Most of you were likely in a leadership position at the start of the pandemic. Put yourself back in that place three years ago, when the world was becoming aware of COVID. Can you imagine the result if you would have told your team it was nothing? If you had demanded they keep coming to work or else they’d be fired? If you had been completely tone-deaf to what your people needed in that moment?
Leaders must be aware of what’s going on inside and outside their business and the emotional impact of it all on their people. How they respond will greatly affect their organization’s culture.
What is social awareness?
Social awareness is the third domain of emotional intelligence, which I covered in April’s blog (Improve Your Emotional Intelligence To Boost Your Bottom Line). It’s the first domain that is others-related rather than self-related. Social awareness requires both empathy and organizational awareness. It goes beyond knowing your own emotions to reading the room, understanding others’ emotions, and knowing that your actions have a ripple effect throughout the organization.
Your team members’ experiences inside and outside the organization shape their life. You can’t control those outside influences. As the leader, however, you have to at least acknowledge that they're out there. It’s not fair or realistic to expect employees to “leave it at the door.” This is where empathy comes in. It’s being aware of others’ pain, acknowledging their pain, and letting them know you understand they’re experiencing that pain. You’ll lead better and create a culture where people can thrive when you connect with them on an emotional level.
A Better Approach
There’s an old proverb that sums up the benefits of social awareness well: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Leaders should never go into a situation geared up for a fight. Jeff Heyer-Jones, president of SparkEvolve and my Inflection Point Moment cohost, recently shared an experience with me in which a colleague was prepared to do just that. She needed something from another department and had a reputation for coming in and telling people exactly what she wanted and how they were going to do it. She was like a bull in a china shop. She wasn’t there to make friends, just to get what she wanted, her way, at whatever cost.
Jeff, having a more collaborative mindset, suggested they take a different approach with two half-hour meetings set a week apart. In the first meeting, he brought all the players into the room and explained what needed to be accomplished. Anticipating hesitancy from past failures, he framed the discussion around what was possible with the proposed change. Once they had their fears and failures out on the table, they could talk about what problems they may come up against instead of immediately responding with resistance. He posed a key question: How do you see us being able to accomplish this? Given the opportunity to think through the challenge together, the team came to the same solution that the colleague originally wanted.
When they came back for the second meeting to figure out how they would make it happen, there was no fight or demands from the colleague. It was just laying out a problem and coming together as a group to figure it out. This is organizational awareness and being empathetic to everybody in the room. Each team member had a voice and felt valued. They were able to make their own decision about a change instead of having it forced on them. The same outcome was achieved and it was a win for everybody involved.
Building your social awareness
Social awareness will help you through countless situations as a leader. If you keep the following tips in mind and let them consistently guide your actions, you’ll be rewarded with better workplace relationships and culture.
- Be aware of others’ emotions, struggles, and needs. If you are aware of what a person is experiencing, it helps you to lead that person more effectively.
- Recognize that your actions have implications beyond just you. You must set boundaries and expectations for your team and yourself. Be gracious, understanding, and empathic when redirecting a team member.
- Be attuned to what people are going through inside and outside of your organization. People have complications in their life that will impact how they function at work.
You can lead effectively if you know what’s going on around you. You have to understand where they are and what they need, what their life experience is, and how they are dealing with the emotions around them and within them. You’ll be blindsided by things if you are not connected to your people enough to know what’s going on with them. That doesn’t require you to overstep boundaries to be in their personal business, it’s just a matter of understanding them as individuals and letting them know you support them.