The one skill you need for three key areas of career growth

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Emotional intelligence. This is how you will differentiate yourself at work in the new millennieum.

We can see the world shifting around us in response to the fact that tolerance for poor social skills is getting less and less. The need to fit in with a group on some level, is getting higher and higher, and the tendency to hire people people in countries with low-cost labor to do socially isolated jobs increases every year as well.

One of the most high-profile examples of the extreme importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) is the new president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. She is the first female president of Harvard, but that’s not really the big news. The big news is that her most notable qualification for the job is an ability to communicate well with a wide range of people in the Harvard community. This is an explicit nod to the fact that the Harvard faculty is no longer willing to be managed by someone who has poor social skills.

Another example is the new definition of what makes a child a special needs student. Today many children who can read at age three are tagged as needing extra help in school because of signs of poorly developing social skills. Fifteen years ago those kids would have slipped through the system as eccentric geniuses. Today social skills are seen as so important to an education that they supersede IQ in terms of educational placement.

In the past, power or intelligence could make up for bad social skills at work. Increasingly this is no longer true.

You probably overestimate your emotional intelligence. Most of us do. You could get into real trouble when your EQ is extremely low — like posting naked photos of yourself, (which, by the way, is the search string that generates the most Google referrals to this blog.) Most of us are not doing insanely stupid things. We are just doing a series of smaller EQ mistakes day after day.

At some point, if your EQ is too low, you will hit a wall. Most people notice the wall when they can’t get a job, because today, the job hunts that are most successful are based on networking skills — in other words, EQ. But here are other areas of the workplace that are becoming more and more important. And success in each of these three areas depends heavily on EQ.

1. Project management and business analysis
These are key areas for job growth in the business sector in the coming years. And while these used to be gear-head positions, today they are all about emotional intelligence. The Northeastern College of Business Administration, for example, teaches project management by focusing on three areas: planning, team management, and negotiation.

And business analysts need soft skills as well. “MBA students we employ as business analysts don’t need to come into our company being a finance guru, able to espouse the latest financial theories,” Ken Barnet of financial services firm State Street Corporation said. “What’s much more important is that they know how to analyze issues and communicate recommendations.”

2. Connectivity and creativity
This is Dan Pink’s territory. And in his book , A Whole New Mind, he predicts the workplace of the new millennium will be about how people make connections. “Key abilities will not be high tech but high touch,” he says.

And we will value the ability to make meaning and connections in a world where information is a commodity. People who can synthesize information well to create new ideas will be highly valued in the workplace. But if you are great at coming up with new ideas, and you can’t communicate them, you will find yourself in the same position as the person who has no ideas. Having the emotional intelligence to connect people and ideas effectively is what matters in a workplace that’s overflowing with information.

3. Personal productivity
There’s a reason that many of the most popular blogs are about productivity, and consultant David Allen has been able to create an empire around his idea of getting things done: Productivity is cool. It’s about information and technology and making them work well to give you a better life. It’s a concept that has become so personal, and so specialized, that at this point, personal productivity is actually unique to this millenium.

The core of productivity advice, though, is self-knowledge, which is emotional intelligence. You have to know what you want most in order to know what to do first. You have to know your goals before you can productively meet them. And you have to have the self-consciousness to exert a sane, focused self-discipline to your life.

So when people tell you social skills are everything, and emotional intelligence will rule the workplace, think about where you want to succeed. Surely it is in at least one of these three areas. That’s why each of US needs to continuously work on our emotional intelligence.

So now you’re wondering how to get more emotional intelligence, right?

“Personal assessment is all the rage at business schools right now,” says Brendan Bannister, professor at Northeastern University. Not surprising, given that EQ is the area companies say they are most focused on hiring for.

Going to business school for personal development is a lot more costly than going to therapy every week. So maybe try that first. Empathy is very hard to teach, and most of emotional intelligence includes some piece of empathy. So get professional help if you’re really deficient. And if you’ve got a lot of money, go to business school.

24 replies
  1. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I think we’re running the danger of making loosely based extrapolations. Yes, communication and social skills seem to be increasingly more important in the workplace. But to assume they will every be more important or highly valued than true knowledge and understanding of the business is a pretty far leap.

    Drew Gilpin Faust is not the new president of Harvard based on her ability to play nice. It may have gotten her to the final round, but she was first considered because she is talented and knowledgeable.

