5 Questions to Uncover Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

by Diana Bailey - September 17, 2018

It can take up to 20 minutes to recover from an emotional encounter.

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As hard as we might try to be rational operators in the workplace, our emotions seep into our everyday tasks. Businesses are ultimately made up of people, with human weaknesses and strengths. A person who can moderate their own emotions, while empathizing with the emotions of their coworkers, has an easier time letting go of feelings that aren’t productive.

There’s a practical advantage, too: having good relationships, built on trust and respect, can expedite otherwise stalling processes and win over key stakeholders. Natural leaders have the social smarts to get things done and make it look effortless.

“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head–it is the unique intersection of both” – David Caruso

Emotional intelligence is “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others”. Coined in the 1960s, emotional intelligence reached the public consciousness with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ. While the book has been criticized by the scientific community in the years since, the business value of emotional intelligence has been proven in a number of companies.

When the pharmaceutical company Sanofi instated an emotional intelligence program for its sales force, their annual performance increased by 12 percent. According to a TalentSmart report, emotional intelligence is the most important indicator of performance, accounting for 58% of success in jobs. And 90% of top performers score high in emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent workers are more successful, more productive, and better leaders.

The 5 Pillars of Emotional Intelligence

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – C.G. Jung

There are 5 key elements that demonstrate a person’s emotional intelligence.

  1. Self-awareness: This is the core of emotional intelligence. It’s easier to accept feedback if you are aware of your own faults. You also understand the consequences of your actions and your place in the workplace.
  2. Empathy: Understanding a situation from another person’s perspective is key to preventing conflicts. Empathetic people can recognize when something is wrong with a coworker and help them work through a tough situation.
  3. Self-regulation: Passionate emotions can inspire great work, but it’s also crucial to know when your emotions are no longer serving you. Being able to self-regulate means that you can take a step back and cool down.
  4. Motivation: Emotionally intelligent people are motivated by goals and milestones they set for themselves. They aren’t easily knocked down and maintain a positive attitude when they are.
  5. People skills: Emotionally intelligent people enjoy… well, people. They forge friendships and work well in teams with a shared mission.

Emotional Intelligence Predicts Leadership Success

“Emotional intelligence does not mean merely “being nice”. At strategic moments it may demand not “being nice”, but rather, for example, bluntly confronting someone with an uncomfortable but consequential truth they’ve been avoiding.” – Daniel Goleman

Is your company trying to fill a leadership role? Recruiting experienced senior talents can be a lengthy, costly process. For smaller companies and startups, it’s nearly impossible to bring a battle-tested veteran on board to assume leadership. It makes more economic sense to take a chance on elevating the right person to the next level in their career. Whether you promote from within the company, or give a new hire their first supervisory job, strong emotional intelligence can predict if they’ll flourish as a leader.

While a resume plainly lists a candidate’s qualifications, determining their emotional intelligence is more difficult. There are many available emotional intelligence assessments–sometimes known as EQ tests– with varying levels of scientific credibility. Though it may seem old-fashioned, 70% of HR managers say that they assess emotional intelligence by checking a candidate’s references. That being the case, we can make sure we are asking the right questions to build a case for lifting someone into a leadership role.

Before you compare the relative merits of the many EQ tests on the market, you can hire for emotional intelligence just by picking up the phone. If you’re looking to hire a leader, this is what you want to know.

Essential EQ-related Questions to Ask References

1. How does the candidate respond to criticism? What did they usually do after receiving challenging feedback?

What it shows: Self-awareness. As the most critical pillar of emotional intelligence, it’s important to know how they deal with difficult feedback. Don’t forget to ask about the fallout, too. An employee might remain tight-lipped while they receive feedback they disagree with, only to stew about it later, silently refusing to change. You want to make sure that the leader you hire not only accepts criticism, but makes an effort to improve.

2. Can you tell me about a time that the candidate kicked off their own project? What was the result?

What it shows: Motivation. If you are considering hiring someone who doesn’t have managerial experience yet, you’ll want to know if they’ve spearheaded their own initiatives. They might not have had “Manager” in their title, but may have proposed and led projects with their peers. Make sure to ask how it went. At the end of the day, a real measure of leadership isn’t what you start, but how you finish.

3. How open is the candidate to change? Can you tell me about a time they showed flexibility?

What it shows: Self-regulation. Structural changes in an organization can expose individuals that are uncomfortable with uncertainty. They might romanticize how things used to be, complain about the current state of the company, and be slow to adapt to new processes. Asking an open-ended question about their flexibility will draw out stories that will either raise red flags or assuage your worries.

4. How often do they ask their coworkers if they need help?

What it shows: Empathy. True leaders do what they can do lift up everybody. A coworker that regularly offers a helping hand to their peers has likely earned the respect and gratitude of their team. Though some employees might just be too busy to help coworkers as much as they’d like, their colleagues know who has their back when times are tough.

5. Is the candidate social or do they tend to keep to themselves?

What it shows: People skills. Leaders have to work with many people at many levels–subordinates, C-level executives, and other managers. Someone that is capable of developing relationships across organizational hierarchies will be more persuasive and empowered to make real change. That means your ideal candidate will enjoy being around people and actively seek out the company of others.



Emotional intelligence is a trusted predictor of people skills in leadership candidates. Fold these techniques into your interview process and see for yourself how they can contribute to your success down the line.

How does your company assess emotional intelligence in leadership? Let us know in the comments below!

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