The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

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Leadership Articles | Emotional Intelligence | The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

by | Oct 6, 2022

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When I conduct emotional intelligence (EI) assessment debriefs, I often hear the question “What about the dark side of emotional intelligence; don’t manipulative people also have a high EI?” While emotional intelligence has been widely studied since the 1990s, there has been little research on the use of emotional intelligence to manipulate and amass power. 

Emotional intelligence definition

There are as many definitions and interpretations of EI as people who study it. Most definitions are broad and ethically neutral. For example, Peter Salovy, who researched EI at Yale defines EI as:

“The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions to discriminate among them and use this information to guide one’s thinking.”

Daniel Goldman, another popular EI researcher, defines EI as:

“A person’s ability to manage his feelings so that those feelings are expressed appropriately and effectively.”

When interpreted fairly, most definitions of emotional intelligence are relatively neutral, covering not only positive emotional regulation but also emotional manipulation and interpersonal deviance.

In another example, MHS Talents (Barr-on) defines emotional intelligence as

A set of emotional and social skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.”

This definition clearly calls out true high EI as “effective and meaningful”, but the question still remains “effective and meaningful” as defined by whom?

Specifics of emotional intelligence

If we dive into reliable, valid, and predictive measurements used to assess EI traits, the assumption that one who manipulates others must have a high EI has reduced merit. Psychological tools developed to measure EI traits and skills can be very granular as well as accurate. A popular trait assessment is the EQ-i 2.0 and the EQ360 from MHS, originally created by Reuven Bar-On. This assessment includes five “composites”, each consisting of three sub-composite traits (fig. 2).

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Why dark side traits do not equal high emotional intelligence

Having debriefed hundreds of these assessments, I believe it would be very difficult for someone with low empathy, low self-awareness, and a generally low Interpersonal composite to have a high total EI. In someone with a modus operandi of manipulation and deceit, these sub-composites would logically come up short, especially in a 360 assessment.

Additionally, not only do we evaluate the total EI as a measure of EI health, we consider score imbalance between composites and sub-composites, which would likely be extreme (high self-perception composite imbalanced against a low interpersonal composite or a high self-regard against a lower self- actualization or emotional self-awareness sub-composite. Fig 3).

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If a high total EI score is not actually a characteristic of manipulative and deceitful people, what is? As alluded to above, these folks may have high EI sub-composites in the areas of problem-solving, impulse control, self-regard, independence, and assertiveness. However future psychological research is needed to understand the personality traits and EI skill scores of people with antisocial behaviors.

The Dark Triad

What is dark side behavior? Salespeople, marketing companies, and social movements all manipulate our emotions, is this considered dark behavior? How about gently undermining a colleague because you want their position? Manipulating data to align with a specific bias? These are all behaviors one might consider unethical, but they do not necessarily represent the irresponsible use of EI.  

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Trait emotional manipulation

The negative traits of emotional intelligence are characterized by behaviors representing traits that make up the Dark Side Triad (fig 4), which is composed of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Example behaviors emanating from any or all of these traits include a lack of empathy, high self-importance, gravitation toward power, need for attention, questionable ethics, high emotional control or low emotional control, manipulation, gaslighting, deceit, and behaviors that may otherwise be called “unscrupulous”, “highly strategic” or “political”.

These people are not only psychologically and professionally dangerous, but sometimes physically dangerous. Given this set of traits, the dark side of EI could be defined as:

“Using specific EI traits for self-service in such a way that hurts or otherwise damages another person or groups of people”.

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Dealing with the Dark Side

How do we deal with Dark Triads? The simple answer: we don’t. To the best of our ability, we should avoid them at all costs. Unfortunately, we meet these people in all areas of life. Work, relationships, family, and community service. It’s not always simple to avoid interaction, but it is very important to do your best, and the sooner the better.

The first step is recognition.

