The Importance Of Hiring For Emotional Intelligence in Tech and Engineering


May 25, 2024


180 Engineering

Technical expertise has long been prioritized when hiring tech and engineering talent. This focus on hard skills is understandable – after all, an engineer or tech professional simply cannot do their job without the required technical knowledge. Further, hard skills are measurable. With a standardized technical interview, employers can gauge the competency of each candidate and use the results in their hiring decisions.

But increasingly over the past few decades, savvy employers have realized that soft skills and emotional intelligence are also critical to the success of an employee. More recently – and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic – the importance of well-developed soft skills and emotional intelligence has accelerated in the workplace. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing, globalization, an increasing focus on DEI, shifting priorities and frequent pivots, and hybrid and remote work arrangements – all in tandem with widespread socio-economic and political turbulence – have changed the way we work. As well, projects have become more complex and agile methodologies have been adopted. All of these shifts have reinforced the importance of strong soft skills and high emotional intelligence.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

The terms “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence” are sometimes used interchangeably but they are not quite the same thing.

Soft skills are broad in nature. They are non-technical skills that are needed to effectively communicate, collaborate, and solve problems. Examples of soft skills are those related to:

  • Communication;
  • Adaptability;
  • Teamwork;
  • Creativity and innovation;
  • Time-management;
  • Problem-solving; and
  • Leadership.

Emotional intelligence (EQ or EI), on the other hand, is a very specific set of soft skills that help us understand and manage our own emotions, as well as the emotions of the people around us. A well-developed EQ helps us learn about ourselves and apply that knowledge to the world around us. This skill set includes:

  • Self awareness – the ability to understand our own emotions and how they impact the people around us;
  • Self management – the ability to keep our emotions moderate and under control, which is important in easing tension and managing conflict;
  • Motivation – the intrinsic desire to improve ourselves for the sake of improvement and not for external validation;
  • Empathy – the ability to understand where another person is coming from and refraining from judgment, knowing that we are all doing the best we can; and
  • Social skills – in particular, the ability to work well in teams, with strong communication and active listening skills and appropriate body language.

As Mental Health America explains: “People with high EI can identify how they are feeling, what those feelings mean, and how those emotions impact their behavior and in turn, other people. It’s a little harder to ‘manage’ the emotions of other people – you can’t control how someone else feels or behaves. But if you can identify the emotions behind their behavior, you’ll have a better understanding of where they are coming from and how to best interact with them.”

Because EQ is so intrinsic to the way we relate to others, it’s easy to see why a well-developed EQ is critical to many facets of our lives, from our mental well-being to our personal relationships and our academic and job performance.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important In Tech And Engineering?

Despite an emphasis on hard skills in the educational system and during the hiring process, studies show that the most successful engineers are those with superior emotional intelligence. As Harvard Business School points out, “Research … shows that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance. Employees with high emotional intelligence are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively, and respond to co-workers with empathy.”

In an excellent blog post, Daniel Goleman – a leading expert and trailblazer on EQ – argues that:

IQ and cognitive or technical skills, it seems, are mainly threshold competencies, abilities you need at a certain high level to become an engineer in the first place and hold a job. But once you are in that job, you compete with a pool of other engineers who are about as smart as you are—your cognitive abilities have less power in setting you apart from the others…But emotional and social intelligence, which determine how well you manage yourself and work with others, present another skill set entirely. A high level here makes you a great team member and helps you emerge as a leader. Emotional intelligence, then, is a distinguishing competence, an ability that set [sic] stars apart from average.

The relevance of EQ has never been more marked as we navigate through the volatile 2020s. A few decades ago, employees in these sectors may have worked very autonomously, alone in a cubicle. But today, tech and engineering professionals are more likely to work in diverse teams; interact with clients, stakeholders, and vendors; provide customer support; and, in general, require excellent interpersonal skills – of which EQ is a key component.

