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  1. Blog
  2. Advancement

How Social Intelligence Can Help Your Career & Make You a Better Leader

Emotions are contagious

Two women talking at work
Image courtesy of Christnia @

We all want to be around socially intelligent people—they’re great listeners and are comfortable to be with. We’re social creatures, after all, and almost without conscious thought, we perceive and value traits like authenticity and empathy in our friends, partners, and colleagues.

But what is social intelligence? Is it really an important skill to have in the workplace? How can being socially intelligent benefit your career? Can it make you a better leader? And how can you develop social intelligence?

Let’s take a look.

Read more: How to Be a Good Manager, According to Experienced Managers

What is social intelligence?

Most of us know not to tell knee-slapping, fall-down-laughing jokes at funerals. That’s social intelligence. Socially intelligent people know which behaviors are acceptable, and when. 

Nearly 100 years ago, psychologist Philip E. Vernon gave a comprehensive definition of social intelligence, calling it the “ability to get along with people in general, social technique or ease in society, knowledge of social matters, and susceptibility to stimuli from other members of a group, as well as insight into the temporary moods or underlying personality traits of strangers.”

We all play roles depending on the social environment we’re in. You’re different with your grandparents than you are with your friends. Similarly, the way you act at a professional networking event is not the same as the way you are at a family get-together.

Social intelligence is a learned skill and an important one.

Read more: Adaptability: Your Most Essential Workplace Skill

Why is social intelligence an important skill to have in the workplace?

Being socially intelligent means you’re able to get along with the people you work with. It’s part of being an effective communicator, which entails active listening and empathy. It also means you know when it’s time to speak and how to deliver that message.

In fact, Amanda Gervay, senior vice president of human resources at Mastercard Asia Pacific, says this soft skill is more important now than ever. 

“From the many global employee surveys that we’ve done, we know that this more communicative, humble, warm, and open style of leadership is what people are responding to now, especially as they work remotely,” she explains. “Business leaders that possess these qualities will help their teams to survive and thrive in these unusual times and beyond.”

Read more: Which of These 11 Leadership Styles Are You?

How can being socially intelligent benefit your career?

Having social intelligence is an essential component of leadership, and it’s the perception of you by others that is key. For example, corporate leaders who remain silent during times of upheaval that directly affect their employees are seen as cold, uncaring, and lacking empathy. The truth may be that they are extremely concerned but don’t know how to communicate effectively.

And it’s not just CEOs who should get better at social intelligence. When you don’t know how to communicate your message, you can hurt your career in terms of getting promotions and professional recognition.

Career success coach Jennifer Brick tells us that one of the main problems her clients have is difficulty communicating their value. 

“The issue is rarely in their willingness to share their accomplishments. My clients are ambitious women who know this is necessary,” Brick explains. “Where they go wrong most often is either in not being intentional with how they and their personal brand are perceived by others, or in how they can both understand and communicate their impact in a way that encourages others to brag for them. Being intentional in these areas is a career game-changer.”

Read more: How to Influence Your Company Culture, Even if You’re Not the CEO

How can social intelligence make you a better leader?

Most industries rely on teamwork, and there’s something called “group emotional contagion” that can have a huge impact on a team. In her 2002 paper, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior,” Sigal G. Barsade, Ph.D., says the team leader’s mood is picked up on by team members: If it’s positive, performance goes up, and vice versa.

The socially intelligent leader is one who knows that their very demeanor can influence their colleagues. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be what they say.

“Think about your worst boss,” says Brick. “What was your biggest complaint about them? For most of my clients, it’s that they didn’t listen—they didn’t feel understood. And as a leader, this hinders you because you aren’t leveraging the power of various perspectives on your team. When we look at great leaders, they typically have high social intelligence: They are effective at communicating across audiences, they know what impression to make, and they are exceptionally effective listeners.”

How can you develop social intelligence?

By becoming more emotionally intelligent, you’ll develop social intelligence. Being emotionally intelligent means you’re self-aware. Part of that self-awareness allows you to control your emotional responses. For example, an emotionally intelligent person won’t rage at their colleagues when there’s a problem in the workplace.

And the way you influence others depends on how you handle yourself.

Socially intelligent people, then, are active listeners who are self-aware. There’s more too: They also respect diversity and understand that people from different backgrounds, experiences, and identities will have responses that might be very different from their own. Socially intelligent people not only reserve judgment, they actively explore those differences in an effort to better understand and connect with their colleagues.

Brick puts it this way: “The source of developing social intelligence begins with understanding. Focus on developing your active listening skills. It sounds cliche, but listen for what is not being said, what assumptions have been made, what emotion is driving them, and what motivates them.”

Read more: What I Learned About Advocating for Myself in the Workplace

About our source

Jennifer Brick is a career success coach dedicated to helping women in male-dominated industries get the pay, promotion, and praise they deserve. Through her YouTube channel, speaking, workshops, programs, and social media presence, she has served millions of career success seekers.

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