There are many traits to look for when hiring exemplary employees. You’ll consider the candidate’s past job experience, aptitude and culture fit. However, you should focus on one trait above all else: emotional intelligence (EQ).
In today’s environment, where many employers put a premium on workplace collaboration, hiring employees who can understand and control their emotions – while also identifying what makes those around them tick – is of the utmost importance.
Bill Benjamin, a partner at the Institute for Health and Human Potential, says emotional intelligence is by far the most critical hiring factor to consider.
“Provided people have the threshold experience, IQ and technical skills needed for the job, EQ either makes or derails a candidate’s performance and career,” he said.
We’ll look at what emotional intelligence means, why it’s essential in the workplace, and how to hire emotionally intelligent people.
The term “emotional intelligence” was first unveiled in a paper written by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Salovey and Mayer developed the theory while painting a house.
“Over fresh coats of paint, the two friends and collaborators lamented that theories of intelligence had no systematic place for emotions,” according to the website. “Using each of their expertise, they articulated a theory that described a new kind of intelligence: the ability to recognize, understand, utilize, and regulate emotions effectively in everyday life.”
Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program, defines emotional intelligence in the workplace as the ability to understand and manage your emotions while grasping other people’s emotions and motivations. With these skills, an emotionally intelligent employee can help a team work together on shared goals.
“Whenever you put two or more people together, they need to learn how to work together, and emotional intelligence is a huge part of that,” McKee said.
When employers seek top performers, research shows that they should start by looking at emotional intelligence. Benjamin said research by Harvard University, the Institute for Health and Human Potential, and many others have determined that emotional intelligence counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be a star performer.
Here’s a look at the factors that make a potential employee’s EQ so important.
“It’s not that IQ and technical skills aren’t important, but they are threshold competencies: You need a certain amount of them to do any job, and once you are over the threshold, getting more IQ and technical skills doesn’t significantly improve performance,” Benjamin said. “It’s often said, ‘IQ and technical skills get you the job, and EQ gets you the promotion,’ or the corollary: ‘IQ and technical skills will get you hired, and EQ will get you fired.'”
The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 Future of Jobs report says that emotional intelligence is one of the 10 most in-demand skills and that it will remain there through at least 2025.
“Overall, social skills – such as persuasion, emotional intelligence, and teaching others – will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control,” according to the WEF. “In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”
McKee believes that as more “dull and dangerous” jobs fall by the wayside in favor of artificial intelligence and machine learning, emotional intelligence will be even more critical, pointing out that the jobs that will remain will involve things that machines can’t do. These include jobs requiring complex thinking and envisioning the future – jobs that require understanding your values, emotions and thought processes.
McKee says that these jobs will also necessitate understanding how to work with people vastly different from ourselves and learning how to read people so we can guide them individually and collectively toward a common goal.
While emotional intelligence is essential for all employees, McKee believes that it may be even more critical for those in charge. She said that managers and other leaders set the tone for the entire workplace; therefore, good managers must understand how their emotions can impact those around them.
“If they aren’t able to understand their own impact on people – for example, they don’t understand when they are having a bad day and when they are stressed out – [that] is contagious, literally,” McKee said. “And then other people will start to have a bad day, and before you know it, everyone is, and no one is thinking as clearly as they need to.”
While many employers understand the importance of finding employees with high emotional intelligence, how do you make this search part of your hiring process? Here are some important steps to take.
Employers must first commit to looking for emotionally intelligent employees, according to McKee. She said that employers will often say this is a quality they want, but when the hiring process actually starts, they become laser-focused on resumes and job skills.
“The first step is acknowledging openly that emotional intelligence is one of your top criteria for hiring,” McKee said. “It is one of the things you are going to recruit on and one of the things you are going to screen candidates on.”
Once you’ve made that commitment, you need to dig in during the interview process to get candidates to explain things they have done in their past that displayed emotional intelligence, such as leading a team through a rough patch.
One technique McKee suggests is conducting an advanced behavioral interview. She said that hiring managers could use this to identify a quality – emotional intelligence, in this case – they want in that employee’s skill set.
“Ask about experiences, last job, where they are going in the future, strengths and weaknesses,” McKee said. “They are all useful. You get a sense of their interpersonal style and comfort [with] having a conversation in a stressful situation and a sense of the fit for the culture.”
McKee said that you also have to dig deeper to see previous examples of their emotional intelligence. Hiring managers can ask job candidates to talk about a time when they were working on a team and felt they and the team were successful.
“I want to hear about what you did to make that happen,” McKee said. “Oftentimes, people will say something vague. Push them to really talk about what they do until you get to the point of them telling you things like, ‘Well, the team didn’t start very well. In fact, we had some conflict. I sat back and tried to understand what the conflict was about, and then one by one, I tried to reach them.'”
McKee said that when you get an answer that covers what people did, thought and felt about the situation and their actions, you can get a much better sense of the candidate’s emotional intelligence.
Benjamin agrees that the best way to determine someone’s level of emotional intelligence during the hiring process is to ask interview questions that put them in stressful situations, which can draw out emotional responses. “This way, you can understand how they have responded to pressure, conflict and difficult emotions in the past, as well as observe how a candidate reacts to emotionally based questions.”
In addition to common interview questions, these are some of the interview questions Benjamin suggests that hiring managers ask:
For each question, Benjamin said, hiring managers should ask the candidate follow-up questions about the thoughts and feelings they had and the actions they took.
If someone can’t answer a question, Benjamin said, it may be a sign that they shy away from tough conversations or have trouble admitting mistakes. He said hiring managers should use the answers to gauge how much self-awareness the candidate has of their thoughts and emotions. If they have trouble describing situations, they may lack emotional awareness.
For those who can describe specific situations, Benjamin encourages hiring managers to consider whether their actions demonstrate the ability to take ownership, show personal accountability and step into pressure situations.
“While you need to ensure that people meet the minimum requirements of IQ, experience and technical skills, the bottom line is, if you aren’t hiring and developing people for emotional intelligence skills, you are not going to be competitive in the future,” Benjamin said.
While it’s the professional opinion of Dr. Shané P. Teran that all jobs should require high emotional intelligence, at a minimum, jobs with emotional labor as a part of their work culture and duties should require their employees to have a high EQ.
“These would-be jobs [are] found within the healthcare industry, mental health, customer service, hospitality, law enforcement, emergency response roles and transportation, to name a few,” Teran said. “In jobs such as these, there is a great need to be in control of your own feelings, understand the emotions of others, and use this information to make decisions that yield a favorable end result.”
Teran admits that some of the jobs listed are pretty obvious, but she noted that individuals working in transportation industries come across many in-transit people from varying lifestyles, events, situations and attitudes. If someone can’t gauge the emotional state of an individual who might be in a very bad space or have ill intentions, people could get hurt.
Sometimes, employers must work with what they have, which means improving their current employees’ emotional intelligence. Here are a few ways to accomplish this:
Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.