In addition to bolstering interpersonal skills, a high EQ is critical for problem solving and decision making. Engineering and tech professionals routinely tackle complex problems that require creative and innovative solutions. Understanding how those problems affect people – be they clients, vendors, stakeholders, or end users – can help in the quest to find solutions. Further, high EQ among team members helps to foster the communication and collaboration needed to find solutions.

And, finally, by hiring for EQ and fostering a culture of empathy and understanding at all levels, companies can create a workplace where employees feel valued, supported, and encouraged. Emotionally intelligent leaders can inspire trust, manage conflicts constructively, and cultivate a positive work culture. Together, this positively impacts job performance and overall job satisfaction and ultimately contributes to employee retention, which is critical in today’s tight job market.

It’s quite clear that emotional intelligence has a significant role in the success of individual employees, teams, and your company.

How To Assess Emotional Intelligence During The Hiring Process

Unfortunately, there is no one, “easy” way to assess the emotional intelligence of job candidates – it is a process that requires a nuanced approach. It can involve a variety of strategies including evaluating resumes, implementing certain interview strategies and assessments, and reaching out to job references. While it does require time and effort, the payoff for your team and your company can be tremendous.

Evaluating Resumes and Cover Letters

The language used and examples given in resumes and cover letters can provide insight into the level of a candidate’s emotional intelligence. Savvy recruiters and hiring managers look for references to interpersonal skills, including collaboration, conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership. Volunteer and personal interest activities can also provide clues to EQ, particularly if those activities involve empathy, compassion, or support for others.

Crafting Relevant Behavioral Interview Questions

Structured behavioral interviews are a common method of assessing candidates for professional roles. Extremely effective, these types of interviews ask candidates about their past on-the-job experiences to gain insight into their behavior, skills, and abilities. When crafted with care, interview questions can help interviewers assess the candidate’s EQ. Suggested questions include:

  • “Tell me about a difficult situation that you had to manage with a colleague or client. How did you handle it?”
  • “Can you describe a situation where you received constructive feedback? How did you react, and what did you learn from the experience?

Posing Situational Scenarios In Interviews

Situational interviews are very similar to behavioral interviews. The goal of both is to gain insight into how a candidate will likely react to difficult situations at work – which can reveal the depth of their EQ. The difference is that a behavioral interview asks for details about an actual incident that occurred in the past and prompts a verifiable response (e.g., by asking one of their references). In a situational interview, however, the questions revolve around hypothetical situations.

Situational interview questions that can give insight into a candidate’s EQ include ones such as:

  • “What would you do if you made a mistake and no one noticed?”
  • “How would you resolve a situation where a team member got upset or angry with you?”

Analyzing Body Language And Non-Verbal Cues

You don’t need to be a psychologist or expert in reading body language to garner information about someone’s emotional intelligence during an interview. People with high EQs typically excel at reading non-verbal cues, demonstrating empathy, and employing active listening skills.

Utilizing Emotional Intelligence Assessments

There are validated emotional intelligence assessments that have been developed specifically for the hiring and interview process. These assessments might be questionnaire-style self assessments or they might provide scenarios as in the interview questions above, asking the candidate to describe how they would approach certain situations.

Assessments of this sort provide a more standardized approach to measuring EQ, which may provide more objectivity when narrowing down the choice between candidates.

Reaching Out To References

A candidate’s job references can provide valuable insight into their EQ. During a reference check, you may ask questions specific to emotional intelligence, including those like:

  • “Does the candidate get along with their colleagues?”
  • “Does the candidate regularly struggle to regulate their emotions?”
  • “How does the candidate handle difficult situations?”

By incorporating these strategies into the hiring process, hiring managers can gain valuable insight into a candidate’s emotional intelligence. Hiring professionals with high EQs is becoming increasingly important in the tech and engineering fields. Careers in these sectors have shifted dramatically over the past few decades particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Alignment with company culture, collaboration and teamwork, creativity and innovation, and the ability to adapt and exhibit resilience have become critical to the success of companies and their employees – and all these skills are directly related to emotional intelligence.