A Manual For The Low-EQ CEO

My name is Auren, and I am a low-EQ CEO.  

Most great CEOs have high EQ (Emotional Quotient) and Emotional Intelligence (also known as interpersonal intelligence).  While EQ’s importance is not as high as it once was, it still is extremely important, especially for leaders.  

So what to do if you are a low-EQ CEO?

Most successful leaders that don’t have high EQ tend to have off-the-charts IQ.  But what if you are a low-EQ leader whose SAT score was under 1590?  

This post is a self-help manual for those low-EQ leaders. 

The first half of this piece offers some ideas to improve your leadership skills as a low-EQ leader.  The second half provides insight into what it’s like to be a low-EQ person and how low-EQ correlates with other common character traits.  This piece should be valuable both for low-EQ leaders (I wish I read this myself ten years ago) and anyone that works closely with low-EQ leaders.

how to be a better low-EQ CEO

First, you are not alone.

If you are a low-EQ leader, the first thing to recognize is that you are not alone.  In fact, CEOs often have lower EQs than average.  

Source: TalentSmart

But that sugar-coats it — having a low-EQ is a severe disadvantage as a leader.  It is a real blind spot.

How to be a better low-EQ CEO.

There are five core things low-EQ leaders can do to help their relationships:

  1. Telegraph your low-EQ abilities to others. ☎️
  2. Rely on other high-EQ colleagues to be a translator.
  3. Be explicit about the context of your questions. 🙋
  4. Be honest and transparent.
  5. Create a personal operating manual. 📕

Warning: this piece will be a lot more personal than most of the other things I write (personal sections in italics — feel free to skip … of course, high-EQ people tend to enjoy more personal stories 🙂 ).

1. Telegraph your low-EQ abilities to others ☎️

If you are low-EQ, everyone you work closely with must know … because most of these people will come into any relationship with the expectation that you are adept at reading non-verbal cues.  If they know you cannot read their faces (reading faces is highly correlated with EQ), they will work with you to compensate in other ways.

It is also important to remind people that they will be less likely to read your face.  So they should not be assuming things from your nonverbal cues … because you are less likely telegraph your feelings consistently.  Yes, we all have tells.  But a grimace from a low-EQ person could actually mean that they are happy … so others should not read into these cues too deeply.

One leader I admire mentioned:

While telling people that you are low-EQ is a good step, it’s not really fair to put the responsibility of dealing with your low EQ on them.  Most people will not be comfortable being overly explicit and so you will need to draw it out of them by proactively ask questions (e.g., “how do you feel about what I’ve just said?”) and even make some assumptions (e.g., “I may be wrong (remember, I can’t read faces) but you look frustrated/happy/perplexed. Do I read this properly?”)

2. Rely on other high-EQ colleagues to be a translator.

If you were having a business meeting with someone that did not speak your language, you’d bring along a translator.  A good translator not only helps translate your words but also helps you observe and adhere to cultural differences, different norms, etc.  

Low-EQ leaders need to rely on translators in the office too.  They can entrust other executives with translation and interpretation.  So, find 1-3 people that can help you translate what others are thinking and explicitly enlist their help. They can tell you when someone does X, they really mean Y.

I’ve recently done this at SafeGraph — a few of the people on our leadership team have extremely high EQs, and they have helped me understand more complex situations.  Without their insights, I would have misread many situations.  

Of course, it is really important that these translators are trustworthy and do not use the situation to interpret things in their favor.  You want to find high-EQ people that also think clearly about the best long-term interest of the organization.

3. Be explicit about the context of your questions 🙋

When leaders (even those who have high-EQs) ask questions to others in their organization, their questions can often be interpreted as directives (even if they are just innocent inquiries).  

One way you can guard against this is to be explicit about what kind of question you are asking.  I learned this from Brian Gentile. I’ve been experimenting with five hash-tags that I now add to questions I ask (which could be live or in written form):

  • Telling
  • Selling
  • Consulting
  • Brainstorming
  • Learning

The #Telling hashtag is when you want to be explicit that this is a directive coming from you.  This is very rare, but occasionally, it is important to be explicit about that.

The #Selling hashtag is when you are selling an idea to other people in your organization.  You think this is the right way to go, and you are working on getting their buy-in.  Of course, you are open to changing your mind, but you are coming into the conversation with a strong opinion about what to do.

The #Consulting hashtag is when you want to dive into a recommendation someone else has made and understand it better.  You’re in coach-mode.  You might be able to offer your advice on how to improve it even more. Or by understanding it better, you might be able to help another part of the organization.

The #Brainstorming hashtag is when you just want to brainstorm an idea.  You are coming in with few preconceptions and want another person or a group of people to help get to a good answer.

