Magazine Banner

Interviewing for Emotional Intelligence

By Laura Kushner

Has this ever happened in your city? You hire a Brain key; emotional intelligencewell-qualified person who seems to have all the technical skills you need, but within six months, the new hire has alienated half of the city’s workforce! Unfortunately, it happens a lot when employers focus exclusively on technical skills and don’t try to assess what researchers call “emotional intelligence.”

Wikipedia says that “emotional intelligence (EI) can be defined as the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”

Emotional intelligence has been around as a concept for at least a couple of decades now. Researchers still seem to disagree on exactly what it is, how to measure it, and whether it’s even important enough to measure. However, many organizational psychologists and management experts agree that trying to measure emotional intelligence and select for it through the interviewing process can be a smart way to hire. In the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, authors Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves conclude that emotional intelligence predicts 58 percent of job performance.

In her book The EQ Interview: Finding Employees with High Emotional Intelligence, Adele Lynn outlines five traits that make up emotional intelligence: self-awareness and -control, empathy for others, social expertness, personal influence, and mastery of purpose.

Self-awareness and -control
This trait is described by Lynn as including the ability to manage one’s anger, disappointment, and fear. For example, do job applicants understand that their emotions can interfere with making good decisions or working with others?

Do they speak up in meetings with important ideas to contribute or do they hold back, fearing that others will criticize their ideas? Do they handle constructive criticism well and learn from it or do they become defensive and blame everyone and everything around them? Lack of self-awareness or self-control can damage workplace morale and cause other, more self-aware employees to leave. Screening out such individuals can help ensure a healthier work environment.

Self-control is the other half of the first competence. Everyone has emotional reactions of varying degrees, and emotions in and of themselves can actually result in motivation for change. What’s important to look for here is how job candidates express those emotions. Are they able to express it in a way that is productive and moves the agenda forward, or does it cause workplace conflict? (See sidebar below for interview questions.)

You may be able to asses for this by asking candidates to describe a time when they were angry about something that happened at work. How did they express it? What happened afterwards?

Self-awareness and -control also includes ability to “read” others’ nonverbal cues. Ever interview with someone who had no ability to figure out that he or she had lost the interview panel’s attention about five minutes ago? This may indicate an inability to read nonverbal cues of others. That same inability may carry forward into council meetings, meetings with residents, or meetings with co-workers, and keep the employee from being effective in the job.

Empathy for others
This trait includes the ability to listen and understand other points of view and how your words and actions can affect other people. For example, a department director who cannot understand the point of view of the city council is not likely to be successful.

Asking applicants to describe a situation when someone came to them with a problem and how they handled it, or asking them to describe a time when understanding someone else’s perspective helped them work better with that person, may help you measure their capacity for empathy.

Social expertness
The third trait may be confused with social skills, but it goes deeper than that. It is the ability to build genuine relationships with others, and to express both concern and conflict in healthy ways. It also means being organizationally savvy, according to Lynn, which she describes as “the ability to understand and maneuver within organizations.”

You don’t have to be in the workforce very long to understand the value of such people. You may have experienced such a person when you were new in a job and a co-worker said something like, “Go to John if you’re confused about how to proceed. John always knows how to make things happen.”

Questions that get at the “how” of developing relationships—such as “How do you develop rapport with people?” or “How do you build relationships with people?”—should help you measure social expertness.

Personal influence
This trait is often described as leadership. It refers to the ability to inspire others, create a positive work climate, and get results from others. Sports teams pay a lot of money to coaches who have these qualities, but we all need such people in our workplaces.

Being optimistic is one aspect of this trait. We’ve all worked with someone who was always making “doom and gloom” predictions, like “We will never get this project done on time.” These types of people can drag down the morale of an orga┬Čnization or a work team very quickly. But team members who remain hopeful and keep trying new things and taking risks can inspire others to follow their example.

Questions that ask candidates about past experiences with projects they felt would fail, or times when they were more optimistic than others about the chances for success on a project, may help assess this trait.

Mastery of purpose
Last but not least, is the trait Lynn calls mastery of purpose, which others may call motivation. Lynn describes it as the ability to carry out one’s intentions, vision, and values. These are people who know what they want out of life and set out to get it.

When people’s vision and values line up with their job duties, something beautiful happens! Time flies by for the person because they are so engaged in their work. They don’t experience boredom at work and clearly enjoy the work they do. It is meaningful to them, and others notice that.

Questions about the type of job candidates like or dislike may help you figure out whether the job is a good fit with their interests and skills. Someone who understands their own values and motivations should be able to speak about them at the interview. They should be able to tell you pretty quickly, for example, what types of jobs they found to be unsuitable or uninspiring in the past.

So, if you put all of these skills, competencies, and traits together, what does an emotionally intelligent person look like? According to a company called TalentSmart, which specializes in emotional intelligence, people are emotionally intelligent if they:

  • Keep lines of communication open even when frustrated.
  • Recognize when others are affecting their emotional state.
  • Show others they care about them.
  • Are open to feedback.
  • Accurately pick up on the mood of a room.
  • Only speak out when it helps the situation.

If you have employees like this, do your best to retain them. If you don’t, you may want to start hiring with emotional intelligence in mind.

Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: lkushner@lmc.org or (651) 281-1203.

Questions to Interview for Emotional Intelligence Read the July-August 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.