The most in-demand skill for the modern workplace has nothing to do with technology

Emma Rose of Britain and Sweden’s Nils Westerlund and Sofia Braendstroem (L-R) of the HowDo start-up attend a production meeting at their office at the…
Emma Rose of Britain and Sweden’s Nils Westerlund and Sofia Braendstroem (L-R) of the HowDo start-up attend a production meeting at their office at the…
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Empathy is one of the key signifiers of workplace success. Exhaustive research shows that when businesses fail, it is often because leaders have stopped focusing on understanding different types of environments and instead remain insulated in their own domain. And the Harvard Business Review shows that empathy is key to successful product design.

To leverage empathy as a competitive advantage, The Fortune 500 obsesses over personality type. Young, promising executives take a test to discover their own personality type and they receive training to understand personalities of those around them.

But there’s also a slew of other kinds of behavioral research that helps you understand what your co-workers are doing and why. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Givers are at top and bottom of the ladder

I have said many times that in order to be successful you need to help other people. Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, adds an interesting twist to the idea of being kind at work: givers are not only the most successful people, they are also the least successful ones. They are found on the very top and the very bottom of the career ladder. ”Takers” and “matchers” are in the middle.

Men are rewarded for faking an 80-hour work week

There are a lot of ways to get out of doing work. DelegateCut corners. Overestimate the time a project will take. The list is endless but the results are the same: you get credit for carrying a huge load while doing a lot less work. And those people who are adept at faking long hours get the same promotions as their workaholic counterparts. If those people are men. Women are much less likely to fake long hours and instead, women ask for accommodations, such as shorter hours and less travel. And women are penalized for asking. Of course.

The child prodigies are suffering

A major downside of being a prodigy is that everyone expects you will grow up to become a genius. But the skill of being a child prodigy is qualitatively different from the “skill” of being a creative genius. Child prodigies master an adult domain that has already been invented and defined, whether it is perspective drawing, mathematics, chess, tennis, or music. On the other hand, the adults we classify as creative geniuses are individuals who have invented or discovered something new, something that changes their domain. (So for those of you feeling the need to wallow in schadenfreude, your time has come: those little upstarts suffer once they realize how shallow their talent really is.)

Your peers are in intimate relationships with each other

Men are likely to mentor women they want to sleep with, and this is probably good for women, as long as they don’t capitulate. (Women have more power when men want sex from them. Duh. But here’s the research.) The people most likely to find a lover at work are those with unusual work schedules. Wondering who it is? When laughter breaks out in a group of people, each one will instinctively glance at whichever other individual they feel closest to in that group. This is a good way of spotting who is secretly sleeping together at work.

People in their 40s are a wreck

All of them. For one thing, our salaries top out around age 40, but that’s just the time when our financial needs ramp up, often to pay for college. On top of that, most creative breakthroughs happen in our 30s, and our lowest point in the happiness scale is at age 46. This is true for apes, also, which makes researchers think we are biologically set to have a slump in middle age. However our 50s are—for people in a wide range of cultures—a time of re-calibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. So all those people who are getting kicked out of the company for being too old are about to start feeling a lot happier.

Senior executives have open networks

The number-one predictor of success is how open your network is. If you spend time with people who all know each other, you are not exposed nearly to the level of ideas as someone who spends time with a wide range of people from different walks of life. It’s a spectrum: the further to the right you go toward a closed network, the more you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further left you go toward an open network, the more you’re exposed to new ideas. (Good news is you can get this type of power network even if you hate networking.)

People who wear the same thing every day have good focus

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are both known for a repetitive wardrobe, and their laser focus on their company’s product. These men, and others, have said they don’t want to use their brain power to choose what they will wear each day. And that’s an explanation people are increasingly open to when their co-worker seems to never change clothes. However there’s a difference between having ten of the same outfits for ten days and having one outfit for ten days. The biggest difference, of course, is smell. Gross, yes, but also a good way to understand your co-workers because you can smell their mood. Really.

People reveal their thinking patterns with their eyebrows

Mac Fulfer, an expert in jury selection, says your eyebrows match with certain personality traits. For instance, he shows how people with straight eyebrows appreciate facts, ones with curved arches learn best from real-world applications, and those with angled brows like to be in charge.

This type of emotional intelligence is a key factor for being able to construct a career that works for your life. The more you are able to understand people around you, the more you are able to get what you want from them. And, done right, striving to succeed at work makes you a better person: Because if you assume your co-workers are thinking good thoughts, it’s likely that they will think good thoughts about you.