1 11 mins 9 yrs

It may be tempting to think of a socially intelligent person as someone who knows how to organise and act at parties. Perhaps you associate the term ‘social intelligence’ with the wisdom in Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help tome, How to win Friends and Influence People. While this wisdom still applies today, more recent research in this field has greatly expanded our understanding of social intelligence.

So what is social intelligence?

As early as 1920, EL Thorndike (cited in Kinga and Istvan, 2012) defined social intelligence as the ability to understand and act wisely in human relations.

Our social intelligence pertains to our interpersonal relations and is comprised mainly of two components:
Social awareness – what we sense about ourselves and others.
Social facility – our expression of/reactions to these observations.

The first component, social awareness, consists of primal empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy and social cognition; whereas the second, social facility, is made up of synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern (Goleman, 2006).

Zirkel (2000) operates from the premise that social intelligence is closely related to personality and behaviour. Those with social intelligence are fully self-aware and also understand their environment. This enables them to control their emotions and make insightful decisions about their goals in life. Zirkel’s model centres on the term ‘purposive behaviour’ – deliberate action taken after the evaluation of one’s environment, opportunities, risks and goals.

So, what do we do with this social intelligence then?

Social intelligence is useful in many ways. It assists in the creation of a sense of identity for the individual, it emphasises self-management and interpersonal skills, and it focuses on thinking and resultant behaviour within social contexts.

Furtner, Rauthmann and Sachse (2010) have shown that social sensitivity and emotional expressivity are important, whereas emotional regulation seems of negligible importance, to self-leaders. Yet self-leaders are especially effective in regulating their thought and behaviour patterns. It seems, then, that social sensitivity and emotional expressivity create regulated emotions – so that it is not necessary for the socially intelligent to consciously work on controlling their emotions.

This does not mean, however, that you should leave your emotions to regulate themselves. Becoming a self-leader does not happen overnight. Eventually, you will regulate your emotion so effortlessly that you won’t even have to think about it but, for now, you must consciously work on it. You must also practise being appropriately expressive, sensitive and reactive to your social environment (i.e. external orientation, interpersonal views). Self-leaders get ahead in life because they are socially intelligent and emotionally expressive in interpersonal situations.

Interestingly, Sorjonen, Hemmingsson, Lundin and Melin (2011) have found that people accustomed to a high societal standing tend to be more socially intelligent and educated than those used to a lesser social status. This becomes particularly evident during times of social repositioning. This jarring discovery appears to lay waste to the claim that hard work and the quest to be deserving of merit are not the sole factors determining human achievement. To overcome our societal inequalities, we must build social skills and the ability to interact with people at higher levels in society. We all respond more positively to socially intelligent people. Becoming socially intelligent will afford you more opportunities to get ahead in life.

This begs the question:

“How do socially intelligent people behave?”

In the search for an answer to this question, certain experiments were done with chat robots. These experiments found that, when the robots gave positive feedback in conversations, people perceived them to be friendlier. Furthermore, mimicry on the part of the robots increased people’s perception of them as intelligent (Kaptein, Markopoulos, Ruyter and Aarts, 2011).

Some obvious conclusions may be drawn from these findings. When you are friendly and give compliments, others will feel more positive toward you. You also sound smarter when you listen to and work with the ideas of other people. It is always important to operate with the other person’s point of view in mind when you are attempting to direct an outcome. When you behave in a socially intelligent manner, you are more likely to get an acceptable outcome for both parties.

Hampel, Weis, Hiller and Witthoff (2011) have contributed to this changing perspective by showing that being more anxious decreases your social perception and memory. So, if you want to remember the conversation and the names of the people, be less stressed about it. This allows you to start more meaningful conversations that increase your likelihood of remembering what is happening. This applies to more than just names – in general, people will pick up on your anxiety and this will affect the outcomes of interactions.

Implications for performance management

Another shocking discovery in this field relates to the ideas of praise as reward, and reward as incentive. It has been generally accepted that reward is an important part of social interaction; that you should liberally dole it out if you want other people to do what you want them to do. Increasingly, however, research is testing this assumption. As it turns out, the use of extrinsic motivation/rewards to foster ‘desired’ behaviours is, more often than not, counter-productive.

