Research

Managers can be too empathetic

24 Oct 2019 By Siobhan Palmer

A study of line managers in the NHS found that emotional intelligence was a hindrance rather than a help

Emotional intelligence is often touted as a key characteristic of good managers, but you can have too much of a good thing, researchers have found. 

In fact, managers with levels of emotional intelligence beyond a certain ‘saturation point’ are more likely to be unpopular and ineffective, according to a study from Manchester Metropolitan University and Emlyon Business School in France.

The researchers assessed the traits and success rates of more than 300 line managers in the NHS at a time of organisational change, when emotional intelligence is thought to be most important in leadership. The results challenge this popular notion. 

Staff were asked to assess their managers’ levels of empathy and emotional awareness, while the managers themselves were surveyed about the extra effort they put into their jobs, their employees’ satisfaction levels with their management, and how effectively they implemented change. 

The researchers identified a ‘threshold’ of empathy and emotional intelligence, beyond which managers were not necessarily very effective, with high emotional intelligence leading to a drop in positive outcomes. 

One of the study’s authors, Professor Nikos Bozionelos, says too much emotional intelligence might impede managers’ effectiveness because they could be “hesitant to apply measures they feel will impose excessive burden or discomfort to subordinates”.

“Simply considering that the more emotional intelligence the manager has the better, may be an erroneous way of thinking,” he adds. 

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