February 14, 2023

Key Leadership Competencies: Social Intelligence & Awareness

Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 10 minutes

In a previous post, we kicked off our Leadership Competencies series with emotional intelligence — a skill that sits at the top of critically important competencies in a leader. In our current environment of constant change, unmanageable stress, competing priorities and more, the ability to keep our emotions in check every moment and in every situation is challenging. While self-awareness or emotional intelligence is clearly about being aware of your own behavior in the moment, there is another aspect that goes hand in hand with this leadership competency. That aspect is social intelligence or social awareness.  

Remember Gary’s story in the previous post, where he mentioned the charge nurse recognized his emotional state and intervened? She didn’t match his angry emotions; she managed Gary AND the situation without calling attention to either.  

Her awareness of the situation and others in the room was a demonstration of emotional intelligence and incredible social intelligence. She recognized, in the moment, the reactions and the potential outcome if there wasn’t an intervention. She also recognized, in the moment, that the escalation was creating an environment that was not productive. Finally, she exercised emotional intelligence in the moment, stayed calm to keep the situation in control and got everyone back on track.  

What is Social Intelligence or Social Awareness?

Social intelligence or awareness is the ability to be aware of the emotions of others while understanding your own emotional responses in the moment, and using that information to manage ourselves and our relationships. It is having the ability to understand the social environment, interpret and respond appropriately to the emotions, attitudes, and behaviors of others. Tapping into awareness capacity, as a leader, is a valuable tool. It will help you recognize and interpret social cues, understand the perspectives of others, and appreciate social dynamics. 

Perhaps an easy example of not having any social awareness is a scene from the movie Elf.  In the movie, Buddy the Elf (played by Will Ferrell) bursts into his father’s work conference room where he finds a room full of individuals sitting around the table. Miles Finch (played by Peter Dinklage), a fast-talking, highly successful pitch writer, stands at the head of the table. Miles is a person with dwarfism and Buddy the Elf exclaims, “You’re an elf!”

Miles is taken aback by the sudden announcement and becomes very upset. He responds negatively to Buddy, yet Buddy continues to call him an elf. Everyone in the room — except Buddy himself — is horrified by Buddy’s words to Miles and his inability to recognize the insensitivity and disrespect toward Miles. (Watch the clip here.)

While this may be a nonsensical reference of not possessing social awareness, it does provide relatable examples of how leaders can be oblivious to how their words or behavior can impact others, and how important it is to be present and pay attention to how others in the room are responding in the moment.  

The four-quadrant model on the right demonstrates the complete picture of both self and social awareness. Common themes between self-awareness and social awareness include the importance of understanding one’s values, beliefs, emotions, and behavior and those of others.

Self-awareness and social awareness also emphasize the importance of recognizing and respecting differences between individuals, empathizing with others, and engaging in open dialogue. Additionally, self and social awareness involve developing strategies to manage situations, conflict, and crucial conversations. Leaders who possess social and emotional intelligence can better understand and empathize with others, build trust, and create an engaged environment. 

Building Your Social Awareness Muscle

For some, social awareness comes as second nature, while others are not as adept in discerning the responses and emotions of others. The more we can build and flex this muscle, the more effective, productive and engaged environment you can create.

When building this muscle, it is important to remember that unless an individual tells you exactly what they are feeling, you are simply making assumptions on their responses or reactions you witness. In other cases, individuals may not display physical responses and you’re left in the dark interpreting their response.    

Let’s use an example of being in a meeting and flexing that social awareness muscle. Here are some tips that will help navigate the meeting environment you are in.

  • Take a minute to know and reflect. Review the agenda prior to the meeting. Are there topics that are political in nature or otherwise bring about emotion, whether positive or negative? Being aware of those topics ahead of time will help you know when to pay particular attention to the individuals in the room. 
  • Pause. Take a moment to pause, sit back, and scan the room. How are individuals engaging in the conversation? How are they responding to the topic, the individual presenting (that may be you), and the content?  
  • Identify and make note of emotions and responses. Write down not only the feelings and emotions you are experiencing, but those of other individuals as well. What types of emotions are you feeling within yourself and seeing from others? How are they responding to the various topics? 
  • Verify. While some individuals are good at disguising their responses, others are not, yet it is still important to verify what you saw and experienced. Identify an individual (or several individuals) you have a trusting relationship with. Inform them that you are trying to build muscle in this space and would like to ask for their feedback on what you experienced and saw from their reactions and responses in the meeting. Doing this routinely will not only help you develop your awareness skills, it will also assist you, as a leader,  in having those same follow-up conversations with individuals that are important to build relationships with.  
  • Take accountability quickly. If you have a miscommunication or negative interaction, find ways to remedy the situation and ensure it doesn’t worsen.

