How Socially Aware Leaders Win: The Field Guide to Social Intelligence

This guide aims to present you with an easy way to understand and apply empathy better. It will hopefully be useful to everyone, and is written especially for leaders.

We start with an overview of emotional and social intelligence, and end with an audiobook workout routine.

Emotional and Social Intelligence

Much has been written about emotional and social intelligence. As the phrases become increasingly popular, they are often used interchangeably. Let’s start by establishing the distinction.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately observe one’s emotions and the emotions of others, and social intelligence is the ability to apply these observations to navigate complex social situations.

People with higher emotional and social intelligence may exhibit better mental health, better work performance, and better leadership effectiveness.

Big Empathy and Little Empathy

It’s easier to empathize with others when you are sitting on a meditation cushion alone next to a babbling brook in a Zen garden. It’s harder when interactions with others stir up emotions in you during daily life. This is why I like to think of big empathy and little empathy.

Big empathy is a deep sense of compassionate interconnectedness such as that cultivated through Buddhist meditation practices. Buddhists see our perceptions of an independent and permanent self as an illusion constructed from constantly changing mental activity. As we resolve these illusions, subject and object become one and we experience a primordial awareness and loving interconnectedness. Big empathy is deep in its construction, and simple in its realization.

Little empathy is the everyday application of thoughtful interaction with others focused on how we can meet our own needs and the needs of others. Little empathy is easy to understand, and difficult to apply consistently. In the case of big empathy, we need only reckon with our own mind, in the case of little empathy, we have three things to deal with; 1) our mind with its thoughts and feelings, 2) the minds of others with their thoughts and feelings, 3) the thoughts and feelings that arise in both our minds as the result of the thoughts and feelings expressed by the other.

Little empathy is especially tricky for leaders and those engaged in conflict resolution, because they play professional roles with an increased volume of sensitive interactions. We must be able to be with and communicate our own feelings and needs clearly without sacrificing them. We must hear the needs of others, even when they can not see or express their needs yet themselves. Often the thoughts and feelings of others provoke emotional responses in us. These emotional responses can carry valuable information, but are challenging to interpret accurately and translate into fruitful actions — especially in real time. It’s also often quite easy to react to these emotions in a way that does not meet our needs or the needs of others. We tend to be easily frightened and defensive, so we often misread the actions of others — for example we read resistance when really someone is scared or there’s a lack of clarity between us, or we read exhaustion as laziness.

To make matters more complicated, people exhibit myriad defense mechanisms. As an example of a particularly tricky defense mechanism to perceive correctly, reaction formation leads people into exaggerated behaviors and claims that are in direct opposition to their true thoughts and feelings. if someone working with you wants to have an impact but doesn’t know how, and isn’t performing well, it’s not unusual for them to shut down, reduce effort, and claim that it is because they do not care. If you are this person’s manager, it can be frustrating — they are performing poorly, not putting in the effort, and telling you they do not care. Cracking down on this situation will reinforce the pattern, whereas a sensitive but firm stance will have the best chances for resolving the issue and turning things around.

To be most effective, a leader needs to develop some of the skills that a great therapist has to see through surface level manifestations to the underlying issues. The rest of the guide focuses exclusively on how to build a foundation for this practice.

The Basics

Start with the basics, and loop the following two books on emotional and social intelligence: emotional intelligence and social intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

I’d listen to them back to back and loop that sequence a few times in total. You’re aiming to develop a second-nature understanding of the basics. These books are pretty simplistic popsci*, so you may be tempted to eschew them or jump ahead. It’s worth taking the time to repeat them and allow it all to fully sink in. Remember, with little empathy, the ideas are easy, but training yourself to execute the ideas is hard!

As you’re learning the fundamentals, start trying to apply them in small ways each day as you notice your own feelings and begin to notice what others are communicating indirectly.

Micro and Macro Examples

To understand how emotional and social intelligence apply at a micro interpersonal level, and a macro inter-organization level, listen to how to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie and charm offensive by Joshua Kurlantzick.

The goal with these two books is to understand how to be smart about daily micro interactions and longer term macro interactions by developing a sense of pattern matching against all the examples shared in the books. Notice how the same ideas apply at the level of a fleeting interaction or long term statecraft.

As you’re reading, try to reflect on how the examples map to the concepts from emotional and social intelligence that you picked up during the basics stage so that you get a sense of not on what to do, but why.

Daily Practice

If there’s one audiobook to keep looping again and again, it’s nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg.

Of all the books I’ve read over the years, this is one of the most impactful on my daily life. Marshall’s approach to micro interactions is steeped in a deep understanding of macro-level empathy, so it really brings it all together. He shares a unique approach to getting in touch with your own needs, hearing the needs of others, and focusing on how everyone can get their needs met. His fundamental hypothesis is that everyone can get all their needs met, and that our conflicts arise from not being in touch with our own needs, not being able to communicate our needs, not being able to hear the needs of others, and not looking for solutions where everyone’s needs can be met.

Marshall’s book may bring a lot together for you if you’ve read the other books. Put it all into practice daily in any small ways that you can will help it sink in. Have some self-empathy while practicing, you will often wish you’d done a better job with interactions during the day, and may regret it in the evening, or even in real-time. That’s OK, give yourself permission to just reflect and notice what you might try differently next time. Don’t be afraid to keep looping any books you find most helpful, or finding new books.

Expect three months of looping these audio books and practicing in your daily interactions to develop a sense of pattern matching and feel more confident in your interactions with others. Expect six months for it to transition to your be your new normal.

*academic results for emotional and social intelligence

Daniel Goldman provides a compelling narrative and anecdotes about how emotional and social intelligence impacts leadership effectiveness, but his work isn’t exactly replete with scientific rigor.

Ongoing academic debate centers on being precise about both how we measure emotional and social intelligence, and exactly how much of work performance and leadership effectiveness they predict above other established factors like IQ and personality tests like the 16PF questionnaireand big 5 personality traits.

…while they still offer justification for using the quite “broad” Goleman model, which includes almost every individual-difference variable that is not IQ (for an interesting critique of this model see Stemberg, 1999) they now recognize the value of the focused definition of El as proposed by Peter Salovey and associates (cf Mathews, et al., 2002).

I think this is a reasonably stated result from a 2009 meta-analysis [pdf]:

…correlation effect size values are considered small if less than or equal to .10, medium if equal to .25, and large if greater than or equal to .40. This meta-analysis yielded a combined effect of r= .380 which can be interpreted as a moderately strong relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. Although claims of the paramount or essential value of emotional intelligence as a component of leadership may be overstated, it would appear that emotional intelligence is at least an important element in the exercise of effective leadership.

I think that debates here are largely about how we define and measure different traits that are predictors of leadership. If you look at individual traits, or higher level factors driven by several traits, a lot of the same kinds of ideas show predictive power for leadership effectiveness whether you call them social intelligence or personality traits. So let’s just assume that personality traits and emotional and social intelligence are all inputs to exercising applied empathy, and that exercising applied empathy increases leadership effectiveness.

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