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“You just need to break things up into small manageable tasks,” I told my college friend, Dan, after he’d confided about struggling with his assignments. We were sitting at a diner close to campus. He kept staring down at his plate of fries without taking a bite. After a while, he quietly nodded along and eventually changed the subject.
Every time I think back to this interaction, I cringe. Here was my friend, unburdening himself after a hard week. But instead of just listening, I kept offering unsolicited advice.
At the time, I thought Dan was seeking help — a way to lighten his load at school. But nearly two decades later and years worth of experience being a CEO of my company, I now know better: he was looking for camaraderie, not a coach.
Why being people smart improves your relationships
“The most successful people are ‘people smart,'” asserts CNBC contributor, Dharius Daniels. “The goal of becoming people smart is not to get the most out of others, or to manipulate our way to the top. It’s to be a better friend and to have better friends.”
In other words: being people smart is the quality of having interpersonal intelligence; knowing when to speak up and when to simply listen. More importantly, being able to truly acknowledge someone in the moment. It’s also one of the most underrated traits for leaders, but also one of the most essential.
When I speak to mentees, one of the first things I bring up is the above memory of Dan. It wasn’t my proudest moment. But I also can’t judge my younger self for not possessing the emotional skills to offer my friend the support he needed. The truth is, these scenarios are extremely common.
Most of my mentees come to me asking for advice about growing their startups, becoming more productive and developing better problem-solving skills. And they’re often surprised when I tell them that one of the most valuable qualities I recommend learning off the bat is being people smart.
Why? Because not having this trait jeopardizes your startup. Business is all about building and solidifying positive relationships — with your team, your customers, your providers and peers. Entrepreneur contributor, Martin Zwilling, summarizes it well: “Entrepreneurs with high social skills interact more effectively with all their constituents. They can sense the feelings, motivations and temperaments of others, to enlist their support and negotiate effectively.”
At my company, it’s a trait I actively look for when hiring — people with emotional intelligence and thoughtfulness. When I see someone with this skill, I know instantly that they’ll make a good fit for the culture I’m nurturing.
People smarts increase your social awareness at work
In his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Dr. Daniel Goleman argues that our ability to successfully build healthy relationships — both in our personal and professional lives — comes down to our social intelligence. Strengthening this ability, however, requires a level of attunement that many of us need to continually work on developing.
For instance, if you have a normally high-achieving team member who starts underperforming. They’ve become uncharacteristically irritable and rarely make eye contact during meetings. One way to approach this is to bring it to their attention by giving feedback that critiques their attitude and productivity.
I can almost guarantee this will produce the opposite results of what you’re hoping for.
Another, more fruitful approach requires using your social intelligence: responding and engaging with empathy and concern.
We’ve all had our fair share of hardships throughout this pandemic — many of which our team members won’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing openly. Understanding how these external factors continue to influence people is a form of care and acknowledgment that helps you better tune in.
If you’re asking yourself what this looks like in practice, according to Zwilling in a separate story for Business Insider: “It involves effective verbal and nonverbal communication, sensitivity to moods and temperaments, and the ability to understand multiple perspectives.”
I’m an advocate for going on walking meetings and having lunch with a team member outdoors whenever possible. I’ve found nature a wonderful and inspiring environment for fostering relationships.
But first, I’d like to make something clear. My brand of leadership doesn’t involve offering critiques clothed as feedback. My team knows that I’m here to be of support, to brainstorm solutions together when needed or simply to listen.
Want to be more people smart? Leave your ego at the door
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion,” says Goleman. He writes:
“When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection — or compassionate action.”
In hindsight, all these years later, I know that part of my unsolicited suggestions to Dan involved my ego. Feeling like I could offer him solutions made me feel good about my capabilities as a student. I was focused on what worked for me — and not on what Dan actually needed.
There’s a running joke that ego is an epidemic in the business world. But as leaders, we must learn what it means to show up for others. Because at the end of the day, social intelligence or interpersonal skills are about striving to make all of your interactions more open-minded, intuitive and conscientious. And that leaves no room for ego.