Emotional intelligence in the workplace: A dog and pony show

Emotional intelligence in the workplace

Emotional intelligence in the workplace seems like a fairly important topic. I think we all would prefer a boss who isn’t a total dickbag — poor management frays social bonds, as well as the bottom line — but the way most offices are set up, this type of boss is stunningly rare. We tend to think of managers as KPI gatekeepers, which ironically comes from a book written in 1911. Business is supposedly super dynamic these days and “moving faster than ever,” and maybe that’s true — but we’re by and large thinking about management in terms from 106 years ago. “Moving faster than ever,” eh? Maybe that’s why we have a 82 percent failure rate among managerial hires.

The problem with a concept like “emotional intelligence in the workplace” is that it reeks of soft skills. While most good leaders are ultimately very good at soft skill stuff, usually these skills are not revered in businesses. To most executives, “soft skills” is a synonym for “stuff that doesn’t make money.” Executives get fat bonuses off new revenue streams, so they focus their attention on ways to develop those revenue streams. I’m not saying this is bad, per se. Psychologically, it’s very logical.

Probably the main example would be communication in the workplace. Communicating well is commonly construed as a “soft skill,” and as a result, most companies are a giant game of Telephone all the time. “Fred in Operations needs this!” (pause) “On it, boss! But who is Fred?” These are real conversations that happen all day, every day at some companies. If you don’t believe me, read this.

We’ve been talking about ideas like EQ for years. That’s the same thing as emotional intelligence in the workplace. But can we start to actually hire and promote for it?

Emotional intelligence in the workplace: In … banking?

Yes! Here’s an interview with a 40-year veteran of Morgan Stanley. He just wrote a book about emotional intelligence in the workplace, which on the surface seems fairly weird. Bankers are some of the biggest revenue hound target-hitters in the working world. Why do they care about EQ? Well, there’s this quote in the interview:

In my experience, the professional service firms, the banks, the law firms, the accounting firms and the consulting firms don’t do a good job at the front end in terms of screening for emotional intelligence. What they do is they screen for cognitive skills, grade point average and work ethic, and they figure that over time they’ll sort out who’s got the soft skills to succeed. But unfortunately, those people, when they start out, don’t realize that the soft skills are going to be the differentiators. At the front end, in the beginning, it’s adaptability. Over time it becomes much more about networking and team building and bringing in business, and that requires clients to like you and to trust you, which has nothing to do with your cognitive skills.

In other words: your hiring process is likely broken.

“What’s measured is what matters!”

We get to this spot — especially in professional service firms — because of The Spreadsheet Mentality, or this idea that “only what’s measured can matter to an executive.” This is the ultimate irony in business, because most executives have no clue what data even means. They want to (a) operate on their gut and (b) have someone point at a row and tell them how much money they just made.

This is the inherent problem with emotional intelligence in the workplace. We should be hiring for it, of course, but it’s very hard to measure. Some sociopaths could come into an interview, game the generic interview questions, and present as having high EQ. You hire them, and then 28 months later, the turnover in their department is 92 percent. Most recruiting/hiring processes are a subjective mess driven by confirmation bias, and it’s hard to fully get at emotional intelligence in the workplace in such a context.

We also overrate competence

Traditional metrics on “what makes a successful candidate” usually overvalue competence (i.e. GPA) at the expense of everything else. I personally know hundreds of people with 3.5 – 4.0 GPAs who are utter morons. A good GPA barely means you’re intelligent; it means you know how to work the system of professors and grading. It certainly doesn’t mean you’d thrive in a standard white-collar environment, which spits intelligent people onto the floor with regularity. The reason we tend to overrate competence, of course, is because (a) we’ve always done it that way, (b) the hiring process is largely a cover your ass move by the hiring manager, and (c) it’s hard to measure for emotional intelligence in the workplace.


So how could we get closer to measuring for emotional intelligence in the workplace?

A couple of ideas:

  • Scrap the standard interview questions: They’re very generic and easy to game.
  • Replace them with more thought-driven questions, or explore how people develop relationships: An example might be, “If you were trying to bring in a new book of business, how would you go about that? What would the steps look like?”
  • Make references matter again: MAGA! Kidding. References are a joke. Most HR people I know barely even try to call them. Candidates obviously list people who will speak well of them. What about looking at a candidate’s LinkedIn, seeing who you know at those previous companies, and talking to them? (That can’t be illegal, right?)
  • Have the job-seeker interact with the team: One of the biggest jokes of hiring is that you only tend to meet your eventual manager. Your manager might speak to you twice a month, honestly. The real work is done with your team, but a lot of companies don’t let people interact with the team during the hiring process. (I guess because the team is busy.) But then it’s a total train wreck of a fit — the manager liked the candidate, but the team can’t stand him. Emotional intelligence in the workplace sinks.

The bottom line on EQ and hiring

Most hiring processes are set up in this way:

That process above is very, very common. It’s nearly impossible to develop emotional intelligence in the workplace when you’re bringing in people in that way. So you need to start by rethinking how and why you hire. I could go on and on about “manager training on emotional sensitivity,” but if you bring in people this way, you won’t get good people.

What else would you add on emotional intelligence in the workplace?

Ted Bauer


  1. I’m a strong believer in the power of Emotional Intelligence and how it impacts your business. In the last year or so I’ve begun to question whether it is really possible to tech emotional Intelligence to people who consider themselves ‘leaders’ already, working at a senior level and having little or no EQ. In my experience I’ve seen them ridicule the benefits of EQ and the people who need it most are the ones who want it least. I’m increasingly convinced you have to catch people early with EQ when they are open, the longer they ‘get away’ with behaviour that has no EQ, the less likely they are to be open to it’s benefits and that in turn filters down to the people who work for them.

    Do you know if there is any research which points to the best time to learn EQ ?

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