As we continue to move through the Covid-19 global pandemic, the leadership skills practiced by senior executives have had to change and evolve. The ability to effectively navigate uncertainty has become paramount. Great leaders have been able to reimagine their work and have found new ways to motivate, engage, and inspire their employees. Despite all these adaptations, none have been more important than the ability to show empathy and compassion for employees.
Compassion is about impacting people through communication, social awareness, and what I call “relational intelligence.” Relational intelligence is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. When put into practice, it enables leaders to effectively engage and interact with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. It helps managers understand and appreciate the different interests, values, and beliefs of their people. It creates cultures where employees gain empathy for, and an understanding of, people who are different from one another.
Relational intelligence is more than just possessing good social skills or EQ. EQ is about having the self-awareness to understand one’s emotions, the emotions of others, and knowing how to effectively manage emotions. EQ plays a role in understanding other people, but it is not the only factor when it comes to building successful relationships. Relational intelligence is also more than being charismatic, extroverted and outgoing, or being politically savvy. It is not a personality trait or disposition. It is not something that you are born with. Relational intelligence is a set of skills that anyone can learn, develop, and refine over time.
There are five essential skills that make up relational intelligence. These skills build upon one another as you become more involved with other people and form lasting relationships.
1. Establishing Rapport: Establishing rapport allows people to create an initial connection. It sets the stage for two people to develop an affinity and appreciation for each other. It can be instantaneous or developed over a short period of time. It’s based on two critical factors – enjoyable interactions and personal connections. There are various factors at play when establishing rapport with people. Some of these include: the choice of words you use, perceptions of different types of people, non-verbal cues and body language, your own self-perceptions, the use of humor, and unconscious biases. Relationally intelligent people who are skilled at establishing rapport know how to make others feel important and understood.
2. Understanding Others: Building strong relationships is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. You must invest time, energy, and commitment to make a relationship grow. Understanding others is critical to relational intelligence because it allows leaders to identify the things that are most important to others. The foundation of understanding others comes from a strong sense of self-awareness and EQ. Active listening also plays an enormous role in how you build relationships with people. It is an acquired skill. It is about being curious and inquisitive. You have to ask questions and draw information out from others. Relationally intelligent leaders know how to ask deep probing questions. They show empathy and relatability. They are intentional about putting in time and effort to learn about others. They know that understanding others is a continuous process that takes place over time.
3. Embracing Individual Differences: Our differences are what make each of us unique. Leaders who are experienced at accepting peoples’ differences possess higher levels of social skills and are more effective communicators. You cannot build sustainable, long-term relationships without this skill. Embracing individual differences ties directly into diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is about embracing diversity of thought. It means being mindful about individual differences including age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, education, and culture. Relationally, intelligent people are tolerant. They have a favorable attitude towards people who are different from them. They create environments of psychological safety where people can be vulnerable with one another. If you truly want your relationships to thrive, sharing your vulnerabilities is a critical driving factor for intimate connection.
4. Developing Trust: Trust is the most critical part of relational intelligence. It starts with acknowledging and accepting who you are as a person. Have you done the work to truly understand yourself? What motivates you? What makes you tick? What inspires you? Where do you get your energy and passion from? Once you get truthful with yourself, you can be truthful with others. Developing trust is about honesty, integrity and showing up consistently for people. It’s about honoring your commitments and possessing good character traits. It’s also about being open and transparent. Relationally, intelligent leaders understand the concept of reciprocity. They continually make deposits into “the bank account of trust.” This involves taking risks and exposing yourself to the actions and behavior of others. When trust is damaged or destroyed, relationships end.
5. Cultivating Influence: Trust opens the door for influence. Cultivating influence is about having a positive and meaningful impact on others. At the core, relationships are meant to enhance the quality of our lives. When you build relationships deeply enough, you help others develop and grow. Relationally, intelligent people understand that cultivating influence is directly tied to strong leadership. The heart and soul of effective leadership is about the influence and impact that you have on others. It is not about manipulating or using people to achieve your desired outcomes. It is not about being self-centered or narcissistic. Cultivating influence can only happen when relationships are built on a solid and stable foundation. When put into action, relationally intelligent leaders build strong cultures of engagement. Their people have higher levels of job satisfaction. Employees become committed to demonstrating behaviors that promote the growth of their organizations.
So, why does relational intelligence matter now? It matters because we are coming out of a global pandemic, where people have been mostly isolated and alone. Leaders and their employees have become accustomed to working remotely and living through video conferences and calls. We have lost the art of human face-to-face connection that is so desperately needed for relationships to flourish. Relational intelligence is also important given the social justice challenges that took place in 2020. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is not just a fad. It is here to stay. Relationally intelligent leaders embrace people no matter where they come from; no matter what their backgrounds, customs, or beliefs are. Lastly, relational intelligence is important today because it is about authenticity. Authentic leaders are servant leaders. They show up for their employees. They believe that the growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.