Getting the Lowdown on the EQ: Interviewing for Emotional Intelligence

It’s all the rage these days—emotional intelligence or EQ—and it ranks right up there with IQ as a necessary trait among leaders. While there are traits you want to look for in any candidate, like certifications, technical skills, degrees, IQ, and past job experience, there is one trait worth exploring that will benefit your business more than any other: emotional intelligence. So just what is it, and how do I interview for it, you ask? Good questions. Let’s see if we can shed a little light on the subject.

What is Emotional Intelligence, and why should I hire for it?

Emotional intelligence in the workplace means an employee can not only understand their emotions and motivations but can recognize the same in those around them enough to teach others how to work together and collaborate on shared goals. EQ, according to experts like Annie McKee, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program Director, is what small businesses should focus on rather than on school credentials or high test scores.

That’s not to say that hiring intelligent people is a bad thing. However, in today’s work environments, IQ may not be enough. Of course, you want to hire bright, capable, experienced employees. But you also want to hire people who can manage their emotions and the emotions of others and who are adept at handling change and conflict.  You want someone with empathy who understands people’s needs and desires and what inspires them to action. Lastly, you want a candidate who has leadership potential and can motivate others to build stronger teams.  

An OfficeTeam survey of human resources professionals in the US and Canada reveals that 95 percent of HR managers said they prefer candidates with a high EQ. Forty-three percent of HR managers from the same survey believe the most significant benefits of hiring staff with high EQ are improved motivation and morale. Emotional intelligence, according to A World Economic Forum survey, will be one of the most sought after skills well into 2022 along with critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation skills.

Think of it like this.  As more manual jobs fall to either machines or artificial intelligence, the positions left are those that machines cannot perform. Those highly prized positions require originality, flexibility, and complex problem-solving—competencies needed from people with high emotional intelligence. 

So, is there a best way to determine the emotional intelligence of a potential employee?

Well, surveys, like the one from OfficeTeam, will tell you that the large majority of HR managers (70%) focus on references, 55 percent use behavioral event interviewing, and 32 percent use personality tests.  All these methods require some effort and, of course, time, while only one comes at a higher cost than most small business owners can afford. Testing may seem foolproof, but according to Anne McKee, the tests available may not accurately score for emotional intelligence.

Use the provided references to ask specific questions.

When conducting reference checks, ask questions about how the candidate demonstrated their emotional intelligence abilities. Did the candidate demonstrate empathy? Don’t forget to ask how. Did the candidate use critical thinking to address conflict? In what way? Was the candidate a good listener and communicator, and how did they demonstrate those skills? When your questions are answered with only a yes or no, ask for details and examples. Also, specifically, ask how the potential employee treated others. Did the employee find a way to motivate others in a shared goal, and how did they accomplish that?

Use the behavioral event interview.

 At its core, behavioral event interviewing is simply a way an interviewer can learn about someone’s emotional intelligence abilities and how they use those abilities on the job. There are no rules to follow in this type of interview. If you have to ask for specific details, you can do that even if it means asking them to repeat themselves. For instance, when asking a candidate to describe a successful situation within their job role, encourage them to explain the story briefly. Then from their answers, ask very detailed questions regarding the same situation.  What did you do to make it successful? Did you have help from others? What was their role? How did you feel working with that person?  Next, ask them to explain about an unsuccessful situation and ask detailed questions regarding that event.

The idea here is for the candidate to reveal to you how they think when challenged or behave under certain situations, and constantly shifting priorities. You also get an idea about how they feel, how they managed those feelings, and if they recognized what impact those feelings have on others.

Here are some behavioral event questions to get you started:

  • Discuss a time when you took the initiative on a project. What was happening that caused you to take charge? What did you do? How do you think others perceived your behavior?
  • Describe a time you disagreed with a decision made by a co-worker. What happened, and what were the results of your actions?
  • Describe a time when you received critical feedback. How did it make you feel? Did you think it was fair? What did you do after receiving that kind of feedback?
  • Describe a situation where you made a mistake on the job.  How did you handle that? What would you do differently today? How did others react to your mistake? What were the repercussions?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to come up with a solution on the fly. What was that like? Who benefited? Did everyone agree with your solution?
  • Describe a situation where there was team conflict? How did you handle that? Did you talk to co-workers about the conflict?

As you can see from the questions, behavioral event interviewing is asking candidates about a given situation and having them explain it from two different points of view. The question should have the candidate explain their thinking at the time, what they were feeling, and their actual response was to the event. To get the best results, you can’t rush behavioral interviewing, but it will be well worth it for all your employees and for your business too.


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