The emotionally intelligent job search

Emotional intelligence (EQ) consists of skills that help with “the accurate appraisal and expression of emotions, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan, and achieve in one’s life” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). While the debate is still out on whether EQ is more important than IQ for career success, EQ is at least as important as IQ.  That is, given equal IQs, the person with higher EQ will probably do better in their career.

One reason there is still a debate about whether EQ or IQ is more predictive is that the relative importance of the two undoubtedly varies for different careers. But there can be little doubt that EQ is critical to the job search, no matter whether the job you are hunting for is Mechanical Engineer or Sales Manager.

Daniel Goleman, in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), divides emotional intelligence into four factors:  Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management.  As a psychologist, I have studied the self-concept, so I will focus on the two self-oriented aspects of EQ in my discussion.

Self-Awareness and the Job Hunter

A first EQ factor that is relevant in the job search is self-knowledge.  This includes knowing your skills (specific and job-relevant), knowing your strengths (broader aspects of personality functioning such as humor, creativity, and leadership), and knowing your current state, in particular your capacity for tolerating frustration and anxiety given your current life circumstances.

There are three reasons having good self-awareness is important for the job hunter.

  • What is optimal for one person is not optimal for another. There is no such thing as “a great job”—there’s a great job for you.
  • What is optimal for a person in one set of circumstances may not be optimal for that same person in a different set of circumstances.  Even if you normally thrive on excitement, your capacity for dealing with the stresses of the job hunt might be compromised if you are also simultaneously caring for an aging or dying parent or going through a divorce.
  • What matters most is having a reasonably good fit between the job and your personal characteristics (Colón (2010) suggests at least 70%).  People who are a good fit to the job and the job environment tend to be more satisfied with their jobs (Furnham & Schaeffer, 1984).

Self-Regulation and the Job Hunter

A second EQ factor in the job search is the impact of negative emotions.  Depression is associated with feeling helplessness and hopelessness, and leads to withdrawal.  The person feels that success is so unlikely that they may not even try, thereby dooming themselves to failure.

Even more common for those with prior job success is anxiety. Anxiety is associated with feelings of uncertainty.  The anxious person may engage in self-defeating behaviors (e.g., procrastination, or failure to sufficiently prepare for an interview) that allow them to preserve an illusion of competence (“I probably would have gotten the job if I’d had more time to prepare for that interview”) by creating an excuse for failure in advance (“self-handicapping”).

Alternatively, the person may prepare, but choke during the actual interview.  There is not a straightforward relationship between motivation and performance—the relationship is an “inverted U” (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908; Beilock, 2010).  That is, increasing motivation improves performance but only up until a point—after that, increasing motivation interferes with performance because the person focuses more on the negative emotions than on the task.  Too many people act as though putting more pressure on themselves or others will inspire better performance.  That excess pressure undermines performance instead.

