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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • January 17, 2004
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The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Predictable Success 

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Over recent years, the Emotional Intelligence (“EI”) concept has been overused, somewhat hyped, and frequently applied in inappropriate ways.

Nevertheless, it is demonstrably the case that as any organization ages, its capacity for EI begins to fossilize, thus endangering Predictable Success.

To use two anthropomorphic examples, without active EI, the organization develops a ‘tin ear’ – leading ultimately to arrogance and hubris – and at the same time begins to experience twinges of organizational arthritis: pain in the joints where different parts of the organization interact.

Unless these symptoms are recognized and dealt with, the absence (or a low level) of EI will unavoidably lead to a rapid decline through Treadmill into Bureaucracywith the nascent threat of ultimate, final Decline.

What is EI?

Emotional Intelligence [“EI”]. sometimes referred to as “EQ” (for “Emotional Quotient” ) is, at root, just this:

The ability to recognize, understand and use the role of emotions in both decision-making, and in our interactions with others.

Just as we innately recognize, understand and use information and data in our decision-making and our interactions with others, so, as our organization grows and becomes more complex, we need increasingly to do the same with the role of emotions.

Depending on where an organization is in the Lifecycle, there are differing needs in addressing Emotional Intelligence.

The articles below addresses subsequent stages in the organizational lifecycle and how best to address EI in each.

EI In Early Struggle & Fun…

In the early stages – from Early Struggle through Fun, most organizations have strong, unconsciously innate, built-in emotional intelligence.

Because the organization is small and centrally controlled (usually by a strong founder/owner[s]), there is nowhere to hide for anyone with poor EI. People who ‘don’t fit’ are usually expunged – office gossip, manipulative power plays and emotionally dysfunctional behavior is easily seen and dealt with.

When and if someone does exhibit emotionally dysfunctional behavior, the response is usually straightforward: Are they major revenue contributors, or not? If the former, they are often given leeway – indeed, revenue ‘big dogs’ are often given considerable scope for emotional dysfunction.

If, on the other hand, the employee is in a support function, the scope for ‘grandstanding’ is considerably less, and is usually not tolerated to the same degree.

During Early Struggle and Fun, there is usually no need, and nothing to be gained, in messing with what is happening naturally. Best leave well enough alone and let the organization grow (in size and emotional maturity) at it’s own pace, and in it’s own way.

The psycho-boss exception

An exception to the leave-well-enough-alone principle is when the founder/owner (or one or more of a founding group) is significantly deficient in Emotional Intelligence.

A pathologically manipulative, abusive, moody or otherwise emotionally dysfunctional founder will cap the growth of the organization by poisoning the atmosphere and driving out stellar performers.

side note

In an interesting aside, many abusive founder/owners do achieve what can be seen as enormous growth in their organization by sheer willpower, and often, fear. They often achieve high rates of early growth, win awards and wow the business press, despite high employee turnover and persistent morale issues. But it rarely lasts.

What is misunderstood in these cases is how great the organization could be – truly world-beating and less transient – if the dysfunctional owner could address and correct their lack of emotional intelligence through coaching and/or mentoring.


In Early Struggle and Fun, stay out of the way, except when an emotionally dysfunctional founder/owner threatens the success of the organization, in which case, coaching should be provided (assuming the individual is receptive, and someone has the power or influence to attempt the intervention…).

EI In Whitewater…

As the organization grows and becomes more complex, layers of management and ‘silo-d’ functions create more and more space for emotional dysfunction to appear and take root.

This happens in two specific ways:

1. The bitter veteran

Usually by the time the organization hits Whitewater, there is at least one or more individual(s) that many of the management team, and most employees, view as emotionally dysfunctional.

Often, though not always, this person is someone originally hired by the founder/owner, and who feels alienated by the changes in the organization as it grows.

As their loyalty to the founder/owner becomes strained, they can become (at the extreme) bitter, defensive and passive-aggressive.

During Whitewater, this persons’ behavior – until now merely irritating – becomes increasingly disruptive, and stands in the way of alignment and team cohesion (a vital requirement for the transition to Predictable Success).

If the organization genuinely wishes to push through Whitewater into Predictable Success, at some point the emotionally dysfunctional individual(s) will need to be confronted and the issue resolved: either they accept the fact that the organization has changed – permanently – from what it was in the old days, and they ‘get on the bus’, or they accept that there is no place for them in the ‘new’ organization and leave.

side note

Note: if the individual in question is indeed an appointee of the founder/owner, this can be a prolonged and painful business. Often the founder / owner will duck the issue, seeking to find another role for the individual in which they might ‘fit better’ and become more productive. This can happen 2 or 3 times before the owner/founder finally concedes defeat and fires the individual.

2. The emasculated ‘Big Dog’.

The second area of EI difficulty in Whitewater is with the ‘big dogs’ – the high-performance individuals who did the most to get the organization to where it is now.

Because they were part of the building of myths and legends during Fun, the big dogs have a large amount of ‘sweat equity’

Translation: They have a direct route to the founder/owner if they feel annoyed about anything.

Combine that with the high degree of autonomy and authority they had during Fun.

Now mix in the loss of autonomy that big dogs experience during Whitewater, caused by the rise of the Administrator and subsequent increasing implementation of systems, policies and procedures…

Result? A confused, concerned and increasingly emasculated big dog, who may choose to fight back in emotionally dysfunctional ways.

