Applied social intelligence

It may be tempting to think of a socially intelligent person as someone who knows how to organise and act at parties. It may also be possible that you remember the age-old wisdoms that are in the old Dale Carnegie classic on “How to win friends and influence people”. While these wisdoms still apply today, this article gives a short reflection on the implications of some recent research in the area of social intelligence.

So what is social intelligence?

Kinga and Istvan (2012) highlight that EL Thorndike defined social intelligence as the ability to understand and act wisely in human relations in 1920.

Social intelligence is the social part of the intelligences and comprises mainly of two components, which is

  1. social awareness that describes what we sense about others, and
  2. social facility, which is more, related to the expression or reaction to these observations.

Social awareness consists of primal empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy and social cognition, while social facility is made up of synchrony, self-presentation, influence and concern (Goleman, 2006).

Zirkel (2000) operates from the premise that social intelligence is closely related to one’s own, personality and individual behaviour. Those with social intelligence are fully self-aware and also understand their environment. This enables them to control their emotions and make decisions about their goals in life. Her model centred on the term “purposive behaviour” which is deliberate action taken after evaluating one’s environment, opportunities and risks and the goals set. Social intelligence assists in creating a sense of identity for the individual, emphasizes self-management and interpersonal skills and focuses on thinking and resultant behaviour within social contexts.

So what do we do with this social intelligence then?

Furtner, Rauthmann and Sachse (2010) showed that social sensitivity and emotional expressivity seem to be important for self-leaders, whereas the importance of emotion regulation seems negligible. Self-leaders are effective in regulating their thought and behaviour patterns, which might not necessarily be associated with emotional control. To pursue one’s goals it is important to be expressive in, and sensitive and reactive to one’s social environment (i.e., external orientation, interpersonal view) even though one’s own emotions might not be the focus of regulation strategies (i.e., internal orientation, intrapersonal view). In short, self-leaders need to be socially intelligent and emotionally expressive in interpersonal situations in order to get ahead.

Sorjonen, K., Hemmingsson, T., Lundin, A & Melin, B. (2011) found that when adjusting for social position, people that have a high social standing to start of will tend to have higher intelligence and level of education than people with a lower social position of origin. This is jarring as it lays waste to the claim that working hard and seeking to attain merit alone determines what you achieve in life. We simply respond differently to people that has social intelligence and there is also more opportunity for people with social intelligence to get ahead in life. So to overcome this – you have to build social skills and the ability to interact with people at higher levels of society.

This begs the question of what type of behaviours should drive a socially intelligent person.

Experiments were done with chat robots and it was shown that positive feedback in conversations increased the perception of friendliness and that mimicry increased the perception of intelligence of the robot (Kaptein, Markopoulos, Ruyter and Aarts, 2011). So to come across as friendly, give compliments and to sound smarter, listen to and work with the ideas of the other person in order to get to an acceptable outcome for both parties. It is always important to operate from the other person’s point of view when attempting to direct an outcome.

From the idea of praise as a system of reward, it may be then assumed that reward is an important part of social interaction and that it should be applied liberally to situations to make it work to your advantage. This is an assumption that is increasingly being disproven by research. The use of extrinsic motivation/rewards to foster “desired” behaviours is more often that not, counter-productive. Deci and Moller (2005) draw from a range of studies to observe that people are less inclined to engage in an activity after receiving a reward than those who had not received one. Reward undermined intrinsic motivation and diminished the sense of self-determination and autonomy. In contrast, the use of other positive feedback was found to enhance engagement within the activity.

These examples highlight the dangers of automatically assuming that praise and rewards build teams and teamwork. A thoughtful approach is needed in their application else they create division. This has massive implications for performance management systems and may prove finally why most of them do not work. It also explains why values based organisations are more successful than those with structured job descriptions. It also explains why we think that conversations that focus on money or external rewards are fake and why people generally disengage when these come up. An understanding of what drives people allows us to employ social intelligence in the workplace and direct the efforts of staff and the organisation as a whole.

