Social and Emotional Intelligence Series: Understanding Others

Understanding self and others is a critical component of social and emotional intelligence. Leaders that understand how their moods and emotions effect the impact they have on others achieve the greatest results. These types of leaders have deep self-awareness. They know how to use emotions to inspire and motivate. They understand how to regulate their emotions to build long-term, sustainable relationships.

Understanding self is only one half of the equation. Leaders need to possess a strong understanding of others. They need to know how to read people, and how to assess verbal and non-verbal cues. Leaders that are skilled at understanding the emotions and motives of others get the best out of their people. They know how to place a value on diversity. They know that the greatest collective impact comes from the sum of many different parts.

In week two of our social and emotional intelligence series, we take a deeper dive into understanding others, the second competency of the Bandelli Social and Emotional Intelligence Competency Model™. We define understanding others as the ability to develop a favorable reception and opinion towards other people or situations that are different from one’s culture, background, and experiences. Research indicates that those skilled at understanding differences (e.g., age, ethnicity, gender, race, physical abilities, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, educational background, values, and interests) of other people possess higher levels of social skill and are more effective communicators and leaders. Additionally, many researchers have indicated that the future workforce will include more ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and those with special needs. Thus, understanding others is currently, and will continue to be, an important component of relationships at work.

Research in the field of I-O psychology related to understanding others focuses on the area of diversity. The definitions and dimensions of diversity vary depending on the research team. For example, one definition conceptualizes diversity as anything emphasizing group identities related to unique self-identity. Some researchers view the construct as any characteristic an employee may use to detect individual differences. One author suggested that diversity refers to the effects of demographic backgrounds on any type of exchange between two people. Additionally, broad definitions of diversity (i.e., those including any components relating to the differences between employees) have had a more positive influence on perceptions of diversity initiatives. In particular, researchers have found evidence indicating that a diverse workforce positively affects job performance, group cohesion, organizational commitment, interpersonal communication, job satisfaction, and employee morale.

Research on diversity is often categorized into three separate frameworks: a) resource-based perspectives – viewing diversity as a valuable resource adding to overall levels of job performance and organizational functioning; b) social identity theories – focusing on how individuals develop their self-concept based on membership in certain groups; and c) contingency theories – examining environmental and social factors as they interact with individual differences to impact organizational performance. For the purposes of our conceptual model, I will focus exclusively on the resource-based perspective as it relates the most to understanding others in organizational contexts.

The resource-based perspectives indicate that higher levels of job performance are achieved through a diverse workforce. Additionally, organizations with a diverse workforce receive more internal and external benefits than those that do not promote the value of workplace diversity. For example, several researchers have reported some of the following internal benefits of having a diverse workforce: a) realistic decision making; b) resistance to groupthink; c) increased innovation and creativity; and d) enhanced problem solving. External benefits resulting from a diverse workforce include: a) access to minority markets for new clients and customers; and b) many opportunities to recruit talented employees from different cultural, ethnic, or minority groups. Based on these findings and related research emphasizing the importance of a diverse workforce, understanding others is a necessary skill that is required for effective communication and for the development of lasting professional relationships.

The dimension of understanding others is theoretically related to research and practice on political skill and emotional intelligence in several ways. First, the political skill construct has a social astuteness dimension, which involves making discerning observations of others and being keen to diverse social situations. This is similar to understanding others in that both constructs focus on possessing an understanding of others’ backgrounds (e.g., cultural, ethnic, religious) and being effective in different social situations. For example, some researchers found that social astuteness was positively related to understanding cultural and ethnic differences in leadership and managerial job performance. The discerning emotions in self and the regulation of emotions components of emotional intelligence are also related to understanding others because employees must be able to understand and manage their own emotions when interacting with others. Additionally, by possessing an understanding of others’ emotions, an individual can understand and interpret different emotional cues (e.g., facial expressions. body posture) from others, and use these insights to effectively facilitate interpersonal interactions. Thus, being keen to diverse social situations as well as understanding and managing one’s emotions are important factors when understanding others in organizational contexts.

Understanding others is a critical stepping stone to developing one’s social and emotional intelligence. Strengthening this skill enables leaders to have the greatest impact and influence with their people. Similar to the dimension of establishing rapport, the ability to understand others can be cultivated over time.

Next week, we will explore the third dimension of the Bandelli Social and Emotional Intelligence Competency Model: Developing Trust.

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Leadership Matters. Without It, People Fail.