    I’m a huge believer in EQ and the value it brings to a workplace, but in an global economy, if we continue to pride ourselves on our ability to make friends over creating ideas all we’re going to have is a bunch of shoulders to cry on while the rest of the world is making all of the money.

  2. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Spot on Penelope. Great advice.

    You may want to search for and read about Heinz Kohut. Kohut was a doctor of neurology and a famed member of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.
    Dr. Kohut defined empathy as "the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.” In other words, empathy gives you “reliable” intuitions about the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another without having those feelings, thoughts, or experiences communicated in an objective or explicit manner.

    From his definition you can get a handle on how good your empathetic intuitions are. Can you see what’s so captivating about popular culture (Grey’s Anatomy, People Magazine)? Does the opposite sex, another generation, or another culture strike you as illogical or just plain wrong? How many times are you surprised by the behavior of another (associate, spouse, child, boss)? How easy is it for you to make others really happy? Can you tell when you are about to make a bad impression?

    The people I have interviewed about using empathy in business have said it starts as a spark and (through experiences) it grows hotter. One company has a specific recipe they use to teach all their employees to be more empathetic. It has become their competitive advantage in one of the most cutthroat industries and in a very crowded marketplace.

    (BTW Adrienne works for me too. That name… that smile… I can definitely “empathize” with your husband.)

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Laurence. This is a great way to look at ourselves — to see how well we’re doing in the emotional intelligence department. The idea of understanding the inner life of someone else – I like that. Thanks.


  3. Katie Konrath
    Katie Konrath says:


    For my Masters dissertation, I surveyed over 500 hiring managers about the skills they’re looking for in young college graduates, and Communication Skills blew all my other choices away. I think you’re absolutely on the mark when you say that company’s are focusing on the EQ qualities of their new hires. And I think it’s fantastic that schools are now putting more emphasis on social skills, instead of just test-taking ability. I’m sure many managers will agree when I say that being able to listen and work effectively in groups is a lot more important in the workplace than an employee’s ability to take a standardized test!

    * * * * *

    What a great comment! Thank you for supplying extra data to back up my points.

    Also, I checked out your blog — I like it. So I’m copying the URL here for everyone to visit:


  4. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    I think the reason they are looking at the social skills of graduate hires is because they have a big pool of candidates with similar skills and qualifications and they are looking for differentiators. Over time, what counts is your experience and ability to do the job and social skills is just one part of that. How important it is varies according to the job, the working environment and the individual’s other skills and abilities.

    But what do you mean by social skills anyway? I don’t believe that good social skills and high EQ are the same thing. The bitchy high school queen has good social skills in that she’s in control and able to manipulate people and circumstances to suit her. She probably has no empathy or understanding of what it’s like to be on the receiving end; otherwise she wouldn’t be like she is.

    One of the best things about growing up and leaving high school is that you get to leave all that behind. I’ve always found in the real world that skills count more than popularity. Of course, I’ve made some great friends through work along the way.

  5. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    Penelope – €“ fantastic post, I couldn't agree more.

    In Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" he discusses how it is much easier for us as humans to remember where information is located rather than the actual information itself. However, information storage is not limited to electronic mediums and books. One of the best sources for information is each other. People are the ultimate source for ideas, creativity, problem solving, etc. So (and my general point of this comment) is that by improving social skills and demonstrating empathy (genuinely – €“ it can't be forced) one can breakdown the social barriers with co-workers, friends, and networked colleagues to gain access to the information that they have. In other words, by developing a good relationship with someone (through good EQ) you can call that person when you need help and they will help because you have built a solid relationship (and because they feel you would do the same for them). However, if you have shown no empathy with that person they will assume you simply are trying to use them. (Incidentally, empathy is an extremely effective sales tactic if genuinely implemented)

    This whole idea points to the workplace becoming more and more collaborative which will ultimately lead to better teams, better ideas, and more productivity. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Great post! As an HR leader I cannot count how many times I have had to exit a technical genius from a company because of poor people skills. It’s a shame, because usually their poor people skills mean that the exit process is horrendous to go through for all involved because they can’t grasp what has happened. In the past decade as we have moved to more e-HR I “preached” to colleagues and clients that high tech HR could not replace the high-touch needs of our workforce. I should have written my predictions down in a book… ;-)

    * * * * *
    Thanks for this comment, Peggy. What’s really intersting to me here is that the people losing their jobs on account of poor social skills don’t understand why they are losing their jobs. The big hurdle for us all to get past is being able to hear a really honest assessement of our EQ strengths and weaknesses so we can address them.


