How to Spot Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a valuable asset for anyone at work, but especially leaders. Here’s how to spot people who have it.
Emotional Intelligence hiring

Emotional intelligence might sound like a trait that is a nice-to-have among a company’s talent pool and leadership, but it’s a must-have for many.

“Every day is full of emotions,” said Robin Stern, associate director of Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a research and education center based in New Haven, Connecticut. “What’s important about that is that not only you are having a roller coaster of emotions all day long, but everyone around you is having a roller coaster of emotions.”

Emotions are also highly contagious, Stern said. Leaders, especially, set the tone for a workplace because their emotions often come across as more powerful than others. Stern said that in a 2016 Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence survey of 14,000 people, employees who rated supervisors as having high emotional intelligence felt more engaged and that their work was more meaningful. When they rated supervisors as having less EQ, employees had higher burnout and more fear about speaking up.

“Expressing yourself and your emotions in the right way, at the right place, to the right degree, to the right person, at the right time, is essential in leadership and every place in the workplace,” Stern said.

An emotionally intelligent person is someone who is aware of their strengths and challenges and is also someone who is aware of their impact on other people.

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Without strategies to manage emotions, people often turn to ineffective strategies such as ruminating, obsessing, venting, overeating, drinking alcohol and other substance abuse, sleeping and avoidance, Stern said. With healthy, effective strategies, people can reframe their situations to more effectively communicate, express their thoughts and make better decisions in the moment.

Here’s how to spot someone who has a high degree of emotional intelligence:

When seeking to identify EQ during an interview, the interviewer must first understand the degree to which the characteristic is needed on the job, said Robert G. Jones, professor of psychology at Missouri State University.

“Anything that deals with high-stakes human decision-making” requires a high level of EQ, Jones said. This is especially true for managers and business executives. For example, if a person in customer service can effectively read off a script, then EQ isn’t as important of a trait for their role.

Then, the interviewer needs to be emotionally intelligent themselves to properly diagnose another, Jones said.

As far as what to ask during an interview, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s Stern listed the following questions that are good at culling out EQ:

  • Tell us about your relationships, including high and low points and a conflict. What are you aware of in yourself that helps and inhibits you from building a relationship?
  • What traits do you have that allow you to work in a flow with the materials you have?
  • What gets in the way of you doing your best job?
  • What skills do you have that allow you to do your best job?
  • What skills and strategies do you have to manage disappointment?
  • What do you do when feeling unmotivated?
  • If three people you knew from your life were here sitting in this room, what would they say about you?
  • What do you use to manage your reputation?
  • How do you let people know they’re valued?
  • What’s your mindset about emotions? Are they important? Do you think they matter?
  • How do you think people feel about you on a daily basis?
  • How do you feel about the people you work with?

Responses to these questions will likely reveal if someone is flexible, adaptable, generous and kind, Stern said, but this doesn’t mean those with high EQ are necessarily soft — it means they simply have the skills to manage their emotions.

Stern also said that assessments can be very helpful in identifying EQ, but Missouri State University’s Jones is less hopeful.

“I think that self-report measures by themselves are really not especially useful,” Jones said. People need someone other than themselves saying they’re emotionally intelligent. Otherwise, people self reporting can figure out answers based on the goal of the test. Still, Jones said that the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test is the standard for identifying EQ.

Training for Change

Some disagree on the degree to which people can change. “Does someone need to be somewhat emotionally intelligent to begin with in order to improve it? For me, I think the answer is yes,” said Rob Seay, HR director at Bonfyre App, a workplace culture platform based in St. Louis. Because people begin to learn to deal with emotions as children, by the time they reach adulthood, they’re at a certain point in how they make decisions and approach society.

Does Seay think that EQ can improve through training? Yes, but it depends on the willingness of the individual, he said. If they want to improve and apply tactics to manage emotions, they can. However, if people aren’t committed to changing, they’re less likely to improve or do so consistently.

Yale’s Stern said that while some people have natural inclinations to be better or worse at managing their emotions, “emotional intelligence can be learned at any age.”

Still, “developing your emotional intelligence does not come in a toolkit,” Stern said. Changing takes monitoring over time to gain awareness, as well as training by experts to provide personalized tools to develop the intelligence.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email