Identifying Emotional Intelligence is a Waiting Game

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When describing their tastes in fine art or the type of new home they’re looking for, many people will simply say, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

When I describe what it takes to identify candidates with high emotional intelligence, or EI, I say, “I’ll know it when I hear it.”

Identifying true emotional intelligence is tricky. It takes a lot of listening… and time. To be honest, the entire process is a marathon, not a sprint, much to the chagrin of my clients who are almost always in a “must have now” mindset. That’s why the length of time needed to identify high levels of EI (and a variety of other factors that you can’t ascertain from a single meeting or resumé) can sometimes frustrate leaders who are looking to fill a crucial position as soon as possible. Yet here’s the bottom line: You can’t rush it. And if you do, you might fall for a candidate who demonstrates a false positive and may not have the right EI mix after all.

Years ago I learned not to make quick judgments on interviews. There are countless examples where the best candidates in a search didn’t “do well” during the initial interview process and really required some time to warm up and demonstrate their true potential. I’ve come to learn that this isn’t a bad thing and is actually a sign of a certain type of “rock star” leader who is a good listener, who is self-effacing, and so habituated in the practice of shining the spotlight on others that they often minimize themselves. These are leaders with high emotional intelligence and it takes a lot of practice (and time) to spot them.

False positives

If you try to rush the process you might miss out on a top-tier candidate and pursue someone who is saying the right things rather than simply being him or herself. The candidates who aren’t really looking for a career change and are secure professionally and personally, these are the leaders whose EI will clearly emerge over time.

Regardless of the backstory, I can eventually spot a candidate’s genuineness by their body language, inflection, and style; in other words, not only by listening to what they say but how they say it. I heed my instincts quite a bit when it comes to these kinds of things and have learned to trust my gut feelings. But again, it takes time.

Leaders with high EI have a way of communicating that let’s you know they’re in charge, but they don’t use explicit signals to tell you so. These leaders will gush about the accomplishments of their teams without feeling the need to illuminate on their own role in the process. It’s hard to define, but these are leaders who are both confident and subtle in what they say. I’ve found that most of the people that I’d place in this category are not outspoken or “big” personalities, but tend to be a little bit more reserved.

It always comes back to finding that perfect cultural fit between candidate and organization, but tempering the timeline expectations of my clients is crucial in order to let each candidate’s true colors emerge and identify where they fall on the EI spectrum.

The benefits of EI are universal

Securing high EI talent is so important because nearly all leadership levels require interaction on a personal level—with employees, clients, vendors, etc. So having confident, empathetic, direct, and genuine communication skills is essential in virtually all of those areas. In an unassuming way, people with high marks in the EI area tend to be good mentors and leaders, they share well, they give credit, they’re inspirational, and they energize those around them. People who are highly skilled in the practice of emotionally intelligent communication don’t seek out reward for leading this way because they genuinely want to see people improve and succeed.

Finding “rock star” talent with high marks in emotional intelligence takes time.

But it’s worth the wait.