SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: Essential for Institutional Intelligence

In conversation with a member of our Board of Governors, he noted that in his estimation one of the key if not crucial capacities for flourishing in an organization is what he called “social intelligence.”   

He used an acronym to speak about this capacity – using the letters S.P.A.C.E. 

  1. Situational awareness:  the capacity to read what is happening – what circumstance am I in and how can I respond appropriately to this time and this social and institutional context? Situational awareness clearly includes knowing what is happening around you:   assessing the situation, reading the emotional tenor in the room and knowing what action or response is fitting.   This also means that we know when to speak and when not to speak; and further that we know what to say that is appropriate in this time and in this place. 

Recently I was with a group of people were we were each asked to comment on what we had each observed or experienced as part of our day together – in a set of meetings.   Most responded perfectly:  they made reference to one or two things that had impressed them and encouraged them and that they viewed to be significant to our shared work.   But one member of the group – and no surprise, it is a preacher(!) – responded with a mini-sermon and exhortation.   He lacked situational awareness.  He did not get it that a “sermon” did not fit there; no one was asking to be preached at.  Rather, what we were asking for was how he had experienced the day.  But he fell into his default mode rather than asking what was appropriate for this particular occasion. 

Situational awareness also means we do not presume that we are always the focus of attention, if someone else is chairing the meeting or the situation is one where the focus is on someone else.   I thought of this as well when at a funeral someone gave an obituary and essentially talked about themselves rather than the life of the person we were mourning and celebrating.  “This is not about you,” I wanted to say.

  1. Presence.   When my colleague spoke of social intelligence, I was struck that this aspect of “intelligence” came up.   And it is a reminder that many times we are not being asked to do anything but, quite literally, just show up.  Just be there; just be present – fully present [not dozing off in boredom, not on one’s cell phone as a way to find something useful to do or something to distract, but present].   So much a part of our jobs is being present.  Perhaps we learn this as parents.  We show up at the sports events of our children and we are asked to do nothing else but be there – fully present.  No cell phone.  We are just there – fully present.

It is a grace; and it is a gift.   Social intelligence means that we know that sometimes all we have to give to a situation is ourselves – present and attentive to the event or the moment. 

  1. Authenticity.   Social intelligence assumes that we are going to find ourselves in different context and in different circumstances.   And while we have situational awareness such that we know that we consider what is asked of me and what is required of me in this setting.   And yet, while we respond differently, we are not chameleons.   We are ourselves, in each context and setting.   We do not live with pretense.   Authenticity does not mean that we are more open and sharing and self-disclosing that is appropriate.  It does not mean that we lose a sense of personal boundaries.  It just means that we are true to ourselves regardless of the social context in which we find ourselves. 
  2. Clarity.   I am not sure I got the difference here from authenticity; for me clarity and authenticity are much and the same.  Perhaps the acronym needed a C; perhaps I am not appreciating the distinction. 
  3. Empathy.   Of course and essential:  the capacity to see the world and the situation through the lens of another person who is affected by it.    We inevitably only see the world through our own set of eyes and in light of our own experience, but social intelligence means we have some measure of imagination such that we can see and feel how another is viewing and responding to a similar set of circumstances – a response that might be quite different from our own.   This is also a sign of what we might call political intelligence, which I would define as the capacity to recognize the legitimate voice of diverse constituencies.   You are not so locked into your own perspective and views that you cannot empathize with the other.   The observation of often made that one of the best ways to foster greater capacity for empathy is by reading fiction.  

Thus, S.P.A.C.E.   Worth considering.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.