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Spotting the Emotionally Intelligent Candidate

When this characteristic is important for leadership, tests may be the best route

While academics debate whether emotional intelligence (EI) can be taught, in the workplace, HR professionals are searching for ways to identify EI among candidates and strengthen it in employees. 

EI is the ability to understand your own feelings and to empathize with other people. 

Dean Bender, principal at Bender/Helper Impact, a strategic communications firm with more than 40 employees and offices in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, said he’s always looked beyond technical or practical skills when interviewing job candidates.

“We absolutely try to simulate a situation that could potentially occur and want to see how the candidate responds,” he said. “It could be related to deadlines, crisis or client relations. We're about far more than just technical skills. I can teach or improve the many skills required for our profession, but there are intangibles that can't be taught and we try to learn at an early stage just how emotionally intelligent our new employees are.”

Some academics see EI as a sharpening of traditional leadership skills, while others view it as a cluster of personality traits that promote well-being and self-actualization. Some researchers maintain that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others say it’s an inborn characteristic. 

Many HR professionals embrace the theory that with training, coaching and time, a person’s EI can be honed so that he or she is able to express difficult emotions and remain calm even in stressful situations. For these HR professionals, EI is an important trait to bring to the workplace, particularly for those in leadership positions. 

Studies have found that people who not only know and understand their own feelings, but who also comprehend and can deal with the feelings of others, function more effectively in every aspect of life. A 40-year study of University of California at Berkeley doctorate-degree holders found that a person’s EI was four times more likely than their intelligence quotient (IQ) to predict who would achieve success in their field of work.

David Caruso, a research affiliate in the department of psychology at Yale University and co-author of the business book The Emotionally Intelligent Manager (Jossey-Bass, 2014), said that other studies have shown that people with high EI “have better quality long-term relationships, are better at managing stress and create more-positive work environments.”

But he suggested that when considering someone for a job or promotion, first focus on intelligence and technical skills, then ascertain whether the candidate has the EI necessary for the position. 

Spotting emotional intelligence in a job candidate isn’t always easy, said John Mayer, a University of New Hampshire psychologist who is among researchers credited with coining the term “emotional intelligence” back in 1990. For one thing, people with different goals and personalities will express emotional intelligence differently. For example, he said, achievement-focused people will use their EI to get ahead; relationship-focused people will use it to maintain and improve relationships.

“I don’t believe it would be very easy for HR professionals to pick up emotional intelligence in an interview,” he said. “In my opinion, only ability-based tests are reliable, valid ways of doing that. Such tests are useful when there is good evidence that emotional intelligence is important to job performance.”

Caruso, Mayer and Yale University President Peter Salovey developed a model of EI, explaining that EI is comprised of measurable abilities in four areas: the ability to accurately perceive emotions, the ability to use emotions to facilitate thought, the ability to understand complex emotions and transitions between stages of emotions, and the ability to integrate data and emotions to devise effective problem-solving strategies.

The threesome then created a tool to objectively assess EI abilities: the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, or MSCEIT. The test measures and provides scores on these four emotional abilities. In a guide to the MSCEIT, Caruso wrote that the test was developed in accordance with two principles: Emotions are critically important to our success, and these emotional skills can be measured objectively.

“If you want to measure the ability to accurately identify how people feel, one way to do so is by asking the test-taker what emotions are being expressed in a photograph of someone’s face,” Caruso wrote. “For example, if you show a photo of a person displaying mild sadness, and the test-taker selects an answer indicating that the person is feeling a bit happy and somewhat surprised, then such an answer is considered incorrect.”

The International Society for Research on Emotion calls the MSCEIT “the most well-respected and widely used measure of EI,” but it is by no means the only emotional intelligence test available. There are dozens of tests, from dozens of sources, including TalentSmart, which claims that 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies rely on its products and services.

Bender of Bender/Helper Impact said his company hasn’t yet deployed a formal emotional intelligence test, relying instead on his own interviewing abilities. But he’s certainly open to it, he said, and may yet “make it an official part of our interview process.”

Thomas K. Arnold is a freelance writer based in Carlsbad, Calif.


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