As you continue to strengthen this muscle, you will be able to read responses, in the moment. Eventually, you can become proficient at reading others’ responses to your words and behaviors, and that awareness will broaden your leadership capabilities substantially. Yet, as leaders and as humans, we sometimes miss or fail to pick up on the queues or emotions individuals are demonstrating. The more we practice, the more we become aware.  

So what happens when we miss the queues? 

Being Present and Regaining Credibility in a Lapsed Moment

You may have noticed I have referenced the words “in the moment” often. That is important as it relates to social and emotional intelligence and awareness. To be “in the moment,” you must be fully present. Not only can you hear what is being said, but you also become aware and feel the unspoken emotions of a person or group.     

Here is an example that will likely be relatable if you are a parent. How many times have we had a loud outburst reaction with our child when we were at our wit’s end? We yelled at them out of frustration, and only when we were done with our own “fit” and looked at our child did we see absolute fear in their face. We didn’t recognize, in the moment, the fear we were creating in our child. Instead, we saw it after the fact; it was too late to withdraw the hurtful, terrifying words we had just expressed.     

How often do we catch ourselves in a multitude of thoughts running around in our minds as we conduct one-on-one or even group meetings? With so many competing priorities and endless to-do lists, it isn’t easy to turn off the continual voice in our minds that distracts us from being fully present. In fact, that mental voice is likely distracting you from picking up all aspects of this blog post right now as you are reading it!

By not being fully present, we miss many critical opportunities as leaders to know and understand what others are feeling and experiencing. Additionally, the farther up you are in the chain of leadership command, the more impact your behavior has on individuals and the organization. Coupled with that reality, the type of leadership position you hold may have an even more significant impact.

Let’s dive into another example of the impact of social awareness. Throughout my career, there were plenty of occasions when my lapse of personal or situational awareness had a negative effect. To my point in the previous paragraph, my role within the organization tended to create an added level of emotional response from others because I was a human resources leader. You all know the response. “Oh no! Human Resources is coming. Something is wrong!” I had to be so mindful of the reaction simply to my presence in meetings or even on phone calls. 

Therefore, it was imperative that I established relationships quickly so that I, and the team, could be viewed as a positive resource, not a negative one. That view was so important to me that I missed how my particular behavior sometimes impacted my team.

Allow me to explain. I view one of the more important gifts individuals give in the workplace is the gift of their time. I hated being late for any meeting, and I felt it was disrespectful to their gift of time. Therefore, if I was late, I would sprint to get to a meeting. When my team saw me rushing, they panicked every time, believing something was really wrong. Thankfully, with coaching, I was made fully aware of the impact of my behavior and blind spot.

I will venture to say that we have all had a moment (or two) where we knew we didn’t respond in a way that showed empathy or excellent leadership skills. We look at those moments and wish we could have a “do-over” to erase a failed leadership moment. I’m here to say that not only can you use those imperfect leadership moments as a learning tool, but you can also use them to gain and build deeper trust in those relationships. Those with emotional and social awareness and those working to develop that muscle can create an opportunity out of an imperfect situation by taking the time to manage relationships with those impacted. 

One way to accomplish this is to build trust by returning to the individual and the team to own the imperfect moment.  

  • Acknowledge the behavior. Own the behavior that you demonstrated. When meeting with an individual or group, describe the encounter and where you know you were triggered.  
  • Apologize for the lapse. Express regret for any harm or hurt your actions caused. It is important to offer a sincere apology and commit to learning from your mistake and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Ask how they experienced you. Don’t assume you know what they were feeling or what concerns came from your behavior. Instead, asking them how they experienced you will help you understand how your behavior impacted them and will paint a bigger picture that will likely help you build the tools quickly to ensure that behavior is not repeated.  
  • Give permission. Give those who experienced the imperfect moment permission to call it out if it happens again. This shows vulnerability and builds relationships of mutual respect and trust. The goal is to learn from the moment and ensure it doesn’t happen again; however, we are indeed human.  
Using Social Intelligence to Build a Company (of Office) Culture

Now, more than ever, there is a question of whether there is any remaining space in the workplace for leaders who demonstrate poor or even narcissistic behavior — behavior in which no social or emotional intelligence is displayed. Being that type of leader was once believed to be the only way to achieve success and a hefty bottom line. However, that leadership style is fading and becoming a theme of the past. 

