emotional intelligenceWhat Is Emotional Intelligence And Why Is It Important To Hire For It?

If you take a moment to think of the best leader you have worked with, and contrast them with the worst boss you’ve ever had, you will probably notice that the difference between them is not so much about intellect or technical understanding, but more in the way that they handle themselves and interact with others. Good leaders inspire by example, encourage people to achieve more than they thought possible, and demonstrate belief in their people. Bad bosses sap motivation with angry emotional outbursts, undermine employees whose ability they feel threatened by, or distance themselves from their feelings to leave an ‘emotional power vacuum’ in the mood of their team.

What personal experience tells us about the importance of emotional intelligence to leadership is backed up by research. People who are self-aware, who manage their own emotions, and inspire the right emotions in others make better leaders and are more effective.

A few examples:

  • Project managers with higher emotional intelligence were found to be better at the key competences of teamwork, attentiveness, and conflict management.

Despite the importance of emotional intelligence skills, many managers still lack them. They are blind to the effect their moods and behaviour have on others. They are not in control of their own emotions. And they don’t understand how people are feeling, which means they can’t address the unspoken needs that people have or inspire better performance.

Why don’t we see more emotional intelligence in the workplace? Largely because we don’t look for it when we’re recruiting. Instead, we hire for attributes that we believe are easier to establish and measure: qualifications, test scores, intellect, and a track record of achievement – even though it can be hard to tell if achievements are really down to the candidate, or if they just happened to be in the right place at the right time with lots of high-achieving people around them.

Of course we need people who are intelligent, experienced and qualified. At the same time, and equally importantly, we need people who can understand others, manage conflict, and inspire a positive emotional climate. But how do we assess these less quantifiable qualities?

We could spend a lot on personality assessments to try to make these human qualities more quantifiable. The problem is that most lower-cost or free assessments are easy for clued-in candidates to game by giving the answers they guess you are looking for, and reliable validated assessments are probably prohibitively expensive for all but the more senior positions.

However, by asking the right questions, we can select for emotional intelligence. Better still, we can do it by asking questions that sound similar to the kind of topics that would come up in a conventional interview, and that in most cases will also give us answers about skills, track record and intellect as well, so we don’t have to tack an extra segment onto the selection process.

What Does Emotional Intelligence Mean In A Work Context?

There are a number of academic models of emotional intelligence with slight differences, but they all describe the same set of skills: being aware of and understanding emotions in yourself and others, being able to manage your own emotional state, and being able to handle and inspire emotions in others.

From this definition we can see that we are looking at awareness and management of emotions, in self and others. This gives us an appealingly simple model of emotional intelligence, the one used by the great populariser of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, in his book Primal Leadership (retitled The New Leaders in the UK):

Let’s take a closer look at each of these ‘competency areas’. Goleman and the Hay Group broke their model of emotional intelligence down into 12 more detailed competencies that give us a solid basis for what to look for when hiring. These definitions are based on those given in their Emotional and Social Competence Inventory 360º assessment:


Emotional self-awareness: this is about recognising what we are feeling, where those feelings came from, and what they are trying to tell us about the situation and our performance. It also includes an awareness of how other people view us.


Emotional self-control: this is the ability to manage our emotions, control our impulses and stay effective even in difficult situations.

Achievement orientation: this is about stretching oneself, aiming for excellence, setting and achieving or exceeding challenging goals, and searching for better ways of doing things.

Positive outlook: this is the ability to see the good in people, situations and events, and staying motivated despite setbacks.

Adaptability: this is the ability to adapt to changing conditions and update our ideas.

Social Awareness

Empathy: being able to sense and understand the feelings and concerns of others; being actively interested in other people and able to put yourself in their shoes.

Organizational awareness: being able to read the ‘politics’, relationship dynamics and influencers within a group.

Relationship Management

Influence: the ability to gain support and persuade and influence others in a positive way.

Coach and mentor: taking an active interest in the development of others, and supporting their learning and development through feedback and asking the right questions.

Conflict management: being able to tactfully bring disagreements into the open so as to negotiate and resolve conflicts to find win-win solutions.

Inspirational leadership: the ability to inspire people to get results through communicating your vision and leading by example, and to bring out the best in people.

Teamwork: the ability to work interdependently with others towards shared goals, , rather than competitively or separately.

Which of these competency areas are most important will depend on the profile of the role for which you are recruiting. If the job requires someone to take decisions independently, for example, ‘achievement orientation’ assumes greater weight relative to ‘teamwork’.

Next time: how you need to be as an interviewer to attract emotionally intelligent talent

How To Hire For Emotional Intelligence (Part 1)

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