How to Measure Emotional Intelligence When Hiring People

Last week, I attended an advisory board meeting for one of the Junto companies. In the meeting, they asked how to assess the emotional intelligence of candidates in their hiring process. As we all know, that process starts with the job description and typically ends with onboarding and training. In between, there are countless ways to evaluate whether an applicant possesses that elusive set of traits that is hard to identify if someone has, but easy to when they don’t: empathy, self-awareness, self-control, and relationship management.

When I heard the question, the first thing that crossed my mind was the process we just concluded for filling the position of Program Coordinator at The Junto Institute (in fact, our top candidate called me five minutes before the board meeting began to accept our offer). The reason it was the first thing is because I realized that I didn’t consciously evaluate our candidates’ emotional intelligence for much of the hiring process. To me, that assessment now happens on a more subconscious level.

You see, for the past six-plus years, I’ve accumulated a fair amount of experience trying to understand the levels of these attributes in a variety of people. Personally, I’ve been studying and practicing emotional intelligence (EI) skills and behaviors. I’ve had hundreds of meetings and interactions with a cross-section of society, from total strangers to close friends and family, whose emotional intelligence I was curious about and/or tried to evaluate. In the last two and a half years, I’ve personally witnessed the learning and practice of EI by startup founders and leaders who participate in The Junto Institute’s apprenticeship program. And along the way, I’ve partnered with or hired several people at Junto, where it goes without saying that a certain level of EI is a job requirement.

It wasn’t until I began writing this post that I realized how subconsciously (or even unconsciously) I evaluate the emotional intelligence of others. It’s only when someone asks me directly that I give conscious thought to it. So after the question came up in the advisory board meeting, I spent considerable time thinking about it.

While there are countless ways to measure one’s EI levels during the recruiting process (or any other relationship-building process, for that matter), here are five that stood out in my mind.

  1. In an interview, ask the question, “How are you feeling right now?” This was the response I gave in the advisory board meeting. How long someone takes to answer the question (hopefully, they give some thought to it), how well they handle the silence in between, and how earnestly you believe they are answering it can help provide insight into the candidate’s self-awareness. Are they comfortable acknowledging their nerves, enthusiasm, energy, or anxiety? Do they look you in the eyes when responding? Does it seem like they tense up or do they seem comfortable responding?
  2. Consider how well your questions are answered and instructions are followed. This helps you understand how attentive of a listener the job candidate is. Do they provide a direct answer or beat around the bush? Do they go off on tangents? Do they think before answering tough questions, showing comfort with silence? In our recruiting process, we ask candidates to answer one question in their initial application - “How will you breathe life into Junto?” - and it surprises us how many people don’t answer it.
  3. Think about the quality and number of their own questions. This, to me, is a deal-maker and deal-breaker in the recruiting process. Studies have shown that people with high emotional intelligence are very curious; they ask questions because they want to learn and understand, demonstrating self-awareness, self-management and empathy. They tend to ask open-ended, probing questions that begin with “why” and “how”. This contrasts with people who ask closed-ended and surface-level questions, often simply for the sake of doing so in an interview. In those cases, such questions often begin with “what” and “when” and “who”.
  4. Observe their behavior while interacting with others. One of the benefits of group interviews is being able to observe the candidate while he/she speaks or listens to your colleagues in the room. You’re better able to assess non-verbals which make up over two-thirds of our communication and even more of our emotional intelligence. Watching people interact with others also provides a window into their empathy and relationship management skills. Do they pay more attention to senior team members or treat everyone equally? Do they ask questions of those colleagues who are more quiet? Do they make consistent eye contact with everyone in the room?
  5. Notice if they smile, when, and why. As someone who is not a natural smiler, I pick up on this all the time. People who are emotionally intelligent know when to smile, when not to, what type of smile to make, and how to use smiling to manage interactions and relationships. In our group interviews, I was watching our candidates to see if they smiled consistently as they spoke with each person around the table. If they did, it was a positive sign to me because it demonstrated their respect and appreciation of each person in the room. However, if they didn’t smile with everyone, I hesitated from reaching a conclusion; because I’m not a natural smiler, I know that it’s not the only signal for respect and appreciation of others. At the same time, since I know it’s an emotionally intelligent behavior (when it’s done earnestly; look for the crow’s feet next to the eyes), I’ve been working on it over the years.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to assess one’s emotional intelligence. Please share in the comments section what you do or what you look for when interacting with people.