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Human Resources: Firms need EI as much as IQ

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Cite as: (2008) 82(9) LIJ, p. 84

With emotionally intelligent staff, firms are set to reap benefits.

When selecting staff, it is so easy to be caught up in technical and cognitive ability that it’s possible to overlook skills and competencies that are arguably even more important.

In a service industry such as the law, the nature of the work demands strong “people” or “social” skills and an ability to understand and respond appropriately to clients’ needs. This is where emotional intelligence (EI) might very well be the missing link.

EI can be generally defined as a person’s ability to perceive, understand and appropriately deal with his/her own emotions as well as those of others, and to then use the information to help regulate behaviour, build successful relationships and make effective decisions.

According to psychologist David Goleman1 emotional intelligence is made of five areas of competency: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

Research has suggested that EI is twice as important as either intellect or expertise in predicting performance.2

Leaders with high EI are able to inspire, motivate, train and influence others, understand their employees’ needs, respond to them appropriately, sense how to provide appropriate and constructive feedback, and ultimately get the best out of their staff.

Those with EI are also generally more likely to display integrity, conscientiousness, flexibility, comfort with ambiguity and change, teamwork skills, and the ability to effectively deal with difficult people. They are also more adept in analysing what people are saying and reading between the lines, taking on feedback and improving themselves, anticipating and recognising clients’ needs and negotiating and resolving disagreements.

A lack of EI among staff, however, can be related to a greater incidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination, high turnover, unethical or fraudulent behaviour, stress, conflict and a generally hostile workplace.

So how do you incorporate EI assessment into your recruitment process, identify it in potential candidates and hire people who will drive your firm’s success?

The biggest mistake you can make in your selection process is to rely too heavily on knowledge, technical and cognitive competencies. Although it is important to measure these, it is things such as relationship skills that account for most of the problems we encounter in the workplace.

It is possible to gauge EI in an interview. Home in on a candidate’s emotional and social skills by focusing on behavioural questions: ask them to draw on difficult experiences and talk through how they handled these situations, or ask them directly to provide examples of situations in which they have demonstrated any aspect of emotional intelligence and how this affected their ability to gain results.

Try these questions:

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in the legal industry?
  • Tell us about a time you were given a project or task that you’d never done before or didn’t have all the information you needed to proceed? What steps did you take?
  • Coming into this new role, what would you do to help integrate yourself in the firm?
  • Can you give us an example of a difficult client you have had to deal with in the past, what made them difficult to deal with, and what you did about it?
  • Tell me about a time you felt ineffective or frustrated with your efforts to deal with a conflict between yourself and a co-worker.
  • Can you tell us about an action you’ve taken that you have regretted immediately after, and what you might do differently next time?
  • What would you do if you weren’t getting along with your manager?
  • How would you handle it if a subordinate still appeared uncomfortable or hadn’t warmed to you after several months in
    the job?

EI is to some degree innate, but unlike cognitive ability or IQ, it can certainly be developed over time with training. So you can help to ensure your people have the emotional and social competencies necessary to excel by offering EI training.

There are many training providers who offer specialised training in EI, often under the umbrella of leadership development,
and the value of this kind of training is unquestionable.

The ultimate goal of EI training is to break existing ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving and establish new ones.

Ultimately, we learn how to identify and manage our emotional reactions, and this is particularly important for solicitors dealing with emotional issues and clients.

EI is important to business success: it distinguishes performance in all areas of work, in particular in the service industry, and you can’t be a strong leader without it. The good news is, EI can be developed in existing staff, and can be identified in candidates through your future recruitment processes. Keep EI in mind as just as important (if not more so) as cognitive competencies and ultimately you should see the impact it will have on your bottom line.

To do list

  • Assess EI in your recruitment process.
  • Make an allowance in the budget for training, and offer staff and leaders EI training as a part of their professional development.
  • Integrate EI (and the demonstration of behaviours that indicate these competencies) into your daily practices such as policies and procedures, leadership KPIs and your firm’s values. This will help to reinforce the right behaviours.
  • If you have the resources, measure the impact of EI leaders on employee alignment and overall firm performance to justify the investment in training.

KELLY DERMER is the LIV’s Human Resources coordinator. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit

1. Goleman, D, Working with emotional intelligence (1998), Bantam Books.

2. Institute for Health and Human Potential,, p1.


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