Beyond Gut Reactions: Improving Your Interview Process with Social Intelligence

Have you ever heard an interviewer who was evaluating a job candidate say, “I’m going to listen to my gut on this one”? You might be surprised to learn that “gut reactions” have a scientific basis. But should you listen to your gut? 

Social intelligence examines how physiology influences our feelings and the important role other people play in our emotional reactions. With this theory in mind, we’ll look at how gut reactions can fall short and explore tactics to keep unconscious emotional responses from sabotaging your hiring.

Humans are hard-wired to sync

To help understand what we mean by “gut reactions,” a good place to start is with American psychologist and author Daniel Goleman’s 1995 theory of emotional intelligence (EI). 

Over the years, many businesses have put Goleman’s theory of EI — which states that identifying a person’s values and emotional triggers develops better self-management skills and improves relationships — into practice. Goleman’s later book, “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationship,” though less well-known, is just as important for the workplace. In it, he looks beyond the individual’s emotional intelligence to examine how humans interact and connect as groups. 

According to Goleman, the human brain evolved so that we could quickly read other people’s emotional cues — especially strong emotions, such as panic or fear. 

As humans develop socially, we learn to interpret face-to-face interactions and register micro-expressions with lightning speed, enabling us to subconsciously make decisions about others. That subconscious response, which Goleman calls “the low road,” is your gut reaction. 

This wiring, Goleman explains, also drives our desire to find harmony and build rapport with others. As we perceive others’ emotions and unconsciously react, we tend to sync up with each other — a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion.”

Social intelligence applies tactics that help us overcome these unconscious tendencies so we can make more informed, independent decisions. So what does this look like in hiring and recruiting?

How group responses can drive your gut reactions

Let’s go back to that example of a recruiter saying, “I’m going to listen to my gut” when evaluating a candidate. Goleman explains that some unconsciously registered verbal or physical clues are affecting the interviewer’s evaluation. 

If you’ve ever been part of an interview panel that shares feedback on candidates, your reactions were likely affected by emotional contagion. 

Perhaps you picked up on others’ moods and biases. You might be swayed by someone’s seniority or position. Maybe you sensed some preconceived notions about the type of candidate who “fits.” Emotional contagion can impact your responses to a candidate in various ways. 

The perceived importance of another panel member can impact the whole group: “Emotions flow with special strength from the more socially dominant person in the room,” Goleman says, influencing those with less perceived power.

Unconscious biases based on appearance, race, gender or age are another significant factor — whether they’re your own or those of others. 

Emotional contagion can even occur across large, virtual communities, such as social media, and be influenced by outside events, such as news or pop culture.   

Apply social intelligence to reduce unconscious influences

So how do you reduce unconscious bias and fight emotional contagion? Applying social intelligence to interviews helps give qualified candidates a fair shot. Here are three areas where candidates and employers can use practical tactics to improve interview experiences: 

1. Personal interactions

Goleman believes that attunement, or how reactive you are to another person’s emotional state, is key to successfully connecting with others — which is especially important during interviews. 

To bring social intelligence to your personal interactions:

  • Give your full attention to the candidate. Eliminate background distractions and turn off notifications.
  • Maintain eye contact. For virtual interviews, close your self-view to focus on the candidate’s image and position your camera at eye level. 

Demonstrate active listening. Nod with approval, tilt your head to signal interest, lean forward to indicate involvement and ask follow-up questions.

2. Hiring panels

When you include a variety of voices in the hiring process, you diffuse the risk of emotional contagion. You also reduce the likelihood of pattern-recognition bias: filtering decisions through perceptions of past success. 

Degree requirements are a common example of pattern-recognition bias. Though past hires may have had a university degree, degrees aren’t always necessary to perform a role; in fact, these requirements may even close the door on qualified job seekers

To bring social intelligence to your hiring panels:

  • Collect feedback from panelists individually to avoid potential emotional contagion in the group.
  • Filter panelists’ feedback for biased language before sharing results.
  • Include diverse recruiters and company representatives on interview panels.

3. Candidate evaluations

Providing interviewers with data and information brings objectivity to your hiring process. By demonstrating candidates’ competency, you can help potential employers look beyond cultural fit—matching the way things have always been—to embrace cultural addition, which brings new perspectives to your workplace through inclusive hiring. 

Here are some tools that bring social intelligence into candidate evaluations:

  • Pre-employment assessments that measure specific job-related abilities. 
  • Puzzles, brain games and other cognitive ability measurements, which demonstrate a candidate’s learning style through problem-solving, comprehension and reasoning.
  • Situational judgment tests that show employers how applicants might respond to sample on-the-job scenarios.

Bringing social and emotional intelligence into your interviews means moving beyond gut reactions and making conscious evaluations of a candidate’s skills, abilities and background. 

By applying social intelligence to your interviews, you’ll expand your talent pool while creating a more diverse, inclusive workplace.

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