on both high performance (tangible results) and socially acceptable behaviour.

Mark Rosenberg & Dr John Waters



Mark Rosenberg

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