5 Interview Questions Managers Should Ask to Assess Emotional Intelligence

To measure self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

best emotional intelligence interview questions for managers and leaders

Emerging research in talent management tells us that one of the most important functions of today’s team leaders is to cultivate our team’s collective sense of oneness, and this begins by selecting emotionally intelligent team members.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as “the ability to understand your emotions and those of other people and to behave appropriately in different situations.” Daniel Goleman, the best-selling author and science journalist, popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) with his first book on the topic. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not EI is a real thing.

Whether you believe in the concept of EI or not, the five elements Goleman says comprise it are valuable in and of themselves for any position that involves working as part of a team.

And what job doesn't?

According to Harvard Business Review, “just like individuals, the most effective teams are emotionally intelligent ones.” And to be an emotionally intelligent team, teammates “must be mindful of the emotions of its members, its own group emotions or moods, and the emotions of other groups and individuals outside its boundaries.”

So, in the spirit of assembling a highly effective team, here are five interview questions you can use in your next interview to assess a candidate’s overall emotional intelligence.

1. “Are you familiar with the concept of emotional intelligence?”

Let’s start with the basics because we can’t have a conversation with a candidate about emotional intelligence if they don’t know what that even is.

The best answer I ever received from a candidate on this one was, “Emotional intelligence? Yeah, my girlfriend talks to me about emotional intelligence all the time.” Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best per se, but it was definitely the most telling.

It’s not impossible for someone unfamiliar with EI to demonstrate it naturally. Still, it is unlikely that they’ve consciously spent time developing this ability if they’re unaware of what it is. This is an excellent fundamental question to set the stage and let them tell you what they do or do not know.

2. “What does emotional intelligence mean to you?”

This question will blow anyone’s cover who lied to you about being familiar with EI in the first question — and plenty of people will.

So, bonus — this question measures ‘integrity,’ too!

It’s easy to say, “yes, I’m familiar,” but it’s harder to elaborate on what it means to you if you’re unclear about what the concept is.

If it turns out that they don’t know what it is, this is a great time for you to provide your own interpretation and emphasize why EI is important for your team.

Having a personal definition of EI is a great start, but identifying emotionally intelligent — or unintelligent — behavior in others is especially important for those of us in management positions. If you’re interviewing someone who will lead a team, consider a follow-up question like the one below to understand what the candidate views as emotionally unintelligent behavior:

  • “Tell me about a time when you identified an EI issue in an employee and helped them turn it around?”

3. “What is one misconception your coworkers have about you?”

This question gets to the root of self-awareness or your ability to recognize your emotions, understand how those emotions impact your behavior, and surmise how others may perceive you as a result.

Someone with a high level of self-awareness should be able to identify something their co-workers falsely believe to be true about them and how their past behavior at work has contributed to that belief.

To dig even deeper into a candidate’s level of self-awareness, you might follow up by asking questions like:

  • “What impact has that had on your professional relationships?”
  • “Have you done anything to work to change those perceptions? Why or why not?”
  • “What do you think led them to believe that?”

4. “Tell me about a time when your mood negatively impacted your interactions with your teammates at work.”

We all have bad days, but some are better at stopping those bad days from impacting the innocent bystanders caught in our orbit. This is called ‘self-regulation.’ People who can self-regulate their emotions don’t allow their lousy mood to negatively impact those around them by lashing out or shutting down.

To probe deeper into a candidate’s level of self-regulation, and their desire to improve it, you might follow up by asking:

  • What steps have you taken to avoid this happening again?

5. “Tell me about a time when you had to deliver bad news.”

At its core, EI is about empathizing with other human beings and understanding what they might be feeling at any given time. Because this question focuses on delivering bad news, it assumes that the person on the receiving end of said news will be disappointed or upset about it.

As a result, this question helps you understand whether the candidate a) anticipated the person’s reaction and b) how thoughtful they were in their delivery.

To dig deeper into a candidate’s level of empathy, you might follow up by asking questions like:

  • “Tell me about how you prepared for this conversation. What factors did you consider beforehand?”
  • “What surprised you about this person’s reaction to the news?”
  • “What would you do differently if you had to have this conversation again?”

More and more research continues to point to the team as a critical component of employee engagement and satisfaction. Harvard Business Review’s research shows that “three conditions are essential to a group’s effectiveness: trust among members, a sense of group identity, and a sense of group efficacy.

Without these three things, a team will never reach peak effectiveness.
“To be most effective, the team needs to create emotionally intelligent norms — the attitudes and behaviors that eventually become habits — that support behaviors for building trust, group identity, and group efficacy.”

As a team leader, perhaps the most important role you play is curator of the team.

By incorporating emotional intelligence into your talent selection criteria, you’ll increase your likelihood of onboarding team members who are well-positioned to achieve all three conditions required for highly effective teams.

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