How to hire for emotional intelligence

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In a rapidly evolving work environment, it takes more than technical skills or qualifications for an employee to thrive, and employers are turning to a new indicator of an employee’s potential success – emotional intelligence (EQ). But how do you assess a candidate’s abilities in this seemingly soft skill? Read on to find out.

Let’s start with an important question – what exactly is emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence is a set of skills that allows us to perceive, understand, evaluate and manage emotions in ourselves and others. Four key pillars help easily define it:

  1. Self-awareness, or the ability to understand your strengths, weaknesses and emotions
  2. Self-management, or the ability to manage your emotions, often tested in stressful situations
  3. Social awareness, or the ability to perceive others’ emotions
  4. Relationship management, or the ability to influence and motivate others, and to solve conflicts through self and social awareness

Employees with a high EQ know how to identify, harness and utilize emotions to achieve the best possible results from themselves and others. These abilities not only make them top individual performers, but equally strong teammates and leaders.

Now more than ever, a company’s success is dependent on its ability to innovate, adapt and grow – which can’t happen without effective collaboration and a diversity of perspectives. Emotionally intelligent employees possess the ability to let go of ego, consider new perspectives and work toward common goals. And it’s by using those abilities that they become essential to your company’s success.

Furthermore, EQ is vitally important in facilitating internal relationships among coworkers, and it’s becoming increasingly critical for managing relationships with customers and clients. From sales to customer success and every department in between, building a team of emotionally intelligent employees is an impactful competitive advantage.


How to assess for EQ skills

Companies currently in the systematic or strategic stage of the Greenhouse Hiring MaturityTM curve are likely already utilizing a structured hiring approach – defining the necessary attributes for success in a given role and designing an interview process to assess for them.

As you build out your structured process to assess EQ through the hiring process, be sure to define what that means for each specific role or team. For example, a management role might require more self-management than an individual contributor. The more defined and detailed you are in what you need, the better your interview team can calibrate for an assess for EQ objectively.


Interview questions to help gauge EQ

We recommend using behavioral-based questions or case studies to assess emotional intelligence because they provide meaningful insights into a candidate’s motivations, thought patterns and behaviors in real-life situations.

Let’s take a look at three specific questions that can help you gauge a candidate’s EQ level. These questions are designed to suss out what makes a candidate effective in using their EQ in the workplace.

  1. Tell me about a time when you worked toward a team goal but didn’t achieve it. Looking back, what would you do differently?

    This variation on the question “What’s your biggest weakness?” levels-up this idea by assessing the candidate’s self-awareness of their role and responsibilities in a team setting.

    A high EQ candidate will be quick to take accountability, use failures as a learning opportunity for the future and showcase a growth mindset. You’ll also gain insight into how they handled any stress or other negative emotions that came up along the way.

  2. Tell me about the person you regularly need to work with who is the most challenging for you to collaborate with. What do you do to manage this working relationship?

    This question gets to the heart of the relationship management component of EQ. Candidates with high EQ are self-aware of their role in a given relationship and take accountability for their responsibilities in adapting their perspective or approach to make the relationship work. Solution-oriented approaches will come to the forefront of the response of any candidate with a high EQ.

  3. Tell me about a time when you had to be confrontational to achieve results. What did you do, and how was it received?

    Learning the background and details of the confrontation is key to understanding the candidate’s emotional intelligence in this question. Why was confrontation the only option? Was it planned or spontaneous? Even if the confrontation was unplanned, a high EQ candidate can still exercise self-management, control their emotions and work toward a positive outcome.

Whether you use these questions or others more specific to your team or the role’s responsibilities, avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” and be sure to probe for the level of detail that uncovers the insights you need by following up with questions like:

  • What happened next?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What was the other party’s response?
  • What specific actions did you take?
  • Looking back on the experience, would you have done anything differently?

Remember it’s not just the “what” that you’re looking for – it’s the “why”.

Lastly, remember to craft your interview through the lens of providing a positive candidate experience. Behavioral-based questions can be challenging, so start with a few warm-up questions, keep things conversational and give candidates plenty of opportunities to shine.

Good luck and happy hiring!


Looking for interview questions to help you understand a candidate's skill level for a role? See this list of 10 competency-based interview questions.

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Maria Culbertson

Maria Culbertson

is a Senior Recruiter at Greenhouse. She has been working to connect the right people to the right opportunities for over ten years across multiple industries. Outside of the office, she’s launching a blog that blends her passions of fitness (over 450 classes across 100+ studios) and travel (20+ countries). Keep the conversation growing with Maria on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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