Building emotional intelligence: Social awareness

Adopt these tactics to create cohesion and a positive emotional climate at work.
 Building emotional intelligence

This article is a part of our ongoing series "Soft Skills Monday" offering tools and techniques for improving the in-demand soft skills that today's finance professionals need to succeed.

As finance leaders and teams re-enter a workplace that will be fundamentally different from what they have known before, the ability to adapt and collaborate with others more efficiently will become paramount.

Instead of relying on technical skills and competitive instincts, professionals will increasingly be called upon to develop their emotional intelligence and ability to co-create value in a more inclusive and diverse business environment. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, one of the core pillars of emotional intelligence is social awareness: the ability to perceive, understand, and respond to the needs of others.

"Human dynamics and interpersonal relationships are at the root of every aspect of business and work, from the ability to execute on projects to influencing others to achieve desired outcomes," said Beverly Flaxington, a behavioural expert and co-founder of The Collaborative, a leadership consulting firm based in Massachusetts. "Yet most of the time, we like to think that others are the problem … and we expect our colleagues to modify their behaviours to suit our own needs, which almost never happens!"

To break this unproductive cycle in the workplace, the first step is to learn how to interpret and regulate your own thoughts and emotions — as this will allow you to take a more objective view on the emotions and behaviours of others. This requires daily work, explained London-based Catherine de la Poer, chief growth officer at Sheridan Worldwide, a global coaching and leadership development consultancy.

"While we all have basic interpersonal skills and social intelligence, these skills are not fixed and need to be continually developed and honed," she said. "Emotional intelligence among teams is becoming critical to organisational resilience — because a psychologically fit and cohesive workforce can adapt to the many upheavals that businesses are facing."

FM spoke to Flaxington and de la Poer to find out how finance professionals can develop social awareness and, in doing so, build collaborative and resilient working relationships.

Identify the "compete reflex". According to de la Poer, most professionals have been educated and conditioned to compete with their peers, which can work against them in an environment where employees are increasingly required to collaborate and create value together.

"Many of us have spent a lifetime building our competitor muscles, but in the new world of work, success is about co-creation, building equity, and a mindset of being in service to others," she explained. "It's important to begin to recognise when your compete reflex kicks in, and to start to see yourself — and your role — in a more service-oriented light."

For instance, when there is a situation of conflict or disagreement, do you respond by trying to "win" or force others into a compromise, or do you take an approach that is based on empathy and the desire to co-create a solution? By learning to recondition your thoughts and emotions in these scenarios, you can begin to shift from competing to collaboration at work. To accelerate this shift, approach every interaction with the intention to listen to understand, be present, and ask good questions. Most of us have poor listening skills, and when another person is speaking, we're often preparing our next point or a counterattack, de la Poer said.

Gain a new perspective by role-playing. One of the most critical aspects of social awareness is the willingness and ability to step into someone else's shoes and understand their position, Flaxington noted.

"Although we can never fully understand because we don't have their life experiences, we can, practically speaking, do our best to 'get into the seat' of someone else by asking a colleague or manager to role-play a difficult or repetitive scenario."

For instance, if you are continually coming into conflict with a particular colleague, then conduct a role-playing exercise in which you play your colleague, and your manager/team member becomes you. Enter into a dialogue or interaction that mimics what usually happens in the workspace. As the dialogue unfolds, notice the language and the tone that both you and your colleague are using in the interaction. Are there hidden accusations, a defensive tone, or a skirting of the core, underlying issues that need addressing? By paying attention to the effects of language and tone, you can begin to employ a more direct and neutral way of interacting with co-workers.

"This kind of exercise can be a game-changer, because I can begin to see what it's like to be on the receiving end of my own behaviour and assumptions," Flaxington said. "There is also a high probability that I can learn something new and completely unexpected about my colleague's situation or viewpoint."

Actively create psychological safety. Although there is a growing body of research around the concept of psychological safety and its role in high-performing teams, a recent McKinsey survey found that fewer than half of leaders are creating this positive emotional climate at work.

"In order to collaborate with each other, we need to feel safe in our team and in our environment," de la Poer explained. "Humility, empathy, and curiosity are the three major factors that determine the level of psychological safety, and we can actively cultivate each one by beginning to take a more personal, authentic, and human approach to our team members."

For example, she recommended that managers spend at least ten minutes each day having a nonwork conversation with a team member. "This is about putting the tasks of the day aside to listen attentively and engage on a human level," she said. "By giving people the opportunity to express their emotions, think out loud, and be authentic, we are demonstrating care and creating a powerful sense of belonging."

Practise becoming the detached observer. According to Flaxington, one of the biggest barriers to understanding our colleagues is our tendency to let our own fears and judgements trigger an emotional and often destructive reaction.

If our manager doesn't respond to an email or phone call for an entire day, for example, we can immediately take this personally and feel that we are deliberately being ignored.

"Instead of reacting, wear the hat of a detective, and take a more clinical, detached, and observant approach," she said. In the instance of feeling ignored, a rational assessment would quickly reveal that your manager could be held up by any number of reasons.

"By stepping back, you immediately shift your experience and create the opportunity to learn and observe — which is the quickest way to build and sustain social awareness," Flaxington said.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at