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How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence

When considering the strengths and weaknesses of new talent, do you factor in their street smarts versus their book smarts?

In the ongoing debate of what’s more important in determining career success – cognitive intelligence (IQ) or emotional intelligence (EQ) – we need to regard intelligence as a full spectrum of hard and soft skills.

As the psychologist Howard Gardner suggests, intelligence is not simply a single general ability; there are multiple intelligences, and people may have strengths in a number of different areas.

Traditionally, hirers have tended to focus on a candidate’s hard skills in the recruitment process – delving into whether they have the job skills, experience, knowledge, and expertise. But where they may be falling short, is uncovering the elusive soft skills – the expressions of EQ – that are fast becoming the more covetable qualities in an increasingly unstable corporate climate.

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

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence (EI) or Emotional Quotient (EQ) refers to a person’s capacity to recognize and manage their emotions, and the emotions of other people, to the benefit of varying relational situations.

An important player in both personal and professional success, having a high EQ helps people handle interpersonal relationships empathetically and judiciously.

Unlike hard skills, which are related to knowledge, EQ is a set of soft skills related to emotions, according to Dr. Ben Palmer, Founder of Genos International, a consultancy firm dedicated to emotional intelligence services.

In a Fast Track interview, Dr. Palmer says that when we consider levels of emotional intelligence, we’re considering how well we’re able to:

  • Perceive and understand emotions within ourselves 
  • Read emotions in others and demonstrate empathy
  • Express how we feel and reason with emotions
  • Manage emotions in ourselves and others

Dr. Palmer’s work is inspired by the work of Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and the world’s leading author on the topic. Through countless books since the 1990s, Goleman has highlighted emotional intelligence as an essential tool for living and working.

Why are emotional intelligence skills important in the workplace?

Every workplace can benefit from having team members with honed soft skills associated with a high EQ – not just well-developed hard skills

Prior to the 1990s, before Goleman launched his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, it was largely expected that employees left their emotions at home or hidden beneath the facade of corporate pleasantries. 

Since then, and more so since the advent of the global pandemic, it is undeniable that emotions play an important role in all aspects of our lives—furthermore, high levels of emotional intelligence benefit employee performance. 

This is due to the direct effect emotions have on our behavior. “Emotions show up in your tone of voice, your facial expressions, and in your body language, and because of that, they are fundamental to how you connect, communicate and collaborate with others.” Dr. Palmer explains.

With finely tuned emotional intelligence – understanding our emotional triggers, how they might play out in our behavior, and adjusting them accordingly – we can individually and collectively create a harmonious workplace culture.

And a harmonious workplace culture is not only beneficial for the mental wellbeing of team members, boosting productivity and increasing staff retention. It also helps companies be more profitable and provides a sustainable competitive advantage. 

As Prof. James L. Heskett wrote in his book The Culture Cycle, effective culture can account for 20-30 percent of the differential in corporate performance when compared with “culturally unremarkable” competitors.

“By teaching people to tune in to their emotions with intelligence and to expand their circles of caring, we can transform organizations from the inside out and make a positive difference in our world.”

Daniel Goleman, Author of Emotional Intelligence (1995)

How to hire for emotional intelligence skills

Commit to prioritizing EQ

The first step in hiring for emotional intelligence is acknowledging its level of priority in the recruitment process and committing to seek out and screen candidates based on their EQ. This could look like initial over-the-phone questions that go to the heart of the candidate’s emotional capacity. 

A candidate that offers answers that are honest, authentic and telling demonstrates an ability to acknowledge their own feelings and compellingly communicate them – one of Goleman’s EQ competencies.

Interview for emotional intelligence

Uncovering a candidate’s emotional intelligence in interviews is a vital step in the recruitment process. This may sound obvious but without realizing it, through our own emotional sensitivities, it can be easy to allow candidates to give vague answers without delving deeper through follow-up questions. 

Behavioral interview questions that get job candidates to describe how they acted in past situations or would in future situations, are a great way to test emotional intelligence in an interview. 

Ask questions such as:

  • Tell me about a time someone criticized your work. How did you respond?
  • Describe a time a change was instituted that you didn’t agree with and what followed.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to solve a problem under pressure?
  • Can you tell me about a situation at work that made you feel frustrated?

Being attuned not only to the candidate’s verbal responses but also to how comfortable they appear when answering the uncomfortable questions, are good indicators of a high EQ. If a candidate shuffles around in their chair, freezes up or stumbles, it’s likely you need to keep pressing for some authentic answers.

Ask references the right questions

Finally, pick up the phone and actually talk to a candidate’s references. This way, you can ask specific questions about the candidate’s demonstrated EQ competencies and ask follow-up questions that will likely lend themselves to detailed intel.

Ask questions such as:

  • What was the candidate’s reputation in the workplace?
  • How did they treat other people?
  • What was the candidate’s communication style?

Assessing emotional intelligence skills

Emotional Intelligence will look different in many different roles, so it’s imperative to define what ‘high’ emotional intelligence looks like in the context of the job. For example, strong social skills and self-awareness would be beneficial in a sales role, whereas a director will need to demonstrate high emotional regulation.

Once you have clearly defined what emotional intelligence looks like on the job, you can create job simulation questions using skills testing software like Vervoe to test a candidate’s emotional intelligence skills that are relevant to the role.

Building assessments where candidates engage through audio and video recordings, as well as written responses will reveal how they are likely to behave in real life work situations.

An assessment for a salesperson, for example, could place candidates in a scenario where multiple deals have fallen over in the past 24 hours, and they’re going to miss their targets. 

You’ll be in a position to pose: What is their emotional state, and how do they manage it? This will provide insight into the candidate’s self-awareness and adaptive coping strategies.

How to measure emotional intelligence

Effective questions and behavioral assessments should yield telling results, but there are many ways that emotional intelligence skills such as emotional regulation and empathy can reveal themselves.

Here are five key emotional intelligence skills and how you as a recruiter can identify them in a candidate’s responses.

Five key emotional intelligence skills
Five key emotional intelligence skills

Self-Awareness – the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions

A candidate who is self-aware may:

  • Ask for constructive feedback from their peers
  • Implement techniques to help pay attention to their thoughts and emotions such as meditation, mindfulness practices, or self-reflection through journaling
  • Work on personal development through goal-setting, a growth mindset, and pursuing passions

Self-Regulation – the ability to regulate and manage your emotions

A candidate who is able to self-regulate may:

  • Have personal ways to help soothe difficult emotions such as breathwork, positive self-talk, or cognitive reframing
  • Communicate clearly and take action to diffuse conflict amongst team members
  • Approach a challenge as an opportunity

Social Skills – the ability to build meaningful relationships with others

A candidate with strong social skills may:

  • Show interest in others and ask open-ended questions
  • Demonstrate active listening
  • Communicate confidently verbally and through body language

Empathy – the ability to understand how others are feeling

A candidate with empathy may:

  • Share their own feelings
  • Show extra care or concern for someone who’s suffering
  • Engage in a social or community cause

Motivation – the ability to engage in behavior that is driven by internal reward

A candidate with motivation may:

  • Take initiative
  • Set small, measurable goals
  • Celebrate positive results
  • Introduce challenges to keep up interest

It is clear to all that hard technical skills are essential in determining a candidate’s ability to perform well in a job. But in these unprecedented times, if you’re not hiring emotionally intelligent people, you’re not offering your company or client the topmost talent it deserves.

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