  7. Dave
    Dave says:

    I agree empathy is critical to success and whether you call it Emotional or Social Intelligence, it’s a necessary skill to have to get your ideas implemented.

    I also think there is another dimension people have to work on, perhaps just plain old emotional maturity…what do you do when you have the empathic skills to understand what others are thinking, and even appreciate their perspective, but you know they are wrong and you can’t get past that?

    I have known many technical experts who lacked basic self-preservation skills and ended up getting fired because they could not tolerate working for idiots. In some cases, they were completely justified in their perceptions. It was not a failure to understand the situation, but a failure to be able to persuade others to appreciate their point of view and then being forced to do things they knew were “wrong.” Inevitably, this lead to mistakes and trapping the expert in a stupid error that served as a pretext for having them fired or making them so angry they quit.

    I have always felt, as a manager, I would rather have those kind of employees working with me–and that I should bear the burden of figuring out what their real concerns were and shield them from having negative interactions with senior management. Facilitators and collaborators are great, but it is easy to forget that somebody has to actually do the work. Perhaps in larger companies, the team is large enough to take advantage of the networking effects of collaboration, but every company and organization I have ever been in has had 1 or 2 go-to people who always had some degree of attitude that caused friction. I’d rather help a genius with an attitude fit in than try to train a social person with no hard skills to be useful.

  8. JoJo
    JoJo says:

    Hey Dave, I agree that those gifted technical experts are the kinds of employees you want working for you. I wouldn’t call it a lack of self-preservation if they got fired or quit a job because they were forced to work for an idiot who couldn’t admit he/she was wrong. I’d call that a good career move. The idiot loses a good employee and the expert goes to work for someone like you.

    If someone has great skills when it comes to writing code and lousy social skills, so what? I say quit beating them up over skills they probably don’t even care about having and put them in a position where they don’t have to have great social skills in the first place. Put them in a cube writing code, pay them great money, and throw them a sandwich once in a while. Leave the schmoozing to people who enjoy it and are good at it.

  9. russ eckel
    russ eckel says:

    It’s interesting how so many of the comments view rational formal intelligence and emotional intelligence as so distinctive almost as if these “intelligences” stand in opposition to each other. These fields as I thnk of them are very interdependent. It’s hard to find people with real emotional intelligence who do not also exhibit a reasonable level of cognitive intelliigence or knowledge,

    For most of the century just passed, organizations sought to reduce work to simple tasks organized by a hierarchy wherein information, and the relationships that information sharing created, was limited to a few at the top of the pyramid. Think of the Ford Motor Company and H Ford’s assembly line. For much of the twentieth century most organizations emulated this model. If there was any creativity here it was in the hands of a few engineers or marketing chiefs.

    Back to the Ford analogy for a moment. The main reason that the US auto industry is dying is because the folks in Detroit never figured out that their main rivals, especially Toyota, changed the rules by thinking of their workforce as new sources of information. New information, or value, is created when people are encouraged to be in relationship. I think this is what you mean by Connectivity. GM and Ford live by the “I”, Toyota lives by the “We”. The We IS emotional intelligence. It recognizes that most knowlege is created in RELATIONSHIP. It is our notion of the lone thinker/genius huddled alone in a laboratory that needs to change. If you work in a place that still makes or delivers standardized products, the WE is immaterial. But if, like most of us, you sell what you know, and most of what we sell is created when the WE ( emotional intelligence) is present. EQ is not an afterthought it is the basis of creating new value.

    It sounds like a lot of folks are getting this.

  10. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    Laurence “From his definition you can get a handle on how good your empathetic intuitions are. Can you see what's so captivating about popular culture (Grey's Anatomy, People Magazine)? Does the opposite sex, another generation, or another culture strike you as illogical or just plain wrong? How many times are you surprised by the behavior of another (associate, spouse, child, boss)? How easy is it for you to make others really happy? Can you tell when you are about to make a bad impression?”

    Ironically, what is basically a social disorder that I am currently being treated for stems from an overabundance of these traits. You’d think that empathy so strong it works as mild telepathy would be an asset in the workplace, right? WRONG. The overwhelming input of information makes me twitchy and nervous, which peers respond badly to. Add that to the illusion of being able to see the future and get into people’s heads and what you have is the weird coworker that no one wants to interact with. In fact, I am seeing a distinct trend in today’s youth towards this type of problem, and I suspect that it is caused by consistent over stimulation during early development. Because it is becoming more common, the the well-adjusted are going to be in higher demand than ever, and while it may currently be an addendum to a resume’, I believe that fairly soon it will be a primary reason for hire in management positions.

