Three Questions to Gauge Emotional Intelligence

  • David Priemer
  • March 22, 2019

The importance of hiring employees skilled in emotional intelligence may be difficult to overestimate.

Research suggests that as artificial intelligence and machine learning overtake more of the tasks traditionally carried out by people, emotional intelligence (EI), sometimes referred to as emotional quotient (EQ), will play an important role in those jobs with staying power. Other research points to how emotional intelligence bolsters hard skills. And those who argue over just how important EI is don’t write it off as entirely irrelevant.

But hiring managers often have a difficult time gauging the emotional intelligence of candidates.

As a vice president at Salesforce, part of my job was to find a way to achieve this. After all, “high-EQ sales cultures win more business.” Between that experience and running my own company, Cerebral Selling, I’ve developed job interview questions that deliver key insights — not just for sales teams, but for any kind of business.

To make these questions work, you first need to understand what makes up EI. Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, breaks down the concept into “emotional competencies” that include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

The goal for hiring managers is to come up with questions that provide insights into all four arenas of potential talent’s emotional competencies.

Question 1: How do you establish trust?

For work teams to succeed, your employees need to trust one another. It’s been found that high-trust environments promote higher worker engagement, with the research finding that on the opposite end, when trust is compromised, people “become withdrawn and disengaged.”

In sales, trust is especially make-or-break. One survey found that more than 90% of buyers at businesses report they will buy only from companies they trust — and that trust comes in large part through rapport with sales representatives.

Building trust requires multiple emotional intelligence competencies. It means understanding what the other person is expressing, sensing what they’re feeling, being conscious of your own behavior, and altering your behaviors with each individual. I’ve found this interview question is a great opportunity to probe how much thought a candidate gives to all these elements.

I was particularly impressed by a candidate who told me that although he goes into meetings with lists of questions to ask, he doesn’t expect all of them will be answered. After all, no customer enjoys being politely interrogated. Instead, this candidate explained that he stays attuned to what the other person wants to talk about and finds creative ways to get at the key insights he is seeking.

Question 2: If you worked for your top competitor, how would you beat yourself?

It’s important to give candidates a chance to share their strengths and success stories. I even ask them what their superpower is. If they know what they’re good at, they’ll be able to double down on it and leverage that strength in their job.

But people with high EQ also know what their kryptonite is — their weak points. It’s part of self-awareness. And they should think through how those weak points can affect the team and the organization as a whole. I’ve found that this question gives candidates a chance to show their ability to put the good of the organization ahead of their own pride.

And by framing it this way, you’re inviting the interviewee to look in on their own work from the outside. The ability to take another person’s perspective — what Gillian Ku of the London Business School calls “the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point” — is a crucial EI skill.

Question 3: Can you use a belief statement to explain the value of what we offer?

Increasingly, employees and customers are flocking to companies that have a social purpose — a desire to do something good for the world — in addition to their profit motives. EY reports that these companies have been shown to far outperform the S&P average.

If your company has a purpose, a candidate who has prepared for the interview will likely know it. But asking them to recite a line they read somewhere on your corporate website won’t tell you much. That’s why I ask people to use a belief statement that gets at the heart of what an organization or team offers. Use this as an opportunity to see how the candidate thinks through the concept. And, if you offer guidance, see how they react to being coached through it. (Curiosity and a willingness to learn are good signs of emotional intelligence).

The candidate’s belief statement should express empathy with the needs of customers or employees. For example, “We believe in making great software” shows no consideration of someone’s emotional experience. An answer along the lines of, “We believe people shouldn’t have to deal with glitchy software, which keeps them at work late, missing time with their families and friends,” demonstrates a high level of empathy and understanding of customer pain points.

There’s no foolproof test for gauging emotional intelligence. Each of these questions is an opportunity to engage new talent in a dialogue to assess how they incorporate different principles of emotional intelligence into their work and how comfortable they are at embracing emotional competencies that are core for your team or business. The more you build these kinds of questions into the hiring process, the stronger your in-house EI will become.