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Emotional Intelligence Skills in Hiring: How to Spot Them

image for Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock
Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock
  • Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own emotions and recognize the emotions and motivations of those around you.
  • Emotional intelligencecounts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be a top performer.
  • When hiring for emotional intelligence, ask interview questions that get job candidates to describe how they acted in past situations.
  • Their responses will give you an idea of their emotional intelligence. 

There are a lot of traits you should be looking for to make a perfect new hire. The candidate's past job experience, IQ and culture fit should all be taken into consideration. However, there is one trait you should be focusing on above all else: emotional intelligence (EQ).

In today's work environment, where many employers put a premium on collaboration, hiring employees who are able to understand and control their own 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, said emotional intelligence is by far the most important factor to consider in hiring.

"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.

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, the theory was developed while Salovey and Mayer were painting a house together.

"Over fresh coats of paint, the two friends and collaborators lamented that theories of intelligence had no systematic place for emotions," says 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 one's own emotions and understand the emotions and motivations of other people so that they can guide people to work together and work collaboratively 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 are trying to find top performers, research shows 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. 

"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.'" 

A World Economic Forum survey found that emotional intelligence is currently one of the 10 most in-demand skills by employers and that it will remain among the most sought-after skills through at least 2022.

"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," the World Economic Forum wrote in The Future of Jobs report. "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 skills will be that much more important. She said the jobs that will be left are the things machines can't do. These include jobs that require complex thinking and envisioning the future, which in turn require the understanding one's own values, emotions and thought processes.

McKee said these jobs will also necessitate understanding how to work with people who are really different from ourselves and learning how to read people so we can guide them individually and collectively toward something we are all trying to do.

While emotional intelligence skills are important for all employees, McKee believes these qualities may be even more critical for those in charge. She said managers and other leaders set the tone for the entire workplace, so first and foremost, they must understand how their own 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 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 actually make this search part of your hiring process?

Employers must first commit to looking for employees who are emotionally intelligent, according to McKee. She said employers will often say this is a skill they want, but when the hiring process actually starts, they become laser-focused on the resume 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 really need to dig in during the interview process to get candidates to explain things they have done in their past that displayed emotional intelligence.

One technique McKee suggests is conducting an advanced behavioral interview. She said hiring managers can use this interview technique to identify a behavior – emotional intelligence in this case – that 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 of having a conversation in a stressful situation and a sense of the fit for the culture."

McKee said you also have to dig deeper to see previous examples of their emotional intelligence. Hiring managers can ask job candidates to tell them about a time when they were working on a team and felt they and the team were really 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 talks about what people did, thought, and felt about the situation and their own actions, you can get a much better sense for the candidate's emotional intelligence.

Benjamin agrees that the best way to determine someone’s level of emotional intelligence in hiring 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," he said.

These are some of the interview questions Benjamin says hiring managers could ask:

  • Can you describe a time you were given critical feedback?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to have a difficult conversation?
  • Can you describe a time when there was tension or conflict on a team?
  • Can you describe a time a change was instituted that you didn't agree with?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to come up with a creative solution under pressure?
  • Can you describe a time you made a mistake?

For each question, Benjamin said, hiring managers should ask the candidate follow-up questions about what thoughts and feelings they had and what actions they took.

If someone is unable to answer a question, Benjamin said, it may be a sign 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 are able to describe specific situations, Benjamin encourages hiring managers to consider whether the actions they took demonstrate the ability to take ownership and personal accountability and to 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.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has spent more than 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014.