Your intelligence drops as you move up the hierarchy

Getting promoted to a senior management role apparently lowers your intelligence… your emotional intelligence (EQ) that is.

A recent study by TalentSmart in the US has shown that the level of self-awareness, empathy and social awareness (measures of EQ) of executives falls the higher they get up the organisational hierarchy. The study found that middle managers and supervisors regularly demonstrate the highest levels of EQ and this drops off the more senior you get within the organisation as shown below.


(Image courtesy of and TalentSmart)

Paradoxically, the same study found that that the highest performers in any of these roles are those with the highest EQ.

So, as our title implies, is it that EQ falls as you move up the hierarchy or do organisations select low EQ / high IQ leaders to fill senior roles? Well, it would seem that there is a prevailing mindset in many organisations that senior managers’ roles primarily revolve around rational rather than emotional ability. I regularly hear of managers promoted on technical rather than human (soft) skills. I personally think that the phenomena described above is due to the twin effect of organisations selecting out more rationally capable managers but also of the managers themselves suffering a loss of EQ.

Three reasons why getting promoted lowers your intelligence

So if the later is part of the case, why is that? Here are our three reasons why getting promoted lowers your intelligence (EQ) and, more importantly, what you can do about it:

  1. Emotional Erosion: The topline is that promoted leaders enter an environment that tends to erode their EQ. They spend more time on solitary activities, in meetings with disconnected people and less time connecting and interacting with diverse members of staff. To overcome this, leaders need to invest time in developing and maintaining their EQ and realise that it is something they have 100% control over. This is best done by engaging regularly with your team and showing a genuine interest in them.
  1. Seeing emotions as something to be “fixed”: It is easy for executives to see emotional issues (i.e. morale, engagement, commitment etc.) in the workplace as just something else that needs a tool or process to “fix” it. Most of these issues are complex though and require leadership rather than just management attention. This requires senior leaders to develop a proper understanding of the issues at hand, to get out and talk to their teams about the issues that affect fundamental drivers of performance.
  1. A fear of looking “unprofessional”: An icy, cool and dispassionate demeanor seems to be the desired image in many corporate environments. Getting excited and passionate about anything can be seen as “unprofessional”. However, showing you care and appreciate commitment are some of the most important traits employees need from a leader. Therefore, make time to show your appreciation and pat your team members on the back. Build loyalty through praise and recognition for work well done.

Give your emotional intelligence a work-out

If you are keen to invest in developing your EQ, one of the key areas we find that senior managers struggle with is the ability to have direct, real and necessary conversations with their staff. They find it difficult to depersonalise tough feedback and avoid language that causes conflict. Our “Dealing with the Tough Stuff” workshop helps them to uncover some root causes of employees’ difficult behaviour and have strategies to modify them whilst maintaining a healthy and supportive relationship. It also helps senior managers to find the best way to be clearer about their expectations with their teams.

If you would like to download our free “10 tips for Dealing with the Tough Stuff” idea sheet and receive updates and news about improving performance in your organisation, please click here.