Social Intelligence: Another Key to Success

Volume 40 Number 1


About the Author

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is also a member of the ABA LP Division’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board. 

Law Practice Magazine | January/February 2014 | The Management IssueTHE CONCEPT OF MULTIPLE intelligences has been with us for many years, regardless of whether we have really paid sufficient attention to what it means for us and the organizations in which we work. Howard Gardner of Harvard University was one of the first researchers to write about it in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, published more than 30 years ago. It is a model of intelligence that is differentiated, rather than dominated by one general intellectual ability. Gardner posited seven separate intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Another prominent researcher and writer, Daniel Goleman, went further when he published his first work regarding leadership and emotional intelligence in 1998 in a Harvard Business Review article called “What Makes a Leader?” The response was significant. Ever since, business has been exploring the ways in which emotional and social intelligence affect individual and organizational success above and beyond the different intellectual strengths each of us might have.


Emotional intelligence is a concept that is related primarily to self-mastery. What is going on with each person emotionally? How am I feeling and relating to others? Through additional research and the study of connectedness between people, the concept of social intelligence has emerged. While emotional intelligence is based upon the psychology of the individual, social intelligence is more focused on how individuals connect and relate to one another. If emotional intelligence is primarily focused on self-awareness and self-management, social intelligence is related to the two concepts of social awareness and relationship management. Social awareness could be described as the ability to read or sense other peoples’ emotions and how they impact the situation or concern. Relationship management is the ability to influence, guide and handle other peoples’ emotions.

The management consultant Karl Albrecht has also explored in his book Social Intelligence what he refers to in his subtitle as “the new science of success.” To explore various aspects of social intelligence, he offers a mnemonic device he calls SPACE, with each letter standing for a different element of social intelligence. S refers to situational awareness; P is for presence; A correlates to authenticity; C for clarity; and E for empathy. Like the other authors and researchers mentioned here, he emphasized that, unlike some of the other more innate intelligences, social intelligence is something that can and should be cultivated to create a person’s greater likelihood of career success.

One aspect of social intelligence that could make any workplace more enjoyable is the appropriate use of humor. Studies by Fabio Sala at the Hay Group have shown that the skillful use of humor reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages. He found that top-performing leaders, on average, elicited laughter from their subordinates two times more often than did mid-performing leaders. Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond quickly and creatively. Humor is not without context and can in some circumstances be inappropriate. Its effectiveness is in part based upon its appropriateness. Be aware that not all humor is the same. Humor that denigrates others will not have the same positive impact as humor that retains empathy or connectedness to other people. While law is a serious business, that doesn’t mean that humor doesn’t have its place in a law office.


So what does this have to do with you and your practice and success as an attorney? Because of the emphasis that lawyers place on the linguistic and logical intelligences, they very well may underestimate the impact of both emotional and social intelligences on their own performance and that of others. Think of the myriad ways attorneys interact that require being attentive to others’ emotional cues. These include marketing of attorney services, client interviews, managing client relationships, interacting at depositions, any aspect of court appearances before a judge, negotiating with opposing counsel, all aspects of a motion practice, not to mention jury selection and trials. Within the firm it would include all aspects of employee or attorney selection and supervision, mentoring and attorney development, performance reviews and a wide variety of activities that occur in any firm leadership role. While it is understandable and critical that lawyers spend a great deal of time using linguistic and logical intelligence, failure to take into consideration and to work on developing emotional and social intelligence puts them at great risk of missing emotional and social cues critical to top performance.

The most recent research on social intelligence has verified the concept of “mirroring” and demonstrates that social intelligence can actually affect the brain chemistry of others. According to an article by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis in the Harvard Business Review in 2008:

The salient discovery is that certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Indeed, researchers have found that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system. We believe that great leaders are those whose behavior powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness.

To give you an idea of how powerful these cues are, in one experiment cited by Goleman and Boyatzis, some subjects received negative feedback that was accompanied by positive social cues (such as smiling or nodding) while another group received positive feedback with negative cues (such as frowning or narrowed eyes). Those who received positive feedback actually felt worse about themselves than those who received negative feedback. As it turns out, the delivery was more important than the actual feedback. Why does this matter? Because teams or people who feel better perform more effectively. And any disconnect between words and expression can send the wrong signal and cause potentially grave misinterpretation.

Listed below are some things that you should ask yourself if you want to assess how you are using social intelligence in your workplace.

  • Do my words and facial expressions match? Can people accurately read how I am feeling when I am speaking?
  • Do I use humor appropriately in the office to engage others, lighten tension and make the office a more enjoyable place to be?
  • Do I manage relationships with others well? This might include developing new relationships easily, maintaining relationships and communicating effectively with those around me.
  • Do I easily read the state of mind or mood of those around me, or am I often surprised to find out how someone else was actually feeling?

Believe it or not, your answers to these questions may help you gauge some of your likelihood of success getting and keeping both clients and employees.

If you want to participate in a brief assessment about social intelligence, specifically regarding your ability to read emotions through photographs of the eyes of a number of people, go to and participate in that online study. It could be an eye-opening experience.



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