In many cases, the big dogs will learn to ‘play the new game’, and/or can be quietly directed to the ‘dinosaur park’ (see elsewhere for details on how to build and operate a dinosaur park), but occasionally one or more big dogs may become so emotionally dysfunctional that their bitterness, negativity, carping and back-biting threatens the cohesion of the team and the alignment of the organization.

In such a case, again the founder/owner may have trouble admitting to him or herself that their former superstar – previously so loyal and dependable – has in fact become dangerously dysfunctional and cannot be rescued.

The founder/owner will often allow the matter to drag on for months, even years, prolonging Whitewater, and postponing the move into Predictable Success.

Sooner or later, if the organization is to get to Predictable Success, the truly emotionally dysfunctional big dogs – those that cannot learn to accept that the world has changed and that they have to ‘play nice’ – will have to be replaced.


In early Whitewater, diagnose those support staff and ‘big dogs’ that are exhibiting signs of low emotional intelligence in dealing with the turbulence and change in the organization. Provide resources for assessment and coaching / counseling.

In late Whitewater, unresponsive individuals will have to be replaced if the organization is to achieve alignment and emerge in to Predictable Success.

EI In Predictable Success…

In Predictable Success, EI will be balanced and in harmony. To stay there, two things must happen:

  1. Senior management must watch for the danger signs that the organization is slipping back down into Whitewater, or forward, into Treadmill. See the paragraphs above and below for indicators that either might be happening.

  2. Unlike Early Struggle and Fun, it can no longer be assumed or expected that the organization will display ‘unconscious competence’ in EI. The organization will be too large and too complex for EI to be maintained at a high level by itself.

Instead, the organization must become ‘consciously competent’ at EI – structures and programs put in place to maintain EI within the organization.


In Predictable Success, the organization must begin to formally train and coach key players (managers, team leaders and supervisors, as a minimum)

EI In Treadmill...

In Treadmill, the organization has begun to lose its ‘mojo’.

The creativity, propensity for risk, openness to new ideas, an effective challenge function…all are stifled or eradicated altogether.

In their place come meetings (and more meetings), Powerpoint decks, policies and procedures, checklists and large lists of people on the ‘cc’ line of every email (of which there are hundreds, thousands, a day, as people increasingly begin to operate in ‘CYA’ mode).

Management begins to emphasize volume and compliance over quality and creativity.

Dog food? Dishwater?

Employees begin to get the message that they are not meant to bring bad news to their superiors. To fit in, it becomes necessary to ‘drink your own dishwater’ – take the corporate kool-aid, eat your own dog food – choose your own metaphor…

Unsurprisingly, emotional intelligence becomes seriously distorted in this environment. People stop listening effectively to others.

Communication becomes ‘broadcast-only’ rather than a genuine feedback loop.

Written and verbal communication begins to scan like it was produced by a business b*ll-***t generator- acronyms, obscure verbiage, faddish business-speak replaces clear, simple communication.

Increasingly, employees are hired for their automaton skills (so they can pound out the hours on the Treadmill), rather than their interpersonal or EI abilities.

Veterans learn that it’s simpler to complete the checklists and reinforce management’s pre-conceptions, rather than ask hard questions and challenge the status quo.

Tin ears and institutional blindness

Gradually, the organization – which may well be espousing ‘family values’, ‘open-door policies’ and ‘honest communication’ throughout this entire process – develops an emotional ‘tin ear’, and becomes deaf to the nuances and flexibility required in dealing with employees, customers, suppliers, funders, shareholders.

If and when an organization wakens up and finds that it has drifted into Treadmill, emotional intelligence will be at a low level, institutionally.

This is in itself is one of the main reasons many organizations never recognize the fact that they are in Treadmill- they are lacking the EI capability necessary to see it.


First, the executive team, lead by the CEO / President, must recognize the fact that EI is low and establish a clear goal of reversing the process.

Without genuine, top-level endorsement and activity, there can be no effective change, and the organization will continue its slide into Bureaucracy.

Secondly, led by the executive team, the organization must implement a formal program of assessment, training and coaching in emotional intelligence, right down to the level of the individual contributor.

Thirdly, the HR or OD department must implement an (at least annual) organization-wide assessment of the organizational EI ‘score’, and compare it to previous period, to ensure the organization is not slipping back into Treadmill again.

EI In Bureaucracy & Death Rattle

By the time an organization has reached Bureaucracy, EI is not only low – it has gone. Left the building. No longer necessary.

Think about the last time you had to interact with a bureaucracy – what was the level of EI in that interaction.

I’ll guarantee it was either so non-existant as to be negligible or it was so false you could almost smell the dry-erase markers from the training session everyone had been forced to attend a week earlier…

If challenged by any of the key stakeholder groups (employees, customers, suppliers, funders, shareholders) about the need for greater open-ness, two-way communication, less defensiveness, understanding shades of gray, relaxing the need for compliance and encouraging risk-taking and innovation, or any other EI related issues, senior management will ask for more information, inquire about specific examples, nod understandingly, empower a committee to investigate and report back, and do…precisely nothing.


One aspect of an organization in Bureaucracy is that it is so deeply in denial about its faults that it has lost the ability to heal itself organically.

The only option is to sell the business, break it up, and/or swap out the leadership. An organization in Bureaucracy cannot heal itself without dramatic external change.

What about you? how Do You address EI in your organization?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!


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