Deci and Moller (2005) draw on a range of studies in observing that people who receive extrinsic rewards for performing certain tasks are actually less inclined to perform those tasks than people who do not receive such rewards. Reward has repeatedly been shown to undermine intrinsic motivation and diminish people’s sense of self-determination and autonomy. By contrast, the use of other positive feedback has been found to enhance engagement in tasks.

This research clearly highlights the dangers of simply assuming that generic praise and rewards build teams and improve teamwork. A thoughtful approach is needed in the use of praise and rewards lest they create division.

This has massive implications for performance management systems and may explain, finally, why they often fail and why values-based organisations are more successful than those with structured job descriptions. It also clarifies why people tend to disengage from conversations focused on money or external rewards, viewing them as lip-service designed to placate them. Understanding what drives people allows us to employ social intelligence in the workplace and direct the efforts of staff and the organisation as a whole.

Keating, Harper and Glew (2011) suggest a framework for reflecting on how social intelligence can be used to remove toxic elements from a workplace. This starts with self-reflection around areas such as empathy, and looking at how each of us as a leader acts and reacts in the workplace.

Do you understand what motivates other people, even those from different backgrounds?
Are you sensitive to others’ needs?

Are you attuned to others’ moods?
Do you listen attentively and think about how others feel?

Organisational awareness
Do you appreciate the culture and values of the group or organisation?
Do you understand social networks and know their unspoken norms?

Do you persuade others by engaging them in discussion and appealing to their self-interest?
Do you get support from key people?

Developing others
Do you coach and mentor others with compassion, and personally invest time and energy in mentoring?
Do you provide feedback that people find helpful for their professional development?

Do you articulate a compelling vision, build group pride, and foster a positive emotional tone?
Do you lead by bringing out the best in people?

Do you solicit input from everyone on the team?
Do you support all team members and encourage cooperation?

Social intelligence and intercultural interactions

Wawra (2009) shows that social intelligence is also critical in intercultural situations. Social neuroscience demonstrates the importance of non-verbal communication and emotions for satisfying human interactions in general. Emotions are more crucial in communication encounters where the participants do not share the same cultural background.

Culture makes it more difficult to interpret the other person’s non-verbal communication and emotions correctly. In an intercultural encounter – just like in any other interaction between humans – we can trigger emotions in our conversation and vice versa through our verbal and, above all, non-verbal behaviour, without being aware of it. Yet those emotions may unintentionally influence the outcome of such interactions. In the end, it depends to a great extent on our emotions whether the outcomes of intercultural negotiations will be perceived as successful or not. When negative emotions outweigh positive ones, this will usually result in unsuccessful, unsatisfying and unrewarding encounters. But the more that positive emotions outweigh negative ones, the more successful, satisfying and rewarding intercultural communication will be.

An important contribution of social neuroscience to intercultural communication research is its revelation that emotions are much more important in intercultural encounters than has been recognised so far. Emotions are at the heart of intercultural negotiations and are not a peripheral aspect. With more businesses now embracing cultural diversity, it is an important time to become educated on how to be more culturally aware.


All of these tools and strategies apply to the workplace, where having ‘virtual’ meetings from behind computers, with many distractions, diminishes productivity as it is a method by which to hide behind our own social fears.

The process of becoming more socially intelligent involves investigating what motivates, drives and influences people. Consulting the volumes of literature on the topic is a great place to start. Here, you will find valuable insights into what motivates people and may challenge some of your traditional conceptions of what applies to management.

Once you get to understand others and yourself better, you can start shaping your own social intelligence and use this competency to achieve your individual goals as well as those of the collective.


Mthobisi Sikhosana

One thought on “Applied Social Intelligence

  1. This is a very insightful plate of food, it reminds me of my Industrial Psychology lecture.

    This is true and somehow relevant to me: “Hard work and the quest to be deserving of merit are not the sole
    factors determining human achievement.”

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