Keating, Harper and Glew (2011) suggest a framework for reflecting on how social intelligence can be used to remove the toxic elements from a workplace. This starts with self-reflection around areas such as empathy and looking at how each of us as a leader acts and reacts in the workplace.


  • 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 pride, and foster a positive emotional tone?
  • Do you lead by bringing out the best in people?


  • Do you solicit input from everyone on the team?
  • Do you support all team members and encourage cooperation?


Wawra (2009) shows that social intelligence is also critical in intercultural situations. Social neuroscience demonstrates the importance of non-verbal communication and emotions for satisfying human interactions in general. Emotions are more crucial in communication encounters where the participants do not share the same cultural background.

Culture makes it more difficult to interpret the other person’s non-verbal communication and emotions correctly. In an intercultural encounter – just like in any other interaction between humans – we can trigger emotions in our conversation partners and vice versa through our verbal and above all non-verbal behaviour, without being aware of it. Yet those emotions may unintentionally influence the outcome of such interactions. In the end, it depends to a great extent on our emotions whether the outcomes of intercultural negotiations will be perceived as successful or not. When negative emotions outweigh positive ones, this will usually result in unsuccessful, unsatisfying and unrewarding encounters. But the more that positive emotions outweigh negative ones, the more successful, satisfying and rewarding intercultural communication will be.

The important contribution of social neuroscience to intercultural communication research is that emotions are much more important in intercultural encounters than has been recognized so far: Emotions are at the heart of intercultural negotiations and not a peripheral aspect. With more businesses embracing cultural diversity it is an important time to educate on how to be more culturally aware.

To add to this perspective, Hampel, Weis, Hiller and Witthoff (2011) showed that if you are more anxious that this decreases your social perception and memory. So if you want to remember the conversation and the names of the people – be less stressed about it. This allows you to start more meaningful conversations that increase your likelihood of remembering what is happening. This applies to more than names – in general, people will pick up on your anxiety and this will affect the outcomes of decisions.

All these tools and strategies apply to the workplace where having meetings behind computers and with many distractions are less productive as it is a method by which to hide behind our own social fears.


Becoming more socially intelligent is a process in which we need to investigate our understanding of what motivates, drives and influences people. There are many insights in literature of what motivates and recent research is challenging some of our traditional conceptions of what applies to management. Once we get to understand others and ourselves better we can start shaping our own social intelligence and use this competency to achieve our individual and collective goals.


Deci, E.L., & Moller, A.C. (2005). The concept of competence: A starting place for understanding intrinsic motivation and self-determined extrinsic motivation. In A.J. Elliot & C.S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 579–597). New York: The Guilford Press.


Furtner, M, Rauthmann, J, & Sachse, P 2010, ‘The Socioemotionally Intelligent Self-Leader: Examining Relations Between Self-Leadership And Socioemotional Intelligence’, Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 38, 9, pp. 1191-1196


Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence, The new Science of human Relationship, Hutchison, London


Hampel, S, Weis, S, Hiller, W, & Witthöft, M 2011, ‘The relations between social anxiety and social intelligence: A latent variable analysis’, Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 25, 4, pp. 545-553


Kaptein, M, Markopoulos, P, Ruyter, B, & Aarts, E 2011, ‘Two acts of social intelligence: the effects of mimicry and social praise on the evaluation of an artificial agent’, AI & Society, 26, 3, pp. 261-273


Keating, R, Harper, S, & Glew, D 2013, ‘Emotional intelligence dilutes the toxins. (Cover story)’, Industrial Engineer: IE, 45, 6, pp. 30-35


Kinga, S, & István, S 2012, ‘Relationship between Social Creativity and Social Intelligence, and their Cognitive Correlates’, Transylvanian Journal Of Psychology, 13, 1, pp. 39-62


Sorjonen, K, Hemmingsson, T, Lundin, A, & Melin, B 2011, ‘How social position of origin relates to intelligence and level of education when adjusting for attained social position’, Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology, 52, 3, pp. 277-281


Wawra, D 2009, ‘Social Intelligence’, European Journal Of English Studies, 13, 2, pp. 163-177


Zirkel, S. (2000). Social Intelligence: The Development and Maintenance of Purposive behavior. The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.