The rise of social intelligence (Guest commentary)

If employees are lousy at social interaction, employers have a problem
By Doug Williamson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/27/2012

Despite the best efforts of many to deny it, one of the most important changes in business leadership has been the shift from a focus on hard skills and business acumen to a focus on soft interpersonal skills and personal resonance. In essence, the soft skills are the essential new hard skills.

But the reality is the traditional hard skills are the price of entry into any business. You simply can’t play the game if you don’t have the hard skills. However, a person’s proficiency in the soft skills will, ultimately, allow her to excel in the leadership of a successful organization.

Armed with this knowledge, many organizations dove headfirst into studying employee competency in what was believed to be the only measure of their soft skill capability — emotional intelligence (EQ).

EQ is essentially the ability to perceive, assess and manage your emotions and the emotions of people around you. But that definition is too narrow because EQ’s emphasis is on assessing the emotional state of one’s self, or another person, in isolation.

In Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence, he addresses an important missing component — the social relationship among the participants in any conversation or interaction. He believes organizations should focus their efforts on “social intelligence” or SQ.

In order for business to actually take place, there must be some type of social exchange between at least two people. Therefore, Goleman has unearthed a profound new insight into an old piece of information for business leaders.

He is reminding us that if your people are lousy at social interaction (or even if they are just less than stellar) when dealing with internal and external customers, you have a serious business problem.

Innovation, organizational change and peak performance are brought about by seamless, candid, effective social interactions among team members.

Elements of SQ

SQ can be broken down into two broad categories. The first is social awareness, which is the ability to sense what is going on around you. The second, called social facility, deals with what we then do with that awareness.

Each of these are broken down into sub-categories.

Social awareness includes:

• primal empathy — sensing non-verbal emotional signals

• attunement — attuning, through listening, with full receptivity

• empathic accuracy — understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others

• social cognition — understanding how the social world works.

Social facility includes:

•synchrony — effective, non-verbal communication

• self-presentation — making a desired impression

• influence — shaping the outcome of interactions

• concern — caring about others’ needs.

The outcome, therefore, of competence in each of these elements translates into an individual with a high level of SQ.

Social corrosion

Why is SQ racing to the forefront of business? Take this moment as an example. As you read this, you’re either looking at the paper or staring at a computer screen and not talking to another person.

You’ve probably sent and received dozens of emails today but can you say you have had a true conversation with anyone?

“Television permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

The same can be said about a computer monitor, at least from a SQ perspective. In many cases, managers are not taught the most essential skill to execute their single, most fundamental role — to lead their people. Therefore, developing an ability to get out and effectively interact with others socially will, ultimately, determine the great from the good.

Developing organizational SQ

Here are four tactics to improve social intelligence at your organization.

Open doors: Better yet, take the doors off the hinges. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. Therefore, if you find your organization tends to be constantly heads-down, fixated on the immediate task at hand and with everyone working in isolation, you’ve got a problem.

Speed dating: Everyone is busy. Cut your town hall meetings in half and spend the time as if it were a speed-dating session. Have employees rotate through discussions to allow knowledge about the business to spread more quickly.

Limit emails: Meetings aren’t the answer but neither is pure email communication. Encourage employees to actually spend time talking with their team members. In the case of cross-functional teams, this will promote knowledge transfer and build new connections in the various departments.

Recruit and train for SQ: While there isn’t a readily available assessment to measure SQ, understanding the concepts behind it and implementing hiring practices and training curricula based on its fundamentals will help increase your organization’s SQ.

Doug Williamson is president and CEO of the Beacon Group, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in organizational transformation and effectiveness programs as well as talent identification and leadership development. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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