Leading with Character: Social Intelligence

March 13, 2016
Mike Stallard

Definition of Social Intelligence

Social intelligence is being aware of your own motives as well as the feelings of others, knowing what to do to fit into different social situations, and knowing what makes other people tick.

Social Intelligence in Leadership

Oftentimes people are promoted into leadership positions because they’ve been successful as individual contributors. What makes them successful in an individual role, however, may be insufficient to ensure their success as a leader. Social intelligence is one of the most important character strengths to determine the success of leaders because leading is social in nature. Through his or her interactions with others, leaders must motivate people to give their best efforts and align their behavior with organizational goals.

Research from the field of neuroscience confirms the importance of social intelligence. In recent years, neuroscientists discovered the existence of mirror neurons. These brain cells have been described as an emotional wi-fi system that detects and reproduces the emotions of others. In other words, mirror neurons allow us to feel what others feel, a state described as “mutual empathy.” The existence of mirror neurons also means that emotions truly are contagious. The emotions of the people around us affect our own, in a positive or negative way.

Given this, leaders should be sensitive to the emotions of others. People feel connected and are more likely to trust leaders who understand them and feel as they do. Leaders also need to be intentional about managing their emotions because of how emotions spread to others. It’s important for leaders to be optimistic, confident, friendly and approachable.

Good leaders know how to be inclusive. When people feel excluded it triggers “social pain,” i.e. feelings of exclusion that activate the part of the human brain that feels physical pain. People feeling social pain either withdraw from a group or take action to sabotage it, whereas people who feel included are more likely to experience positive emotions that energize them.

A socially intelligent leader avoids behaviors that bring out negative emotions in others. Such behaviors include needing to win at all costs, adding one’s opinion to every discussion, always showing others how smart one is, and sarcasm or putting others down.

Examples of Social Intelligence in Action

When A.G. Lafley became CEO of Procter and Gamble in 2000, he followed a CEO who was negative, pessimistic and lacked humility. Under the former leader, the company had lost $320 million the previous quarter, half its brands were losing market share, and the firm was struggling with morale problems. The more socially intelligent Lafley was a breath of fresh air. Rather than berating people, he asked them to get the “moose” (i.e. the problems they’d been afraid to make public) out of the closets and onto the conference room tables where together they would solve them. The upbeat and optimistic Lafley calmly asked people for their opinions and ideas, considered them and put into practice those he thought were best. This reflects social intelligence in that people respond better to a respectful tone of voice and being invited to problem solve versus an authoritarian tone of voice and being lectured. Result: After implementing employee suggestions, the number of employees who agreed with the statement, “we’re on track to deliver business results” soared from 18 percent to 49 percent in 12 months. In a little more than two years after Lafley became CEO, the company was so profitable its stock price had risen 70 percent!

As president of the Red Cross, Elizabeth Dole would say that “wanting to do good was not good enough” and that the organization had to produce results. She was well known for remembering people’s names and what they were passionate about in life. In interacting with others, she used their names, asked them about their interests and vicariously felt the emotions they expressed. When it came to fundraising for the Red Cross, Dole was intentional about connecting. She had her staff research people to identify an important fact about them that she would use in conversations with them. Result: Elizabeth Dole connected with Red Cross staff, volunteers, and donors and produced results. During her tenure, she greatly increased financial support, successfully implemented a massive change initiative to ensure the safety of the Red Cross blood supply, and expanded its network of trained disaster relief workers.

Actions You Can Take to Develop Social Intelligence Among Your Team

Make quick connections with new acquaintances. If you are meeting an individual for the first time, develop the habit of using his or her name several times in the conversation so that you will be more likely to remember it. Another way to remember names is to think of someone else you know who has the same first name as that individual. Connections with others are strengthened when you discover shared interests and experiences. To do this, ask a question such as “what are your interests outside of work?”

Practice active listening. Listen carefully and be present in conversations. When you speak with others, maintain eye contact and don't get distracted by averting your gaze, daydreaming, or checking your email or telephone. During conversations, pay close attention to what is said, actively ask questions and write down any items you need to remember or follow up on.

Don’t suppress empathy. Mutual empathy is a powerful connector. If an individual you’re interacting with expresses emotion, and it’s appropriate, allow yourself to feel the emotion rather than suppressing it. For example, if the individual shows enthusiasm, try to feel it. If the individual is sad, it’s ok to feel his or her sadness. Feeling another’s pain often reduces it and helps the person feel better.

Seek opportunities to encourage and help others. When you encourage and help others, it connects with them. When someone does something well, tell him or her in person that you appreciate the excellence of his or her work. Develop the habit of always looking for ways to encourage and help people then follow through on any actions you commit to do.

When you feel fear or anger, take time to slow down and reflect. Fear and anger trigger fight or flight responses that have a higher probability of being rash than rational.  When you feel fear or anger, pause to take a deep breath and count to 10 so that you have time to relax and reflect before reacting. If you continue to feel fear or anger, consider taking a break from the person or situation. When you respond, avoid increasing the stress by preferring “I” over “you” in your response. For example, it’s preferable to say “I’m upset that you didn’t help with that extra work that had to be done” than “you never help when extra work has to be done.”

Assume the best in others. When someone says or does something disconnecting in his or her interactions with you, give the benefit of the doubt that he or she didn't intend harm or ill-will. Forgiveness and mercy (i.e. accepting the shortcomings of others, giving people a second chance, and not being vengeful) are character strengths, too!

Model it and coach your team. To strengthen social intelligence among the people you lead you must model it so that others will observe and emulate what you do. Some of those you lead may require coaching. If you see someone doing something that is socially unintelligent (i.e. relationally disconnecting), take time to speak with him or her in private. When you do, be sure to encourage the person first then communicate your concern by saying “you would be even better if you ________” [fill in the blank with what they could have done better]. When providing constructive feedback, strive to be gentle and kind in your tone of voice so the other person is less likely to become defensive.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

Leading with Character: Humility

10 Ways to Improve Your Connection Skills

3 Surprising Ways to Succeed in Self-Leadership

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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