Thus, to manage a job search effectively, manage your emotions

  • Go to only as many motivational job hunting events as you can tolerate.  While the information is useful, these seminars may serve as often to make people feel inadequate as they do to pump them up to achieve. Social pedagogy theory teaches that we have a comfort zone, a learning (and anxiety) zone, and a panic zone (Senninger, 2000).  Your goal is to increase your comfort zone by gradually moving into the learning zone while avoiding the panic zone.  Hitting the panic zone is what causes people to behave in a self-defeating way.  If going to too many job-hunting events puts you in the panic zone, limit your exposure.  Don’t avoid them, but don’t overwhelm yourself either.
  • Use exercise and stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, or tai chi to keep the anxiety under control.  Recent research on meditation shows that you actually change your brain through meditation in a way that makes controlling anxiety easier (Note: some excellent “starter” meditation audios can be found at, and a decade of intensive research shows benefits for mental health, physical health, behavioral regulation, and interpersonal relationships (Brown, Ryan, & Cresswell, 2007).  Yoga and its counterparts such as Tai Chi have similar effects, and may be particularly appropriate for a person whose anxiety is so high that they become flooded with their fears when they sit down to meditate.
  • Learn techniques that will help you reframe the situation and your own negative thoughts.  Effective techniques come from cognitive-behavioral and acceptance and commitment therapy (I’d recommend two books, “The How of Happiness” (Lyubomirsky, 2009) and “The Happiness Trap” (Harris, 2010) for good introductions).  These techniques will help you think differently about the situation, and while perception is not reality, it certainly shapes how you respond to reality.
  • Take baby steps (a technique called “partializing” by therapists, which is somewhat similar to the Kaizen management approach used in Japan (Maurer, 2004)).   Taking just one step is much less anxiety provoking than imagining the entire journey. Taking baby steps helps—but make sure they are the right ones.  As job coaches say, the vast majority of jobs are obtained through networking and not through the online job boards.  We can fool ourselves that we are taking action by spending 8 hours a day at our computer filling out job applications, but most of those applications go into the “black hole” (Colón, 2010) and gain us no response.  Put your efforts where they are most likely to count.
  • Work smarter not harder, don’t spend all your time sending out applications, but DO get out there—do volunteer work, go to networking meetings, develop your interests, and find some kind of exercise to do that you can do with others in a group.  You never know where you will benefit.  The friend you made at an environmental group a decade ago might just turn out to be someone with connections to the company you want to work at.  Focusing on ancillary activities will build your network, your credentials, and your self-confidence, and if one of the activities is exercise, will reduce your anxiety as well.  In addition, engaging in activities you truly enjoy makes you feel good and also provides “self-affirmation” which can decrease the likelihood of engaging in self-defeating behaviors (Wurf et al., 1991; Siegel et al., 2005).
  • Finally, practice.  All humans are “limited capacity processors”—there is only just so much cognitive space that we have to devote to regulating our behaviors and our emotions.  As psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have shown (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011), willpower is like a muscle:  it exhausts and becomes less effective when used, but its capacity builds with practice. Also, practice builds neural connections and neural speed.  Behaviors become automatic and require less cognitive capacity to perform. So, practice:  rehearse your 30-second elevator pitch and your answers to key behavioral questions.  In addition, try to practice as much as possible in the types of situations where you will be tested.  The situation does not need to be an exact replica—emergency room physicians get excellent practice using simulated heart attack emergencies.  A simulation is not as emotionally overwhelming as the real event but it is similar enough to make a big impact on performance when the real patient comes in. Start by practicing in front of a mirror, then go to networking events where you have the opportunity to practice with your peers.

As career coach Kevin Kermes ( said, “A job hunt is a marathon and not a sprint.”   Marathoners know that the race is as much about mental strategy and preparation as it is about physical, and marathoners prepare by running a lot of short runs and relatively fewer long ones in preparation for the race.  Similarly, be strategic in your job-hunting.  Pay special attention to knowing yourself  and the jobs you apply for, focusing on your fit to the job description, rather than applying willy-nilly to as many jobs as you can; and carefully manage your emotions so that you keep an upbeat, optimistic attitude.



Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength.

Beilock, S. (2010), Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to.

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R., & Cresswell, J. D.  (2007). Addressing fundamental questions
about mindfulness. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 272-281.

Colón, R. (2010).  Win the race for 21st century jobs.

Furnham, A. & Schaeffer, R.  (1984). Person-environment fit, job satisfaction, and mental health.  Journal of Occupational Psychology, 57, 295-307.

Goleman, D. (2002) Working with emotional intelligence.

Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living.

Lyubomyrsky, S.  (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.

Maurer, R. (2004).  One small step can change your life: The Kaizen way.

Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Senninger, (2000).  The learning zone,

Siegel, P. A., Scillitoe, J. & Parks-Yancy, R. (2005).  Reducing the tendency to self-handicap: The effects of self-affirmation.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 589-597.

Wurf, E., Costello, K. & Protomastro, M. (1991). Self affirmation eliminates self-handicapping (American Psychological Association conference poster presentation).

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. 1908. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation.  Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.

About elissawurf

Elissa Wurf, Ph.D. (psychology), CPA
This entry was posted in automatic vs controlled, situational influences, thinking vs feeling. Bookmark the permalink.

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