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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.

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.