Leaders Who "Get" Their Teams

Raise your level of social intelligence to inspire and retain your employees, writes Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Think back on leaders you’ve known who really “got” the people around them. They’re the ones who understood what was going on with their teams, not just on the “what work is getting done” level but on the “how is the team working together” level. Those same leaders likely were skilled at interactions with others, able to present themselves well and powerfully influence their team.

What those leaders have is social intelligence, an essential skill for being an effective leader. Why does it matter? Surveys of employees at 700 companies found they felt having a supportive boss was more important than a bigger paycheck. Caring bosses were more likely to retain employees and inspire increased productivity.

Social intelligence means more than just being a caring person. Two broad ingredients make up social intelligence: social awareness and social facility. Social awareness covers a spectrum of understanding, from empathy—sensing another person’s inner state or understanding their thoughts and feelings—to grasping a complex social situation. Social facility builds on that understanding to create smooth, effective interactions.

Social Awareness

Leaders skilled at social awareness tune in to others in four ways.

  • Primal empathy allows us to sense nonverbal emotional signals. Being able to read the facial expressions and gestures provides a great deal of information beyond whatever words are being spoken.
  • Since what someone says also matters, attunement is another part of social awareness. This means listening fully and being receptive to another person.
  • Empathic accuracy means that you clearly understand another person, their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  • Social cognition steps beyond individual interactions with other people to an understanding of how the social world works. 

Social Facility:

The spectrum of social facility includes four abilities.

  • Synchrony is the ability to interact smoothly at the nonverbal level. Imagine watching a filmed conversation between two close friends with the sound turned off. You’re likely to see their bodies moving in rhythm, moving together and apart as though choreographed.
  • Self-presentation means that you’re able to present yourself effectively in any social setting.
  • Influence lets a leader bring others into agreement with their position on an issue or impact the energy level of a group.
  • Leaders show their concern by acting on, not just caring, about others’ needs.

How to increase your social intelligence

The good news is that you can enhance your social intelligence. Two keys to social awareness are listening well and paying attention to as many cues as you can notice. It’s easy when someone else is talking to be preparing your response to what they said. Practice just listening, asking for clarification of any points you don’t fully grasp. Then, consider how to respond. By just listening, you’ll gather more information than if you’re busy developing what you want to say.

Put down your electronic device or note pad, look at the people around you, notice who talks to whom, and how people respond to each other. What expressions are on their faces? Does the group atmosphere feel tense, relaxed, or bored? Who speaks more often? Who rarely speaks?

To increase social facility, you might seek feedback from trusted colleagues and work with a coach to build specific skills. 

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