After experiencing the pandemic for so long — the grinding hours, the intense pressure, particularly early on with the unknowns of this disease, being the surrogate spouse/partner/mother/father/son/daughter with the dying patient at the bedside, the relentless indentations from the endless hours of wearing suffocating PPE — employees don’t want to hear about achieving a particular bottom line. They want to work for leaders and an organization that encourages self-care, compassion, healing, and the pursuit of values and mission. Leaders who lack empathy will be incapable of creating the type of following required, in any organization.

How much do we allow the busyness of our day, the inability to keep up with demands, and the overall pressures  get in the way of our clarity and ability to choose using our conscious mind and responses? This is a very challenging question. However, the complexity of each situation is the reality of today’s environment, and we cannot let these factors be excuses for poor behavior, poor interactions, or poor performance. As leaders, we must create enough awareness to be intentional in making the right choice and flexing our social and emotional awareness.

Whether leaders realize it or not, someone, if not many, is always watching how you choose to react and respond. So, what does it take to turn that around and start watching others? How are others responding to your words, decisions, situations, environment, the culture?

Perhaps you can visualize being in the moment and compare it to a camera lens. How can you, in the moment, zoom out in order to zoom in? How can you be fully present to hear what is being said and feel the emotions you and the situation is creating?

As leaders, we must see the value of paying attention to what is happening around us. In addition to Gary’s writing on development opportunities for emotional intelligence, another way of paying attention to what is happening around us is through the power of pausing.

Take a step back — figuratively or physically — breathe and become aware. Listen to what is and is not being said. Remember, body language and behavior speak louder than words! Identify what you are seeing by trying to step into your employee’s or team’s shoes and walk on their path for just a moment. 

The picture on the right shows a number of different labels or descriptors of behaviors that can be understood and interpreted without anyone physically saying the word. By pausing and paying attention to how an individual or group is responding, leaders can become aware of how things are being interpreted and appropriately respond. 

Let’s use the two diagrams in this article and paint the picture a little more.

  1. As a leader, the first step is to recognize your own emotional response in the moment. 
  2. The second step is to manage your emotions and behavior. 
  3. The third step is to understand the responses from others. 
  4. Lastly, manage your emotions and responses; therefore, managing the relationship. 

Self Awareness
The ability to be aware of your emotions and their effect on others in the moment.

Social Awareness
The ability to be aware of the emotions and behaviors of others, while understanding your own emotional responses in the moment.

Self Management
The ability to use your self awareness to control and manage your responses. Think before you act!

Social Skills
The ability to use your social awareness to manage yourself and your relationships.

Bringing the Best in Others

When social awareness is in play, the authenticity and integrity demonstrated by a leader can bring out the best in a team. The ability to find common ground and bring people together that may have opposing ideas for the benefit of mutual gain can achieve so much, not only for the individuals involved but for the organization as well. The success of reaching goals without undermining the work of others or relationships brings a wealth of positive attributes for an engaged and thriving culture. 

 Social and emotional intelligence can be modeled behavior. The more individuals and teams see you as the leader, modeling behavior in which you demonstrate the values and mission of the organization, the more that behavior becomes the norm across the organization. 

Every situation or environment creates a response. The choice is yours as to what muscle you want to flex as a response that will be positive or negative to you and those around you.


These are turbulent times in healthcare. Today’s leaders need an expanded set of competencies to manage growing ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk. MEDI’s new blog series is a masterclass in Leadership Competencies we’ve found most critical for driving meaningful transformation in 2023 and beyond. 

Series shortcuts:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Social Intelligence – you’re here!
  • Connection – coming soon
  • Complexity Fit – coming soon
  • Teams Thinking – coming soon
  • Growth Orientation – coming soon
  • Strategic Ability – coming soon
  • Virtual Leadership – coming soon





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About the author

Amy King

With decades of HR consulting and leadership coaching under her belt, Amy has a deep understanding of the behaviors and dynamics that drive culture, influence, and performance in organizations. Those who’ve worked with Amy know her as an authentic, thoughtful problem-solver, equipping leaders to thrive and build high-performing teams. Her coaching style is rooted in core values, helping leaders clarify their purpose and inspired future.

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