Lastly, the #Learning hashtag is just to help you satisfy your curiosity.  I often use #Learning when asking our VP Engineering about a specific technology decision or machine learning technique.  In this case, I’m curious and just want to learn.  

Since I started doing this, I have found that 90% of my hashtags are either Consulting, Brainstorming, or Learning.  I’m rarely Telling or Selling.  But, in the past, without being explicit about my inquiry, people at my company have misinterpreted my questions as being directives instead.

These hashtags are a very analytical response to being low-EQ.  But being analytical is often something that low-EQ leaders are good at … so use it to your advantage.

4. Practice honesty and transparency. 

Low-EQ leaders need to telegraph their thinking to others more than high-EQ leaders. This is because people are much more likely to think a low-EQ person is not telling the truth (even though there is no relationship between honesty and EQ).

One of the best ways to do that is to be honest and transparent.  

I personally used to keep things close and never telegraph high-level strategy to the company.  Today, I am much more open with everyone in the organization about how we should think things through … and am also much more open when I don’t know something or have changed my mind (which is often).  I send out an email to the team at least twice a month diving into a strategic topic and giving the team a lens into how I am thinking about it.

You can compensate for your low-EQ by clearly explaining your thinking to others. This takes out the “guessing game” for your co-workers.  Because people are more likely to misunderstand low-EQ people, you will need to go to greater lengths to show your thinking.  It’s like seventh-grade math where your teacher made you show your work (and not just the answer). You have to show your thinking and where it comes from.

Of course, high-EQ people should practice honesty and transparency too. They just don’t have to work as hard to do it.  Low-EQ leaders need to put in the extra effort to actually build systems around honesty and transparency.  

One CEO I admire told me: 

Another technique I’ve been using to great effect: tell people how I’m feeling. I realized that I’m not good at telegraphing my positive emotions — especially over Zoom. I’ve been making a conscious effort to say things like “I’m very happy with this”, “I’m proud of what you did”, “this makes me very excited”, etc. At first it sounds cheesy to say, but it’s been so helpful. Especially in terms of building up credibility for when I have to share a negative emotion like, “I’m disappointed with how this turned out.”

These systems become even more important in a large company. High-EQ leaders might find it harder to transition from a 100 person company (when you can know everyone) to a 1,000 person company.  Their high EQ might have allowed them to get by (at 100 employees) without formal systems to translate their understanding and empathy.  This is especially true in a world where everyone was in the same office (low-EQ leaders are at less of a disadvantage in remote-first companies).  

5. Create and share a personal operating manual 📕

When I first started working with my friend Jeff Lu, he suggested we write a personal operating manual and send it to each other.  I had never heard of this concept before but I now send mine to everyone that reports to me or I meet regularly with.  

An operating manual defines how people should work with you. It should clearly define your personality quirks so that others can get the most out of you.  For example, here is a quote from mine:

Opportunities over threats

Auren is wired to seek out opportunities and discount threats.  He is generally focused on what can yield the 20x return and can discount the 1x loss.  Auren can be dismissive of problems because he has high confidence they can be solved.

An operating manual is good for everyone to write and share with their colleagues.  But it is especially important for low-EQ people.  One thing I do in my operating manual is specifically call out my low-EQ:

Direct over indirect

Auren only understands points that are directly made.  Auren rarely picks up on indirect points (like non-verbal cues).  Auren has mild prosopagnosia — which means he is poor at recognizing faces. (Facial recognition has a high correlation with EQ.)

Another good thing to do in an operating manual is to share your results from personality tests that you think are relevant — for instance, Enneagram, Myers Briggs, and StrengthsFinder tests.

If you had a recent 360 review, it might be useful to provide a link to the review from the operating manual, so your colleagues can dive into more details to help them understand how to get the most out of working with you.

So, here’s what it’s like to be a low-EQ leader…

Prosopagnosia and its correlation with low-EQ.

Some people are naturally gifted at recognizing faces.  They can remember faces really well. We all know people that “never forget a face.”  

Recognizing faces tends to be highly correlated with high-EQ.  These people tend to be better at reading non-verbal cues.  People who are good at recognizing faces tend to also stare at faces longer and have more of a natural ability to connect with people.

On the other hand, there are people who have prosopagnosia — which is a kind of face blindness.  There are varying degrees of severity of prosopagnosia — including the very severe highlighted in the first chapter of Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

Lots of famous people “suffer” from prosopagnosia including Jane Goodall, Chuck Close, John Hickenlooper, Steve Wozniak, and even Oliver Sacks himself.  

I personally have prosopagnosia.  And while it is not extreme (I can always recognize my wife and kids), it has led to many embarrassing situations with me not being able to recognize friends of mine that I see out of context (like running into them on the street).  Like most people with prosopagnosia, I overcompensate by remembering many other details about people (I have an incredibly good memory for birthdays, timelines, resume details, etc.).  I had a very difficult time at conferences or cocktail parties but have benefited a great deal from the post-COVID world of scheduled video calls.

