Most of us recognize the importance of self-awareness. If you’ve ever worked with someone who lacked it, you know only too well: They act impulsively, communicate poorly, and are wholly unaware of their blind spots. But self-awareness isn’t the end of the story. To be a good leader, you must also possess another key, albeit less talked-about, component of emotional intelligence: social awareness.
Social awareness includes the ability to “read the room,” to understand others, to have compassion and empathy. People with high social awareness can recognize, process, and adapt to shifting emotional information. In today’s business environment, you can imagine how useful that is. But, without it, leaders have difficulty motivating their people and end up with employees who feel unsupported and unheard.
I once had a boss who not only looked at her phone during meetings but would often be typing on it, even while someone was speaking directly to her. Her behavior impacted us all, whether we were the ones speaking to her or simply in the room bearing witness. She made us feel unimportant and that what we were discussing was of little value. Being inattentive to others, not listening, engaging, or connecting with them, is an example of low social recognition.
Of course, it takes self-awareness, or possibly an assessment or feedback, to understand if this is something you need to work on. In case you’re not sure, here are some situations you might recognize and what you can do to raise your level of social awareness.
Look out for signals
Do you find that you often end an interaction with a coworker, employee, or your boss, by asking yourself, “What just happened?” This may be an indication that you misread what was going on, or worse, failed to read the signals altogether.
Instead of picking up your phone or otherwise distracting yourself from what is going on in the moment, make a conscious effort to pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal clues that people express in meetings or in conversations with you. Get into a habit of actively looking for cues in body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and behavior and make a mental note as to what they may mean. For example, “I’m fine,” can have different meanings depending on the way someone says it. Learn to decipher the cues and, if you identify an expression or tone whose meaning is unclear, consider asking the other person what they are feeling and test your perceptions.
How well do you know the members of your team? Could you name their partners or their kids? Do you know where they are from and what they like to do when they aren’t at work?
It may be time to get curious about the people you work with. Ask them about themselves and—this is important—listen to what they tell you. If you are someone who is more comfortable with direct communication and getting straight to the point, consider slowing down and engaging in some light conversation before diving into the crux of the meeting. Even if it feels a little uncomfortable, it is important to create opportunities to build connections with your coworkers. Look for what you might have in common or where your interests may converge. To be a successful leader you need to be able to build rapport and develop quality relationships with the people you work with.
Give as good as you take
Do you think about contributing to your team as much as you think about what you can get out of them? Socially aware leaders think in terms of the opportunities they can provide for their team members, looking out for how they can teach, coach, and develop people.
Instead of observing from above, jump in and get involved. Think about ways to collaborate with colleagues and employees. Where can you actively contribute? Where can you offer personalized attention and care? If you want to be an inspirational leader, think about service. Provide value to others through words and actions. Learn to think in terms of how you can help them, not how they can help you.
Look beyond missteps
Do you look for the best in others, or mostly see their flaws? Socially aware people recognize the possibility and potential in others. Imagine how powerful that is for you and for the people you work with.
Instead of judging people on the misses, the mistakes, and the things they got wrong, actively look for what they are doing well, where they’ve made contributions, and where they exhibit strengths. Recognize their contributions to the larger group, and express your appreciation in specific terms both in public and in private. Let them know that you see them. And if you need evidence to the benefit of doing that, according to a survey of 1,500 employees by Reward Gateway, 75% agreed that motivation and morale would improve at their company if managers said “thank you” more and noticed when people do good work. It’s a win-win.
Do you hear the quiet voices in the room or only pay attention to the voices you hear often and loudly? If you aren’t listening to all of the voices around you, you are missing out on a lot of information that is affecting your teams and your company.
Let’s face it. Most of us could improve our listening skills. Often instead of listening to others, we are busy in our head planning what we will say next. Train yourself to actively listen when people are talking with you. Take in what they are saying without judgment or the need to respond with a story of your own. When they finish, repeat what they said back to them, by saying something like, “If I heard you right . . .” or “It sounds like you are saying . . .” Not only will this help ensure that you accurately understood what they were saying, but you will also demonstrate to the other person that they were heard.
Components of social awareness such as compassion and empathy have been critical factors for successful leadership throughout the pandemic and are predicted to continue as leadership capabilities most valued by organizations moving forward. A Manpower report, The Future for Workers, by Workers: Making the Next Normal Better for All, cites communication, relationship building, coaching, and empathy among the top 10 skills that will be most in-demand in the future. And according to McKinsey & Company, the more capable leaders are “the ones who demonstrate the most empathetic leadership and often disproportionately champion diverse talent.”
Amy Kan is a leadership coach who helps organizations perform better by elevating emotional intelligence and improving the way people communicate with each other.