THE BLOG

A Coveted Job Skill That You Already Have

07/17/2013 08:12 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Welcome to the emotional evolution of the modern workplace.

Cut-throat ladder climbing and the Darwinian survival theory for corporate success are giving way to emotional intelligence and empathy as desired leadership traits.

Fortune 500 companies hire consultants to measure the emotional intelligence (EQ) of their top executives and coach them on interpersonal skills. Suits and skirts file out of offices to view PowerPoint slides about active listening, self-awareness and the ideal leadership "climate." We wonder how Don Draper would do.

This corporate trend has been linked to an "affective revolution" in neuroscience. As researchers observe emotions and the physiology that drives them, and some even seek the neural basis of empathy, companies look to capitalize on the empirical measurement of emotions.

Empathy is not just an ingredient for altruism anymore -- it's a commodified skill.

'Tis the season for the student job hunt, so some of you are probably wondering, "how can empathy make me gainfully employed?"

Humans are hardwired to empathize more so than most other species (sociopaths notwithstanding) -- not just to feel what others are feeling, but to think what others are thinking. In fact, some neuroscientists credit one region in the adult human brain with thinking exclusively about other people's thoughts: the right temporoparietal junction.

Anyone with complex cognitive reasoning could become more marketable to prospective employers by reviewing the Golden Rule. In other words: we're already equipped for empathy, we just need to practice.

Young people looking for job experience and dealing with high unemployment rates for their demographic should take heed.

But don't take our word for it.

Dr. Cary Cherniss, a psychologist and long-time observer of emotional intelligence, published a study in 1999 suggesting that EQ proficiency contributes to the bottom line in any workplace. Salespeople with higher EQs outsold salespeople with low EQs. Emotionally competent insurance sales agents at a national firm sold policies with average premiums of $114,000, while agents with low emotional competence sold policies worth $54,000.

The same study assessed senior partners at a consulting firm. Those who scored above the median on at least nine of the 20 emotional qualities measured delivered $1.2 million more profit from their accounts than other partners.

An empathetic employee can actually bring in more money.

Daniel Goleman first introduced this idea to a wide audience in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ, but there's been resurgence in self-help and leadership books as corporations catch onto the science and self-help gurus start to sell empathy as a business strategy.

Look at the titles published recently by some of the leading experts on organizational behaviour, branding, and employee engagement: Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Wharton's youngest tenured professor, Adam Grant. His driving premise? That helping others boosts both productivity and creativity.

Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action promises that sales gimmicks, and even great products, won't engender brand loyalty. But if your brand identity resonates with customers emotionally, they're more likely to buy into it -- even pay a premium, says Sinek -- to be part of that culture. People don't just buy products; they buy a sense of belonging.

Paul Smith, director of market research at Proctor & Gamble, uses stories to drive leadership and narratives to drive brand culture in Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince and Inspire.

Stories engage better than bullet points or statistics. We tell stories to relay information as part of our cultural DNA and imagine ourselves in the narratives of others -- we empathize with stories. It's why we want to scream at Romeo that Juliet is about to wake up at the end of the play, but most of us would have almost no visceral reaction to raw data about the rate of poisoning by ingestion.

The knowledge that empathy is a helpful commodity in business culture isn't so practical if you haven't yet landed a job or an interview. But it's a useful skill even in first meetings.

One of the best networking tips we've encountered is to be selfless. Listen actively, immerse yourself in a stranger's work life for the duration of the conversation and figure out what you can do for them. It's their job to figure out what they can do for you. Effective networking isn't about selfish incentives; it should build reciprocal relationships.

Students with undeveloped skill sets may think they don't have much to offer their network, but consider becoming a reverse-mentor to an established professional in your field (someone whose generation has a different letter than yours). Let them pick your brain about the habits of the elusive millennial.

But remember, if you're too focused on the question, "what can empathy do for me?" you're missing the point.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.