Business Success: Social Intelligence

If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view—as well as your own. 

—Henry Ford

The human brain offers fascinating insights into how leaders can leverage the new science. Based on the latest research in social neuroscience, a person who feels empathy for someone else is able to become attuned to the other’s mood. The result is resonance. The two brains become attuned as if they are part of the same system. This idea has powerful implications for leaders, as it follows that truly “great leaders are those whose behavior powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness.”

Social influence on leadersNatural leaders are those who easily connect with others. Individuals can improve their leadership abilities by finding “authentic contexts in which to learn the kinds of social behavior that reinforces the brain’s social circuitry. 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.”

Tuning In

The process of tuning in occurs through the activation of mirror neurons, which are widely distributed throughout the brain. They operate as a “neural Wi-Fi” that facilitates our navigation of the social world by picking up the emotions of others and sharing their experience.
This point has powerful implications for leadership style. It suggests that leaders can succeed while being very demanding, as long as they foster a positive mood. In fact, certain mirror neurons are designed to detect smiles and laughter and often prompt smiles and laughter in return. Leaders who elicit smiles and laughter stimulate bonding among their team members. Research shows that “top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid-performing leaders.”


Great leaders often say they make decisions from the gut. While some discount this concept, neuroscience steps in again to suggest that intuition is, in fact, in the brain. Intuition is produced by neurons called spindle cells. These cells are characterized by their large size (four times that of other brain cells). Their spindly shape, with an extra-long branch that allows them to attach to many cells at the same time, enables spindle cells to transmit thoughts and feeling to other cells more quickly. “This ultrarapid connection of emotions, beliefs, and judgments creates what behavioral scientists call our social guidance system.” This ability to take a thin slice of information and make a split-second decision has proven to be very accurate as shown in follow-up metrics. The ability to intuit while tuned in to others’ moods offers very accurate radar.

Other neurons that play a role in our social intelligence are called oscillators. The oscillator neurons coordinate movements between people who are attuned to each others’ feelings. It explains the phenomena experienced in dancing or a drumming circle. And it plays heavily in nonverbal communication, as this connection enables one to guided to look in a certain direction or adjust position by the actions of another.

Dan Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, and Richard Boyaztis, author of Becoming a Resonant Leader, share their behavioral assessment tool, the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory. “It is a 360-degree evaluation instrument by which bosses, peers, direct reports, clients, and sometimes even family members assess a leader according to seven social intelligence qualities.”

• Do you understand what motivates other people, even those from different backgrounds?
• Are you sensitive to others’ needs?
• Do you listen attentively and think about how others feel?
• Are you attuned to others’ moods?
Organizational Awareness
• Do you appreciate the culture and values of the group or organization?
• Do you understand social networks and know their unspoken norms?
• Do you persuade others by engaging them in discussion and appealing to their self-interests?
• 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 price, and foster a positive emotional tone?
• Are you lead by bringing out the best in people?
• Do you solicit input from everyone on the team?
• Are you support all team members and encourage cooperation?

What characteristics do you think are most important in a leader?

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