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By July 24, 2019August 12th, 2019No Comments

By Lisa Kaplan Gordon

You may not be able to define emotional intelligence, but you know it when you see it.

You know when a manager understands his emotions and keeps them in check, he has emotional intelligence. And you know when a manager blows up and shames subordinates, he sadly lacks emotional intelligence.

Hiring for emotional intelligence has never been more critical. The national job market is tightening, and you need to hold onto the employees you have. And the recent trial of French telecom executives, who were accused of “intimidation maneuvers” leading to 19 employee suicides, shows what could happen when leaders lack emotional intelligence.

Marie Peeler, a principal of Peeler Associates in Boston, MA, is an executive coach specializing in helping business professionals develop and strengthen their emotional intelligence.

“There are very few jobs that don’t require working with other people in some capacity,” says Peeler in an interview with “If we are emotionally intelligent, our relationships will be on better footing.”

Although the concept of emotional intelligence has been around for about 20 years, businesses (nonprofit and for-profit) have been slow to embrace the concept.

“For so long, people have been told there’s no place for emotions in the workplace,” Peeler says. “But we bring our emotions with us to work every day. We bring our mood and the fight we had with our teenager over breakfast. The key is being aware of it.”

Ashley Zahabian, an emotional intelligence consultant, told Forbes magazine that statistics from Harvard, Stanford, and the Carnegie Foundation show that 85% to 87% of business success “accounts from soft skills, emotional intelligence, and personal skills,” Zahabian said, “yet we only pay attention to them 10% of the time. It was so backwards to me.”

Nonprofits, in particular, must embrace these soft skills, because employees expect more emotional intelligence from groups whose mission isn’t making money.

“The mission drives a lot for nonprofit employees, who go to work expecting to encounter more empathy and people skills,” Peeler says. “When it’s not there, they think, ‘Good grief! We’re a nonprofit based on our mission. You’d think we’d be all over this stuff. It’s heartbreaking.”

OK, what is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is two-pronged. It’s the ability to:

  • Understand and control your emotions
  • Understand the way your emotions affect the people around you.

But, emotional intelligence is not synonymous with “nice.”

“There is a misunderstanding that someone who has a high level of emotional intelligence is a real nice guy,” Peeler says. “A nice guy could be somebody who gets walked on easily. But someone with emotional intelligence is aware of their emotions and manages them, so they don’t spill out in ugly ways. They have a very strong backbone.”

Traditionally, a good business leader is defined by his focus, resourcefulness, and goals set and achieved.

Emotional intelligence, however, doesn’t stand in opposition to those traditionally valued executive qualities.

“In reality, the person who has emotional intelligence is better positioned to meet goals,” Peeler says. “That’s why hiring managers are looking more for people who have that emotional quality.”

How to hire for emotional intelligence

Traditionally, hiring managers have used job interviews to suss out “if” not “how” a candidate will get a job done. Questions have centered around actions, not process; results, not awareness.

Consequently, hiring mistakes have been made.

Peeler remembers conducting a follow-up interview with a candidate that had risen to the top of the heap. Even though other interviewers thought that candidate was a good fit for the job and company, Peeler concluded the hire would be “a huge problem and out in six months.”

“I was noticing an underlying threat because she never admitted to contributing anything to any problem,” Peeler says. “That isn’t realistic. If we look back upon our careers, we can usually figure out how we enabled a situation.”

The new hire left before her first anniversary.

Dos and don’ts when hiring for emotional intelligence

Peeler doesn’t maintain a list of 10 questions every hiring manager should ask to discover emotional intelligence. But she does advise interviewers to investigate a candidate’s thought process and how they reflect on successes and failures. Most important, ask questions that “tease out whether or not someone is self-aware.”

When you say, “Tell me something you’re particularly proud of,” listen for collaborative accomplishments. If they beat a budget by reducing costs, dig into the process, and look for a resolution that was win-win for all parties.

When you say, “Tell me about something that didn’t work out as planned,” see if they take responsibility for the glitch, or do they blame others.

“This questioning gives me the opportunity to see how self-aware they are. I’m looking for their ability to achieve that ‘ah-ha’ moment. I’m looking for empathy,” Peeler says.

Unlike Peeler, we love lists. So, here’s a list of interview techniques that are most likely to yield a candidate with emotional intelligence.

  1. During interviews, listen more than talk.
  2. Look for themes and threads that tie a candidate’s working life together. Is every problem someone else’s fault? Is every success their accomplishment alone? Do they share credit and own blame?
  3. Don’t ask, “What is your worst trait?” a frequent interview question. Candidates don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot.
  4. Ask the candidate to reveal something they wish they could do over. If the answer reveals a failing that the candidate owned and corrected, that a sign of emotional intelligence.

If you realize a candidate isn’t particularly emotionally intelligent but has other skills you value, don’t think some consultant can teach remedial emotional intelligence.

“If the person recognizes they would benefit from cultivating a new set of skills, I can work with them,” says Peeler. “If they don’t, it’s pointless.”

How many clients lacking emotional intelligence truly want to develop it?

Peeler says, “About half.”

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