Improving Your Social IQ

Last Updated Sep 10, 2008 11:53 AM EDT

I spoke at a conference last weekend, and part of my in-flight reading was the September issue of Harvard Business Review. It's a great issue, with the Pixar creativity article in it, a preview of "Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years" (see The Seven Signs of Business Doom) and a two-part article on risk management that I'm still digesting.

It also had a piece on new research into emotional intelligence, "Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership," by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. This also caught the attention of Sean Silverthorne, who posted on it earlier this week.
We were struck by some of the same things, like their assertion that "Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations -- or even mastering social skill sets -- than about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need."

Then there's the comment they made that "individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system." Shades of Roger Penrose's quantum consciousness!

Sean ponders whether medical science is shaping our business thinking. I found myself thinking about the practical value of what they had to say about the practical value of knowing that mirror neurons exist in our brains and will cause people to mimic what we do. Knowing something does not mean we can actually make changes because of it. Indeed, the authors cite Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher's amazing way with employees, and note ruefully that "it's not easy to turn yourself into a Herb Kelleher...we know of no clear-cut methods to strengthen mirror neurons, spindle cells and oscillators....what's more, self-conscious attempts to display social intelligence can often backfire."

But they insist that people can, through hard work, change their behavior, and much of the article discusses a case study on how one can become socially smarter. Through intensive coaching, a promising manager whose over-aggressiveness and inability to know when others felt her straight talk was not so much refreshing as an arrow into their hearts.

This manager worked with a coach, examining incidents from her day, rehearsing discussions to anticipate how people might react, developing a personal vision for changing her behavior. She was able to find a mentor in the organization who was skilled at dealing with people, and switched into his organization for two years.

After this extensive process, she was indeed able to change, and she received a promotion up two levels.

Clearly, it is hard work to improve our social intelligence. Many organizations may prefer to simply fire a person when her initial promise doesn't work out, or push her into a position where she feels she has to leave. It's expensive to train people, especially in job-hopping times.

But perhaps investing in people's social intelligence will make the whole organization better, and people will want to stay, rather than go work with people at companies with a lower social IQ. What do you think?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.