High-performance leadership has always required self-regulation, managing conflict, and negotiating skillfully, but now it demands one key additional element: social intelligence.


Socially intelligent leaders have the ability to respond deftly in various types of highly charged emotional situations. They know the right approach at the right time. In his book Resonate: The Art of Connecting, bestselling author and business researcher, Daniel Goleman defines social intelligence leadership as the ability to: 1) discern how people feel and why, 2) expressing appropriate concern, and 3) interacting skillfully to encourage positive states of thinking.

When colleagues express frustration, a socially intelligent leader knows how to listen carefully, empathize, and take measures to help improve conditions. Even when these measures fail, they provide emotional support to a colleague in distress. Goleman’s research shows paying attention to someone’s concerns actually allows that person to process them faster, shortening the time spent ruminating. But by ignoring demonstrations of anger or frustration, a leader will only encourage the person to seethe more about being ignored. Keep in mind: as a socially intelligent leader, you can do this even when a person’s complaints seem truly unfounded. You don’t need to condone a reaction; but acknowledge the emotions behind that reaction, and suggest a couple of solutions. This will always decrease the magnitude of any harmful outcome.


Studies show that socially intelligent leaders do more than just make people happier at work. In a joint Harris Poll/ABC News survey of employees at seven hundred companies, the majority of respondents reported that a supportive boss mattered more than how much money they earned. This study also showed that caring bosses drive increased productivity and encouraged employees to stay with their companies. To manage people effectively, a socially intelligent leader pays attention to these undercurrents of ambivalence because they affect people’s abilities to perform at their best. And because emotions have a ripple effect, leaders at all levels must uphold their responsibility to maintain a productive environment.


There isn’t a fool-proof formula for behaving correctly in every situation, but leaders can improve their own skills over time. So you ask yourself: how do I become socially intelligent? Well, you probably already are. If you don’t agree, know that you can cultivate it. Goleman says to initially, learn how to focus. Socially intelligent leadership begins with being engaged and focused on your work. If you’re disengaged from your role, you won’t be able to put others at ease. An engaged leader can tap into her innate social intelligence by staying in synch with her team.


Now, more than ever, organizations of all kinds are searching for leaders to promote with this quality. As people work longer hours, connecting nights and weekends via mobile technology, businesses start feel like a substitute family. But many individuals can be ejected from this substitute family at any moment. As such, that uncertainty means hope and fear can run tandem and rampant. That’s exactly why social intelligence matters. It’s a new glue helping to keep teams together and leaders at the top of their game.