People with these traits will tend to interact for personal gain disguised as benefits to others. As mentioned before, we all have manipulative and competitive tendencies, but these folks are pretty recognizable once you know what you are looking for.

You may see:

Changing or inconsistent behavior. Modulated and changing behaviors that do not align with specific morals or ethics but rather with serving particular needs, usually with ulterior motives involving power and control.

Questionable ethics. Their positions may change quickly or emotional outbursts when they need to control situations.

Intensity. They often have a lot of motivation and energy and are highly skilled. This makes them likely to become leaders as they produce results, even if in questionable ways.

Charm. They know how to get what they want by being your best friend one minute and overpowering you the next.

You may feel:

Doubt. These folks can be very good at gaslighting. Often you are not sure what they want and they will make you feel like you are going crazy.

Fear. You may experience discomfort around them that you can’t quite put your finger on. You may know they are scary because you are unable to predict their behavior.

Anger. Feeling upset that you have no real voice with this person. They cut you off, speak over you, correct your statements, and tell you what you should think or feel.

Depression and hopelessness. When feeling stuck or trapped by someone like this (which is what they want), it is possible to feel like you have no power and cannot escape which can lead to depression, hopelessness, or suicidal ideation. This is when you need to seek support from counselors, friends, and family.


The second step is avoidance

To the best of your ability, avoid these people. They will step on you and use you as a target to gain power, recognition, or prestige. They are willing to hurt not only your feelings but your career and life. Do not engage. Try to eliminate these people from your life – change jobs, get a divorce, breakup, ghost them, whatever it takes to create safety.

Finally, if you have to engage with caution

If we must engage, we engage with caution, first knowing our own personal power, value, and worth. We must be good at setting boundaries and have strong supporters who can provide a grounded perspective. Counseling can be essential when dealing with or recovering from interactions with these folks.

Most importantly, do not go anywhere alone with a Dark Triad person.


While emotional manipulation is generally part of our make-up as humans and can be more successful in those with a high EI, the Dark Triad is what we need to worry about. Even though future research is needed to understand the connections between high EI traits and the Dark Triad, we can safely say that recognizing these behaviors could save our mental health, career or even our life. 

If you feel like you are in a relationship, personally or professionally, with a Dark Triad personality contact a professional for support. They will help you identify and navigate the relationship as safely as possible. If you need to consider a career change, have a look at this article on navigating a career change.

How do you rate?

Interested in where you fall on the light-to-dark scale?  Try this online personality assessment that will give you a glimpse into your own character based on your dark and light personality characteristics (fig. 5).

Written by Grace Calpus MPA, PCC



Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (2008). Emotional intelligence. American Psychological Association. Vol. 63, No. 6, 503–517 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.6.503

MHS Talents. Fact Sheet EQi. Available from MHS Talents. 

Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18, supl., 13-25.

Goldman, D. (2014). An Antidote to the Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence. Linkedin Self-published article.

CTO Academy (2021). What type of leader are you — Emotionally Intelligent or a Dark Triad? February 25, 2021.

M. Kinduff et. al. (2010). Strategic Use of Emotional Intelligence in Organizational Settings: Exploring the Dark Side. 

Research in Organizational Behavior 30 (2010) 129-152 DOI: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.10.002

Grant, A. (2014). The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence.

The Atlantic online January 2, 2014.

Towler, A. (2020). Machiavellianism: What it is, how to recognize and cope with Machiavellians.

CqC online December 31, 2020

Hudson, N. (2022). Your Dark (and Light) Personality Traits.


Jonason, P; Sherman, R. (2020). Personality and the perception of situations: The Big Five and Dark Triad traits.

Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 163, 2020; 110081; ISSN 0191-8869; DOI:

Vital, A. (2018). Big Five Personality Traits Infographic.

Adioma Infographics. November 28, 2019.

<a href="" target="_self">Grace Calpus</a>

Grace Calpus

Specialties - Emotional Intelligence, Executive Presence, Personal Branding, Stakeholder Management, Career Transition

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