We all know about IQ or intelligence quotient, which refers to the cognitive abilities or intelligence of an individual. But we may be less familiar with EQ or emotional intelligence, which references a person’s ability to connect emotionally and empathize with others. And then there’s humility, another trait that seems to make for a great employee (read more about it here).

Finding the candidate who’s the best fit depends on your company’s culture and specific needs. I wish I could tell you that it’s a “one size fits all” kind of thing, but it’s not. And speaking about humility, I’ve begun to wonder if this really is the most important trait in a new hire or even a leader. While the above-mentioned article makes some good points about the importance of a leader’s being able to sympathize and empathize, in some situations relying too much on EQ can be viewed as a sign of weakness. For instance, a manager who tries to connect with and appeal to a person’s emotional side can be seen as manipulative. This can backfire and cause others to resist communicating and interacting with these kinds of leaders for fear of a “big” emotional conversation.

Emotional intelligence works best when it’s closely aligned with ethics or value-based leadership strategies. Take GM for example: the previous executive team at General Motors, before current CEO Mary Barra took over, made some horrible decisions.  For example, the choice of not replacing faulty ignition switches bankrupted the company and sent GM into a P.R. nightmare. Those decisions weren’t a result of EQ, and you could argue that they weren’t based on IQ either. Going forward, GM wanted a CEO with a high EQ, so they chose Mary Barra who had been with the company for 25 years in the HR department (the place for sympathy and empathy). Barra is doing a fine job of righting the ship, but can that brand of leadership really work over the long term?

It seems that truly successful leaders and employees have higher IQs than EQs. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and even Marissa Meyer will never be accused of “high EQ” leadership. According to an article by Steve Tobak titled, “How Bad Leaders Create Great Companies”, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs were among the most difficult people to work for, but their success is undeniable. They have left a huge impact on the world with their superior intellect and not their EQ.

There are some examples of business leaders who exemplify a high EQ, like Richard Branson of Virgin, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, and Charles Schultz of Starbucks. Ironically, each has been criticized for making some decisions, from Branson spending too much on failing projects, to Hsieh eliminating manager positions, and Schultz’s failed #RaceTogether campaign.

A great example of EQ leadership is Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, a Seattle-based credit card processing company featured in a recent Forbes article, who made major news in 2015 by boosting the company’s minimum wage to $70,000 per year. Price himself took a huge pay cut from his $1,000,000 salary down to $70,000 in order to help cover the costs for this unheard-of salary increase. That was an EQ decision that paid for itself in terms of media coverage, public relations, and employee loyalty; that makes it a highly intelligent decision as well.

The question remains: which is better, EQ or IQ? The answer is…both. By all accounts, today Bill Gates is one of the nicest men you’d ever meet. He donates technology and resources to education and gives away billions to help the sick and the poor. He is a wonderful and generous humanitarian; however, he wasn’t always this way. He changed, which leads me to my conclusion.

Things are different now than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. People are different and work is definitely different. Employees are ever-changing, yet it seems that as a whole we are all a bit more sensitive and aware than we were in the past. Employees (current and future) expect more transparency than they did in the past. I think now you must have employees and leaders who have higher EQ than IQ, because they will be the ones to make decisions like Dan Price did, which will lift your company up and enable you to break new ground.

Chris Fields

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com , and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com and SmartRecruiters.com . He has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Human Resources Experts to Follow on Twitter”, one of the “Top 40 under 40” by the HR Blogger Network, one of the “25 Must-Read HR Blogs in 2013”, and also featured on Oprah.com. He is very active with the Society of Human Resource Management, working closely with conference directors, communication chairs, and social media teams from Illinois, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to develop social strategies to engage attendees and enhance their conference experience. Chris earned his master’s degree in Labor and Human Resources from Ohio State University. In 2005, he moved back to his hometown of Memphis, TN, where he has developed a reputation for helping his clients create HR strategies, and individuals master the tough economic challenges of the South.

4 Comments

  • Avatar Klaudia Fowler says:

    I would say that empathy is not always compassion or sympathy. It is the ability to understand people’s emotions or predict their plans by making conclusions about how people behave, look, or speak. Empathy is an important quality of a big leader. I think that Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs are (or were) not lacking it, they simply did not turn it into compassion.

  • Avatar Vicky L. says:

    I don’t like people who try to be sympathetic when no one asked them to be. It is better to work with intelligent guys who simply do their job than with those who keep asking, “How are you today? Are you fine?” and so on.

  • Avatar Amelia L. says:

    I think that Dan Price’s campaign to boost wages was connected to intelligence and a need for good PR more than to his emotional side and a desire to make his coworkers happier. It was more like an investment that people make to get better equipment. The difference is that this investment is put to human resources.

  • Avatar Laurie Procter says:

    I think that IQ and EQ are two sides of one quality. EQ is the ability to perceive the emotional state of your employees by your senses, while IQ helps you to analyze the information you got and reach a conclusion about it. To me, they are both important.

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