It's hardly surprising that we consider it important to have soft skills, like the ability to relate to others. Few would argue that being sociable and able to gain support for your ideas isn't useful in your career.
In this vein, a lot of career gurus have become downright obsessed with the idea of "emotional intelligence," or EQ (like IQ, only for emotions). EQ doesn't have a single definition, but it's usually described as the ability to identify, understand, manage, and express emotions effectively.
So is EQ your career-maker? While it can be important for some careers, it's not necessarily the soft skill you need to focus on the most. Here's why.
EQ is only crucial for some jobs
For some jobs, a genius-level EQ is really useful.
For example, if you're focused on customer service or work as a therapist, people's emotions are pretty much front and center in your life. But what if you work as a mechanic -- or a research scientist?
A study on job performance actually found that having too high an EQ can hurt rather than help people who are in "less emotional" professions. One theory is that it's just too distracting to focus on emotions all the time when your job carries other priorities. It might also be that those skills come at the expense of others -- if you're a mechanic and you spend too much time trying to nurture a relationship, you might neglect something else that's even more important, like your customer's faulty alternator.
What about those of us who are somewhere in between?
Of course, in this day and age, a lot of us work somewhere in the middle. We deal with customers, and we try to build social networks, but maybe our work isn't exclusively hands-on people-oriented.
In this case, stronger EQ might make you better at engaging with others, making good first impressions, and adapting to different social settings. However, don't count on it being your single biggest success factor. After all, a strong network alone doesn't lead to riches and fame.
So what should I do?
On the other hand, you might be better served by focusing on being resourceful, imaginative, and great at problem solving.
Cultivate "practical, analytical, and creative" intelligences. The ability to be resourceful, work your way through tough problems, and imagine possible solutions is something that works not just for human interactions but every aspect of business.
In other words, if you're going to cultivate a soft skill, focus most on being adaptable.
The world, after all, is always changing, and the one thing you can count on in your career is that things will rarely go according to plan. Instead of spending your time developing a single type of skill, like EQ, focus on building all of your skills around the principle of flexibility.
That means you shouldn't get lulled into one way of dealing with employees, or one way of selling a product, or one way of doing anything.
Did you make someone cry the other day? Try to figure out why and what you can learn next time. Did you blow that major sale? Again, figure out why, and by prepared to alter your methods in response.
With this approach, you won't build a stiff wooden framework for approaching the world -- you'll build a highly useful and multi-functional toolkit that can be applied (adapted!) to many different situations.
And that's way more useful than any individual soft skill alone.