Social awareness skills enable us to manage relationships effectively, and in the workplace, to lead people, projects and teams with greater success. These skills impact the bottom line and hold far greater weight than most leaders realize. Social awareness is defined as the ability to pick up on the emotions of other’s and to understand what is going on for them in any given moment. This in turn, positively or negatively impacts the quality and enduring nature of any (work) relationships. It’s about being able to differentiate what other people are thinking and feeling, even though you may not be feeling the same way or have differing perspectives. As words on paper, it all sounds simple enough, however, it turns out to be harder than it looks.
The good news is these competencies within the emotional intelligence framework, are learnable and leaders can improve them with focus and effort. When leaders demonstrate low social awareness, especially when under pressure, the negative impacts on employee engagement and morale, and company culture can be both far-reaching and detrimental to business success. How leaders respond to situations and people leaves a strong and lasting impression that (when soured) cannot be easily reversed. On the other hand, when social awareness behaviors are strong, leaders can motivate and inspire employees and teams to give discretionary effort that results in positive engagement in the workplace.
Another element in the emotional intelligence framework that supports one’s ability to become more socially aware, are self-awareness as a building block and self-management of emotions. Self- management is the ability to use one’s self-awareness about various emotional responses and address them in the moment, to be able to stay open and flexible with others.
If a leader has an occasional outburst of anger or frustration, or loses his or her composure, temper or patience, relationships can be negatively impacted well after the incident has passed.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve had conversations with many executives who believe they’re supportive, empathetic and curious when interacting with others, and by extension, they believe they’re creating positive cultures or workplace environments. However, getting it right, even ninety-five percent of the time, might not be enough to garner effective work relationships if five percent of the time the same leader loses control of his or her emotions, or fails to understand others. It’s an understatement to say that the proverbial fishbowl in which leaders lead, becomes even more magnified and sets the entire team or organization on alert for heightened emotional interactions from that executive.
In working with leaders, an important question they must sit with is -- are they able to stay present, conscious and awake enough to have their own experiences, while simultaneously reaching out to better understand what might be going on for other people?
A recent survey of 1300 employees in hundreds of companies was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review (12/17/18) by David Maxfield and Justin Hale. In this survey, employees were asked about their leader’s style under stress and about the impact of that behavior on their work. The high percentage of leaders that were described as not responding well under stress were somewhat surprising (or not). Responses ranged from leadership behaviors that demonstrated close-mindedness, the need for control, charged emotional responses, to more benign behaviors such as ignoring, sidestepping, deceiving or lacking any desire to understand the situation or how the people involved were feeling about it.
Negative leadership behaviors that demonstrated little to no social awareness were cited for a large percentage of leaders. Participants stated that a leader’s temperament in crucial moments has indelible negative or positive impact on team performance. Fifty-three percent of leaders were perceived as being close-minded and controlling, versus open and curious. Forty-five percent were upset and emotional, instead of being calm and in control. Forty three percent of leaders were described as angry and heated, rather than being cool and collected. Thirty-seven percent were described as avoidant or side-stepping issues, and thirty percent were perceived as deceitful versus honest.
Patricia (not her real name) was particularly challenged, when under stress or when situations heated up at work, to have effective conversations with others’. She struggled to stay engaged and lean-in when conversations resulted in conflict between other leaders. In these situations, Patricia unconsciously left the room (emotionally and/or mentally) or she disengaged, rather than having a direct conversation. There are many good reasons why she disengaged when conversations became challenging, that had much to do with providing psychological safety during her childhood. However, as an adult and a leader, these behaviors were no longer serving her. When she disengaged in meetings, other leaders were left wondering what she really felt and thought about the issue. Some leaders developed a perception from this behavior that she either lacked confidence or was indifferent about the issues. In fact, neither of these perceptions were further from the truth.
Our work together included building her self-awareness to recognize what might be going on for her in heated situations. As Patricia was more able to recognize the situations that triggered her disengagement response, she could prepare a better, more socially aware response that kept her in conversations in a productive way. She practiced some delaying techniques to allow her nervous system to catch up with her, instead of hijacking her in tough situations. Patricia chose to take a deep breath before leaving metaphorically that gave her time to think about what she would say. This technique, along with putting both feet on the ground, allowed her to remain poised and calm in the moment. From this new centered place and small delay in timing of her responses, she was more able to ask questions from a place of curiosity that changed the flow and direction of the conversation before it became too hot for people to handle.
Having managed her emotions in the moment more effectively, her natural curiosity and analytical thinking powers were being put to good use within conflict conversations and in meetings that erupted negatively or were going sideways. As a result of her calm questioning style, other leaders noticed that she brought a calming influence to heated discussions, versus appearing to be absent. Over time, Patricia received positive feedback from leaders and peers, that she could easily read the room or understand what was going on for others. She was able to call on leaders that had not spoken or contributed to conversations. She could better read their thoughts or feelings, making careful invitations to bring diverse voices and perspectives into the room.
While Patricia is still working on these capabilities, her impact moved from neutral at best to positive, at a time when the company was going through tremendous change. She may still find that these skills do not come naturally to her, however, developing stronger self-management and social awareness capabilities has made her a more well-rounded and effective leader. Patricia claims to be a work in progress and her humility and curiosity fuel her awareness in social situations.
If leaders are unable to read social cues or engage in difficult conversations, their employees are more likely to consider leaving their jobs than employees where leaders can manage conflict or hard conversations with skill. If a minimum of one third of leaders cannot engage in healthy dialogue when the stakes are high (per this survey of 1300 employees) it’s no wonder employee engagement (whether active or passive) is at an all-time low today.
In companies where leaders can determine what they want in the moment, can challenge their stories about what might be going on for them, while simultaneously staying present for the stories of others, employees are more likely to stay motivated, engaged and productive. How a leader responds to and reads the thoughts and feelings of others is defining organizational health far beyond the individual leader’s success.
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.