One of the best ways to improve social intelligence is to work with a coach, but if you apply your mind to it, you can make great progress on your own.
As people grow their careers through their 20s and 30s, they lay the technical foundations for their future. Being good at the core technical aspects of whatever job they are doing, whether it be engineering, sales, marketing, finance, HR or anything else, is what will win them promotions until they finally reach the gilded title “Executive”. When they do, these skills suddenly become far less important than the ability to connect and work well with others. No longer do you just manage down, now you have to manage sideways, working with your peers, and upwards, influencing your boss in a positive way. Your responsibility lies beyond your department, particularly if you sit on the Executive Committee of the business. You also need to manage your stakeholders, both external and internal, which means mapping them out, considering their relative importance, and then understanding the quality of your relationship with them, and how to improve that.
Social intelligence starts with silence. Your silence. If you want to understand others, you need to hear what they have to say. Self-awareness is another fundamental trait to develop for social intelligence. In order to give yourself the space to understand others and potentially to influence them, you must be able to control your own reactions to any given situation.
Have you ever seen someone get defensive in a meeting, feeling that they are being attacked or misunderstood? Have you ever seen anyone get angry in a meeting and raise their voice at a colleague, or worse, a subordinate? Have you ever seen someone cry in a meeting when they have been publicly criticised? Have you ever tried to give another person feedback only to have them become resentful and angry with you, even though you meant well and intended the feedback to be helpful and constructive? Or have you ever been the person feeling resentful and angry? If so, you are completely normal. In fact, I suspect that most of us could develop in self-management, which is the first key to social intelligence.
Our ability to make good decisions deteriorates under pressure and stress. The physiological impact of stress can take over the quality decision-making structures of the brain and can mean that we become more impulsive. Neuroscientists call this “amygdala hijack” after the part of the brain that houses our primitive emotions. In general, men will take high-risk decisions in these circumstances, while women tend towards lower risk. In both cases we fail to evaluate the full range of options and make the wisest move.