If you have prosopagnosia, even if it is very mild, you are likely to have low EQ and you are going to need to find a way to compensate for it.

Dealing with non-verbal cues.

One of the most glaring deficiencies of low-EQ people is that we don’t pick up on non-verbal cues.  We don’t pick up when someone disagrees, is unhappy, is embarrassed, etc. unless they specifically tell us. 

Most people are used to others picking up on their nonverbal cues and so they often telegraph those cues to people as a socially-acceptable way of expressing their displeasure — especially if it is a mild displeasure.  It can be very frustrating to these people when others do not pick up on these cues.  

Low-EQ leaders can mitigate this frustration by explicitly telling people they work with that they are low-EQ and that they are unlikely to pick up on things that are not explicitly stated. If you do this, the people around you will appreciate knowing there’s a reason you may seem “cold” or “uncaring” when that’s not how you really feel. When people around you know that you have low-EQ, they can help you help them.   

Until a couple of years ago, I was very embarrassed by the fact that I had prosopagnosia and I never told anyone about it except for super close friends.  In fact, this is the first time I have written about it publicly.  Of course, most people that know me would not be very surprised.  

Low-EQ people don’t give off many non-verbal cues themselves — at least not on purpose.  And one of the frustrating things about being low-EQ is that you often get misunderstood by others.  People might think you are unhappy when you are actually very happy — because your own face does not conform to how others generally react to those in your situation.  When you are bad at reading faces, you also tend to be really bad at mirroring other people’s emotions. 

This is compounded by the fact that most people (especially most high-EQ people) think they are better at reading faces then they actually are.  In “‘The Biggest Bluff,”’ Maria Konnikova details hundreds of studies where even the professional poker players, police officers, etc. are terrible at reading faces.  

High-EQ leaders beware: they are actually at a disadvantage here because they are so good at reading faces, they expect others to be able to read THEIR faces just as well. High-EQ leaders sometimes over-value non-verbal communication.

I try to tell people, up-front, that I will be unlikely to read any cues that are non-verbal.  I will need to know explicitly if there is information I can gleam.  This strategy, while not perfect, has greatly reduced misunderstandings.  

Aspergers and low-EQ.

Having Aspergers is very correlated with low-EQ.  And many high-tech leaders have some version of mild Aspergers.  Aspergers is also more correlated with people that are more mathematically inclined.  

Aspergers is different from Prosopagnosia — but they are highly correlated.  For instance, autistic people tend to have extreme difficulty people recognizing faces.

If you are working in the technology world (or in other more quantitative worlds), you are far more likely to work with someone that has Aspergers (or at least a mild version of Aspergers).  And so you will likely encounter a higher percentage of low-EQ people.

Caring is very different from EQ.

Caring deeply about others is very different than having high-EQ.  High-EQ people can read non-verbal cues and can also read the dynamics of the room.  And they are also extremely good at letting others know they care (often through non-verbal cues as well).

Most people that interact with low-EQ people think those people are robots that don’t care as much about other humans.  They can think these low-EQ people are just cost-benefit weighing machines.  But there does not seem to be any correlation between EQ and caring deeply about others.  

Low-EQ people care just as deeply about their family, their work colleagues, friends, and the world.  They just don’t show that they care by their facial reactions so people often think they do not care.  People with high-EQ are much better at telegraphing their caring to others.

Psychopathy and EQ.

There is a debate about how correlated psychopathy is with EQ.  Low-functioning psychopaths (the violent type you might find in prison) tend to exhibit low-EQ while higher-functioning psychopaths (the types you might find in the boardroom) tend to exhibit high-EQ.  Psychopaths might not actually have high-EQs, but the high-functioning ones are at least extremely good at faking it.

Aspergers is inversely correlated with psychopathy.  In essence, people with Aspergers are worse at manipulating others than average.  

The good news is that if you meet a successful person that obviously has low-EQ, there is a very low chance that they are a psychopath.  You actually really need to worry about the person that seems like they care but really doesn’t.  

Overcoming low-EQ.

EQ is extremely important in life and in leadership.  If you have low-EQ you are at a disadvantage … but it is definitely a disadvantage that you can overcome.  

I’m a low-EQ leader and every day, I know I would be a much better leader if I had higher EQ.  And yes, I’ve tried hundreds of things to improve my EQ (and have had a bit of success) over the years, but I will never be Bill Clinton or George W. Bush (two recent high-EQ Presidents).

I hope this piece will help other low-EQ leaders and help the millions of people who work with them.

Special thanks to Maelle Gavet, Nicole Berger, Thomas Waschenfelder, Raffi Grinberg, and others for their help and edits. 

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