Perspective: The social desirability of EQ

Written by
Dr John Mervyn Smith, chief psychologist and co-founder, The GC Index

15 Jun 2020

15 Jun 2020 • by Dr John Mervyn Smith, chief psychologist and co-founder, The GC Index

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is now a frequently deployed phrase, but have we been too quick on the uptake and missed its real meaning?

As we go through life many of us will seek out PLUs – ‘People Like Us’: it’s often the basis for forming social strata, societies and ‘hiring in our own image’.

Using PLU as a label

We can trust PLUs on the basis that we share with them a whole host of characteristics that we think we understand. We don’t trust NPLUs because they don’t. We can feel comfortable in the fact that we have established an ‘I’m OK – you’re OK’ (Dr Eric Berne) relationship that doesn’t threaten our view of the world.

PLU as a label will seem crude and unsophisticated to many people. But is it any different from hundreds of other labels that we might use? Human beings have a fascination with individual differences and we can trace the history of labelling to Ancient Greece – with a focus upon the humors and beyond where personality types were classified into the four humors

The origins of labelling

Labelling has been strongly influenced by the world of medicine and, as a consequence, seeks largely to describe pathology. Psychiatry and psychology have been influenced by this work.

In the last two decades it’s been commonplace to use a framework that has its origins in psychiatry; a framework that describes personality disorders. Using this framework, people can declare that Donald Trump is a narcissist or Jair Bolsonaro a psychopath. Of course, while some would label Trump a narcissist, others would label him a saviour – another framework for understanding individual differences.

This framework has also been used in the corporate world as a way, for example, of understanding a CEO’s behaviours as we describe them as sociopaths. With labelling, we seek to make sense of individual differences manifested in behaviour.

Despite the complexity of these frameworks, they often get used in the binary way and certain labels become socially desirable. The consequence can be a sense of not fitting for individuals and, in turn, a pressure to conform. 

EQ and social desirability 

The labels associated with emotional intelligence are a case in point. People are often described as emotionally intelligent, or not, in life and work settings. As a construct, it has found its way into assessment frameworks for job selection thus reinforcing its social desirability.

In my role as a leadership capability profiler, I have seen three predictable consequences of this. 

  1. Some aspects of emotional intelligence are, superficially, possible to fake – the ‘have a nice day’ phenomenon. So, the charming, socially-skilled sociopath can feign emotional intelligence in ways that are manipulative: Rebecca De Mornay perhaps, as the nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Some will appear authentic! And if they are in a position of power there is often a desire, among those they have power over, to see them as genuine.
  2. Others will appear less authentic as they seek to be emotionally intelligent: ‘Oh, that must have been so distressing for you’ they say with an empathic tone while distracted by their mobile phone. These individuals will not be trusted as people will spot the disconnect between the words and the intent reflecting that apocryphal saying: ‘speaking with forked tongue’.
  3. The assumption that talented people are emotionally intelligent or need to be emotionally intelligent. This then allows us to dismiss or discredit those that are not emotionally intelligent. The painful consequence of this, in my experience, is that organisations deprive themselves of some very talented people: all too readily, they can discount the socially clumsy, strongly reserved, obsessive, challenging, questioning, unaware individuals who might have, nonetheless, the potential for genius; the next Steve Jobs perhaps.

The paradox of labelling with recourse to emotional intelligence

The paradox with the use of all labels, including emotional intelligence, is that we not only diminish others when we use them, we see them through a narrow lens, but we diminish ourselves if we limit our own emotional intelligence and fail to see beyond the label.

This can be challenging as it often requires that we suspend judgement and live with uncertainty. For inherent in much labelling is a drive to reduce the anxiety that can be born of dissonance, complexity and ambiguity. We tend to feel more comfortable when we have labelled someone because we can make decisions about them, we can decide to trust or not to trust, to invest or not, to be loyal or not, to vote for them or not. We can be comfortable in the illusion that we ‘know’ someone.

Labels, when used well, must be a starting point for a conversation of understanding, not an end point.

For most of us, we have people in our lives who see ‘bits’ of us but few who see all of us. Perhaps for all of us, including corporate leaders, the best way to avoid being diminished by labels is to work at being seen, hoping that, regardless of the feelings of vulnerability that will come with that, that people can accept us ‘warts and all’.


Dr John Mervyn Smith, chief psychologist and co-founder of The GC Index, has over 30 years’ experience coaching senior leaders and their teams. He was a PhD scholar a London University before training as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and then moving into the world of organisational psychology.

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