Social Intelligence: Why It’s Important For Leaders & How To Develop It

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How should I respond to that?

Is it weird to say this?

What do I tell them now?

If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, you’d be relying on your social intelligence skills to answer.

Luckily for those of us whose social skills have abandoned us in a time of need – like during those awkward chats with your boss’ boss’ boss – there are ways to boost your social intelligence.

Let’s take a look at what exactly social intelligence is, how you can improve it and why it’s important for leaders to have.

What is meant by social intelligence (SI)?

Social intelligence means how well you understand and relate to other people. It’s a set of behaviours we develop as we grow and learn what works and what doesn’t whenever we interact with someone else. You might have heard it called being ‘tactful’ or ‘street smart’.

What are the signs of social intelligence?

You can usually tell if you or someone else is socially intelligent. There are a few signs to look out for:

  • Active listening: paying attention to what the person is saying and responding in a way that shows understanding
  • Charisma: knowing exactly what to say for any given situation, like when to make jokes or be considerate and serious
  • Reputation management: taking care to consider how they’re perceived while still being themselves
  • Rational consideration: they keep an open mind and don’t tend to get pulled into arguments, even about things they don’t agree with

Generally people with high social intelligence are frequent people watchers as it’s a simple way to learn how others think and feel. They’re also someone you’ll enjoy being around.

What’s the difference between social intelligence and emotional intelligence (EI)?

Both are important for boosting your career, but where social intelligence is more about how you interact with others, emotional intelligence focuses on managing your own thoughts and feelings.

For example, those with high social intelligence might be good at listening, adapting to social situations and talking to a variety of people. Those with high EI will be good at managing their own emotions, self-aware and empathetic.

So it would be fair to say that while there are similarities, SI is more about the future and how you’ll be able to manage your relationships in the long run, whereas emotional intelligence is centred on understanding and regulating how you feel in the moment.

The most important thing to note is that both emotional and social intelligence should be improved together to provide the most benefit.

Why is social intelligence important for leaders?

Just like social intelligence, leadership is something you have to learn. And how you interact with others will be a key part of your success.

As a leader you’ll need to motivate, encourage, mediate and bring together your team to get the best out of them.

According to a study of 700 companies by emotional and social intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, a supportive leader matters more to employees than how much they’re paid. It also found that employees are more likely to stick around for a supportive leader.

The simplest way to find out if you’re a socially intelligent leader is to ask yourself whether you care about your team and ask them for anonymous feedback.

Here are a few things a leader with high social intelligence might do to boost their relationships and team’s productivity:

  • Focus: if you’re engaged with your work and your team, your colleagues will be more motivated
  • Observe: take time to get to know your team so you can better interact with them
  • Listen: as mentioned above, active listening means you’re showing you’re fully engaged with who you’re talking to and forming a deeper connection
  • Regulate: consider how your emotions might affect your team and make sure to turn negative situations into positive outcomes to keep morale up
  • Encourage: support your team in their goals and ambitions to foster trust
  • Empathise: practice empathy by considering how you would feel in that situation and show you understand them

To be a socially intelligent leader and build good relationships in the workplace, take care not to spark negative emotions in others – don’t encourage arguments, arrogance or the putting down of other people.

Every leader will be slightly different in their approach to social interaction, so just do what feels right for you.

5 practical ways to develop your social intelligence

Like with emotional intelligence, improving your social intelligence comes naturally to some, but others have to work a bit harder.

Here are some tips to give your social intelligence a boost and improve your relationships in the workplace:

#1. Pay attention to others

Essentially, people watch. Being observant allows you to recognise social cues and put them into practice yourself. If you know someone that interacts well with others, take notice of how they behave so you can pick up on their skills and adapt them to your personality.

For example, if you can recognise when a team member is feeling overwhelmed or stressed you’ll be able to step in before the situation escalates and work with them to find a solution. This will deepen the bond between you and prove to your team that they can rely on you for support. 

Activities to help you improve your observation skills:

  • When you have a quiet 5 minutes, look at the people around you and note down details of what you see, like the specific pattern of the carpet and that Ashley has a new haircut.
  • Play Kim’s Game – look at a selection of objects. Cover them up and then try to recall what was there

#2. Increase your emotional intelligence

Being able to acknowledge and regulate your emotions will help you notice those feelings in others. You’ll be able to control your negative feelings more easily so they don’t affect your socialisation. This will also help you develop empathy as you can more easily put yourself in other people’s shoes by understanding yours and their emotions.

Similarly to the example above, say you notice a colleague seems particularly nervous about a group project pitch, you can regulate your own nerves and give them advice to help them relax.

#3. Understand that everyone is different

Be respectful of cultural differences, and even be curious about them. People have different reactions based on their experiences and upbringing, so you can widen your understanding by learning from people with different backgrounds and customs.

Being able to distinguish the different ways emotions can manifest can help you prevent misunderstandings between your team and encourage them to be more curious and respectful too.

#4. Practise active listening

Think about what other people are saying and consider your response. Take into account their tone, body language and expressions to get a sense of their emotions when discussing various topics, so you can gauge how to respond appropriately.

Say a team member is talking about a project they’re working on, paying attention and engaging in the conversation shows you’re interested and can improve their motivation and productivity.

Exercises to develop your listening skills:

#5. Show your appreciation

You can deepen your relationships by showing your gratitude and appreciation for those around you. Pay attention to people you’re particularly close with to get cues on how to connect with them.

For example, your team might have completed a task to a particularly high standard or before the deadline. You could show your gratitude for their hard work by organising a (company paid) team lunch or even something simple like giving them a shout out on your workplace chat. This tells your team you’re paying attention to them and that you value what they do, which will encourage them to keep working hard.

To improve your social intelligence in a broader sense, you could also attend networking events, try giving talks at work or in your local area and even join some after work clubs to get to know  range of people while in an environment you enjoy.

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Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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