How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence

We know from research (and common sense) that people who understand and manage their own and others’ emotions make better leaders. They are able to deal with stress, overcome obstacles, and inspire others to work toward collective goals. They manage conflict with less fallout and build stronger teams. And they are generally happier at work, too. But far too many managers lack basic self-awareness and social skills. They don’t recognize the impact of their own feelings and moods. They are less adaptable than they need to be in today’s fast-paced world. And they don’t demonstrate basic empathy for others: they don’t understand people’s needs, which means they are unable to meet those needs or inspire people to act.

One of the reasons we see far too little emotional intelligence in the workplace is that we don’t hire for it. We hire for pedigree. We look for where someone went to school, high grades and test scores, technical skills, and certifications, not whether they build great teams or get along with others. And how smart we think someone is matters a lot, so we hire for intellect.


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Obviously we need smart, experienced people in our companies, but we also need people who are adept at dealing with change, understand and motivate others, and manage both positive and negative emotions to create an environment where everyone can be at their best. The problem is that we struggle to assess EI when hiring (even when we spend a fortune on personality tests and search firms) and we’re never taught how. But you actually can hire for emotional intelligence — and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. If you want to begin, start with these dos and don’ts.


  • Use personality tests as a proxy for EI. Most of these tests attempt to measure what they say they do: personality. They do not measure specific competencies of emotional intelligence such as self-awareness, positive outlook, achievement orientation, empathy, or inspirational leadership.
  • Use a self-report test. There are two reasons these don’t work. First, if a person is not self-aware, how can he possibly assess his own emotional intelligence? And if he is self-aware, and knows what he’s missing, is he really going to tell the truth when trying to get a job?
  • Use a 360-degree feedback instrument, even if it is valid and even if it measures EI competencies, like the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) does. A tool like 360-degree feedback ought to be used for development, not evaluation. When these instruments are used to evaluate, people game them by carefully selecting the respondents, and even prepping them on how to score.


  • Get references and talk to them. Letters of reference simply aren’t good enough when it comes to understanding your candidate’s EI. When you actually talk with a reference, you can ask specific and pointed questions about how the candidate demonstrated various EI competencies. Get lots of examples, with lots of detail. Specifically, ask for examples of how your candidate treats other people.
  • Interview for emotional intelligence. This sounds easy and many people think they are already interviewing for EI. But we aren’t, much of the time. That’s because we allow people to be vague in their responses and fail to ask good follow-up questions. Even when we ask candidates directly about EI or EI-related competencies, they talk about an idealized notion of themselves and what they’d like to be, rather than how they really behave. To overcome this obstacle, you can use behavioral event interviewing.

Behavioral event interviewing is a powerful way to learn about people’s competencies and to see how they demonstrate those competencies on the job. Here’s what you do:

Start the interview by making the candidate as comfortable as possible. The goal here is to make the interview feel conversational, informal, and warm. This tone will help to ensure that you get the truth. Then, ask a couple of traditional questions about the person’s background and experience.

Now you’re ready to start the behavioral event portion of the interview. Ask the person to think about a recent situation at work that included a difficult challenge that she and others had to solve. Encourage your candidate to pick a situation where she’s the “protagonist.” And, ask her to choose a situation that was ultimately successful — one that made her feel proud. Encourage her to tell the story briefly at first. Then, go over the entire story, asking very specific questions about what she thought, felt, and did throughout.

Now, ask for a story about an unsuccessful situation, one that felt like a failure and that your candidate learned something from. Again, ask for a brief overview and then get a lot of detail.
Finally, you want to leave your candidate feeling good about you and the interview so seek yet another positive, successful story.

This interview technique allows you to ask for and hear details about how the candidate thinks in situations that involve stress, challenges, and other people. You also get information about how they felt during the situation. At the very least this tells you if the person is aware of his own feelings. You are also likely to hear how the person managed these feelings, and the extent to which he was aware of his impact on others (all of which adds up to EI). And importantly, make sure you get the person to tell you what they actually did and how they behaved. This is where you will hear about the overt demonstration of EI.

Behavioral event interviewing is not magic, and it takes practice to get enough detail in each story. Don’t worry about asking the person to go back over portions of the story a time or two. Rather, try to get them to tell you the story from a couple of vantage points — what he thought, what he felt, and then what he actually did. Take your time: this is not the kind of interview you can do in half an hour. But the time is well spent.

If you’re able to “see” your candidate’s EI in action, you’ll make a better hire. Or you’ll pass. Either way you’re doing yourself and your organization a big favor.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

Source: How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence

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