  11. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Having to fire someone who is a ‘technical genius’ but has ‘poor people skills’ sounds to me like a failure of management rather than a failure of personnel. Sometimes talent doesn’t come in a nicey-nice package but, if you can learn how to manage it, your company is certainly better of with it than without it.

    Of course, it depends on the role. You probably wouldn’t want them managing a team or dealing with clients but I think it’s vital for managers to have imagination, flexibility and respect so they can utilise the maverick talent and not just the mediocre nice guy. Of course, if you can get someone who’s a technical whizz AND has great social skills then great, but it doesn’t always work that way.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Caitlin. There’s a lot of management consulting type research that shows that companies are more effective if they fire someone who is difficult than keeping him around because he’s smart.

    Here’s a case study about this topic from the Harvard Business Review (subscription).

    The most fun reading on this topic is Bob Sutton’s new book, The No Asshole Rule. He teaches at Stanford University and the book is based on tons of research. It shows the enormous cost of keeping around someone who is not nice to work with — no matter how smart they are.



  12. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Caitlin’s right, IMHO. Firing is most often a signal of management failure. If networking is critical to a position, how did someone without the ability to network (or the capacity to learn the soft skills of networking) make it past the hiring managers. If managers didn’t know networking was critical that’s one kind of failure. If they knew and didn’t screen for it, that’s another.

    Also people are routinely turned into “not nice to work with” types because of the environment created by management or the fact that they were a poor fit from the beginning. There’s tons of research on both of these points as well.

  13. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    I think it’s sad that social skills are becoming more important to career advancement. Progress is supposed to increase freedom of choice and make life easier for everyone. Instead, introverts and loners are left with few options other than therapy.

    That said, I have lousy social skills. At 26 I may end up in low to mid-level background tech jobs for the rest of my working life. I can do well on written EQ tests if I answer dishonestly, but in practice I can’t think of anything meaningful, or even any convincing BS, to contribute at meetings. Ironically, I want to be rich and famous, but with an utter lack of charisma and expression in my face, at least the “famous” part looks unlikely.

  14. anna
    anna says:

    I can totally understand Eileen’s comment. Also, I feel there are too much useless chit-chats around the offices that contribute nothing to anyone but to the speakers themselves.

  15. ringo-ring
    ringo-ring says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I like your article – it captured modern trends very precisely. From low-gpa loosers I know in my (technical) college many strive to get most of their “social skills”. And they have an illusion (or a dream) that such skills will definitely allow them to somehow “control” other people, smart and hard-working, and get profit from results of other’s work without doing any job themselves :-)) (of course this is just kid’s dreams, but funny)
    But what I see is that these social skills can be improved only to extent of how intelligent – not with people but in a whole – you already are. So don’t worry that sociall skills will replace intelligence in the end :)
    Actually if latter happens, then humans will be no different from chimps or other higher primates – they are very sociable too but lack that technical-savvy which allows us to think up & build all this stuff from house to laptop that is essential attribute of human civilization now.

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  17. Ian Needs
    Ian Needs says:

    Thank goodness. I just wish I was entering the work force now as my social skills has been and continues to be my key strength when managing and working with people, that is in a work place and personal sphere. Unfortunately, this skill was undervalued when I joined the workforce during the 1980’s. We were looking for the academic, to become the smart country. Interestingly my dearest friend is that academic MBA at the major university in our country. She has continued her studies with now a Master in Psychology. However, her ability to really engage in a fluid informal manner, in both the formal (I know that appear convoluted) and the informal setting. I am not advocating that we limit our education, however a well rounded person does include their social skills. I suggest now we also must take into account the natural inclination and preference for an individual as we will always meet and work with the introvert, or the individual whose preference is to work alone. Some common sense to maintain a balanced approach is necessary. All types of people make up a whole. We must bring out the best in each of us in order to achieve personal and professional goals.

  18. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    “Today many children who can read at age three are tagged as needing extra help in school because of signs of poorly developing social skills. Fifteen years ago those kids would have slipped through the system as eccentric geniuses.”

    It’s a good thing that I was in school some ten years ago and not now. Otherwise, I would be stuck in the slow classes with my social skills. Instead, I took all AP classes by the time I was a senior in high school and graduated as class valedictorian.

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