Ever since it became a buzzword in the 1990s, HR experts have loved talking about the importance of “emotional intelligence” in hiring. A CareerBuilder survey last year found that 71% of employers value “EQ” (or “EI” — no one can seem to agree) over the more traditional measure of aptitude, IQ. Broadly speaking, emotional intelligence is the ability to sense and react productively to other’s emotions, and to manage your own. Tim Gunn has a high EQ; Gordon Ramsay does not. But is EQ really measurable, and even if it is, is it always the measure of a good employee?
Stephen Balzac, a psychology professor and president of the Massachusetts management consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead, is skeptical of an over-reliance on EQ. He used the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride to sum up the problem with emotional intelligence: “You keep on using this word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“We talk about EQ, but we don’t really define it,” Balzac explained. “As a result,we get all manner of bad interviewing and poor hires. Each person brings their own definition to the table and hires the person who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”
In other words, a hiring manager might say she’s hiring based on emotional intelligence, which gives her choice the patina of being based on an established HR strategy. But she might just be hiring the person she gets along with best, rather than the person who would best in a job. “When you hire based on supposed EQ — your own or the candidate’s — you are far more likely to get someone who is charming and personable, but incompetent,” Balzac says.
There’s nothing wrong with hiring someone you think that you, and other employees, will get along with, of course. But it’s important to also make sure the person has the right skill set and can deliver the results you want. Balzac advises asking interview questions that hone in on the candidate’s performance during conflict situations, such as a disagreement on a team. If you ask them how they’ve brought a team to consensus, “Do they tell a story of discussion, cooperation, and reasonable argument between professionals? Or do they tell a story of shoving their solution down the throats of the rest of the team?”
In the end, it’s important to remember that not all jobs require more people skills than traditional skills. An off-the-charts EQ might be a great predictor of success in some fields, but don’t let an HR buzzword lead you into hiring something who will be everyone’s BFF but can’t get the job done. If you’re staffing a restaurant, in other words, hire Gordon Ramsay, not Tim Gunn.