Of all the ways to test for emotional intelligence (EI), the marshmallow test might be my favourite. You put a child in a room, set one marshmallow in front of her and explain that, if she’s able to wait 10 minutes before eating it, she’ll get an extra marshmallow to enjoy. Then you leave her alone.
If the child can hold off, it means she has is able to self-regulate—a key component of emotional intelligence. And, as psychologist Walter Mischel has famously shown, this translates into long-term benefits. Kids who delayed gratification at age four grew up to be more organized, efficient, dependable, resilient, and successful teenagers and adults.
Of course, this test only works on small children; few adults would have trouble resisting the first marshmallow. And it measures only one aspect of EI. As Daniel Goleman explained in his landmark article on the topic (What Makes a Leader?, HBR, January 2004), when assessing emotional intelligence, we need to look for not just self-regulation but also self-awareness, motivation, empathy, and social skill. And it’s critically important that we do that well since his and other research has shown that EI is the biggest differentiator between outstanding leaders and average ones.
So how do we assess emotional intelligence in working adults?
First, understand what you should be measuring. There are two levels of emotional intelligence: general traits and specific behaviours. Traits are a person’s inherent disposition or tendency to be empathetic and social and to notice and regulate his or her own emotions. Behaviours are these dispositions translated into action—what Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and others describe as competencies—and they are highly correlated to job performance for leaders. When assessing which candidates to hire, promote, or develop, their traits are less relevant than how they act. At our firm, Egon Zehnder, we have identified six frequent EI-related competencies necessary for leadership success, based on our decades of experience evaluating executives and monitoring their performance. They are: results orientation, customer impact, collaboration and influencing, developing organizational capability, team leadership and change leadership.
The idea is not to index a job or promotion candidate with a single EI number as we do with IQ. Instead, we want to take an inventory of competencies, some of which are more relevant than others for specific roles. For example, customer impact is essential for salespeople, but not for risk officers.
Once you’re clear on the competencies you’re looking for, you’ll need to use interviews and reference checks to confirm whether certain candidates have them, or not, at the target level required. How have they shown the necessary competencies in situations similar to those they will face in the new job? For example, if you are trying to assess the ability to influence, have them tell you about the times when they had to manage colleagues who didn’t report to them. What were their roles? What did they do? How did they do it? What were the circumstances? What were the consequences?
Reference checks should be conducted in the same manner. Ample research has shown that third-party observations are more accurate than self-assessments, particularly when it comes to complex attributes. So find people who can offer wisdom on the candidate’s specific EI-competencies. To check results orientation, speak with bosses; to check leadership, with subordinates; to check collaboration, with peers. And don’t just say: “Tell me about Joe”. Ask the same directed questions you did in the interview.
Emotional intelligence is much more difficult to assess than IQ and experience. And it takes more than a marshmallow test. But if you’re looking to hire outstanding leaders, it’s critically important that you learn how to do it properly.
Claudio Fernández-Aráoz is a senior adviser at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, and the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).
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