EI And Remote Teams (II): Social Awareness & Relationship Management

We wrote recently about how important emotional intelligence (EI) is when running a remote workplace. Leaders with high levels of EI tend to manage more motivated, satisfied and creative teams, whether they’re in an office or distributed across the map. But the ways in which we develop and apply our EI skills change when we transition to a remote workplace and can no longer rely on the same visual cues and shared surroundings to inform our social interactions.

EI involves being aware and in control of our own emotions, while being able to understand and positively affect the emotions of those around us. Of the four key domains of EI identified by experts Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis, the first two - self-awareness and self-management - are related to how well we are able to identify our own feelings, understand why we feel that way, and use this to manage our emotions in beneficial ways.

Here we want to dig deeper into the other two EI domains - social awareness and relationship management - which shift the focus from personal competence to social competence. These two domains focus on how we observe, influence, and interact with other people. We’ll look at both in more detail before examining how we can build these EI skills in a remote workplace.

Social Awareness

This is essentially the ability to recognize other people’s feelings and moods - in other words, how good you are at reading the room (or Zoom conference!) and responding appropriately to it. Nested within this domain are three core competencies:

1. Empathy

This is at the very core of social awareness, as it is the capacity to put yourself in other people’s shoes, see things from their perspective and understand why they may have certain feelings or viewpoints. For a leader, this means being tuned-in to how members of your team are feeling and taking this into consideration when making decisions about your own actions. Of course, it’s important to remember that empathizing with someone does not mean feeling sorry for them and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.

It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of empathy in forming a healthy work environment: according to the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy report, 93% of employees say they are more likely to remain with an empathetic employer, while 76% say it drives greater productivity.

2. Organization awareness

This is the ‘reading the room’ part of the equation. It’s the ability to grasp the social and political dynamics of a group, be it a small team of colleagues or a whole business organization. It also means being able to see how these dynamics shape behaviour and relationships within the group, and understand how this may influence the way your actions are interpreted by others.

3. Service ethic

This is largely relevant to client-facing employees, and involves the ability to anticipate, understand, and satisfy customer needs and expectations.

Relationship Management

This builds on the other three EI domains and is about how you connect with others and build meaningful relationships. It is unsurprisingly an essential EI skill for team managers as it typically involves inspiring, coaching and influencing others, but it is also key to developing healthy relationships across the entire team. The main competencies associated with relationship management are:

1. Influencing others

This boils down to the ability to convince others to commit time and effort to achieving shared business objectives. As a leader, it can also be extended to developing others through coaching or mentoring, helping them grow at a professional and personal level.

2. Inspirational leadership

We tend to think of people as ‘natural leaders’ when their behavior and actions inspire and motivate those around them. As a manager it typically means offering a vision or setting an example that drives the team to maximice performance. Note that a leader is unlikely to be inspiring if they have not developed their other, personal EI skills (self-awareness and self-management).

3. Conflict management

This is a crucial part of any manager’s job, whether dealing directly with another person or intervening to resolve conflicts between other members of the organization. Differences of opinion are inevitable, and sometimes even desirable, in any creative team, while misunderstandings are also bound to happen from time to time. An emotionally intelligent manager will know how to anticipate and settle any disputes before they become disruptive.

4. Teamwork

This is the ability to build effective teams, where members develop strong relationships with each other and the team leader. It is taking a talented group of individuals and forging them into a collective group that can reach new levels of performance.

Building Social Competence in the Remote Workplace

According to Goleman, the best leaders have developed a well-balanced set of EI skills across the four domains. After all, a manager may be empathetic and have good social skills but lack the ability to positively influence peers or deliver unpleasant feedback when required to resolve a conflict. In the remote workplace, managers that actively develop and maintain their social awareness and relationship management competencies are more likely to lead a productive, stable, and happy team. So here are some tips for improving social EI skills.

Work on your empathy

The need to show empathy is heightened in a remote team, where people may be working in different cultures and climates. An emotionally intelligent manager should spend time getting to know the context in which each team member is operating. Are they working from home? If so, are they juggling work with household chores? Are they facing any additional pressures outside of work? How are they feeling about their current situation? Asking questions that allow remote workers to open up and give managers important information about their team members, provided they listen attentively to the answers. Doing ‘check-ins’ with people over video calls will give managers the opportunity to observe body language and other non-verbal signals about how an individual is doing.

Make time for chat

In the remote workplace there is no water cooler or break room to gather around and chew the fat. That means being more proactive about creating (virtual) spaces for informal interactions that help everyone on the team get to know each other better and build more trusting relationships. This could involve setting up a post-work drink over Zoom, a virtual trivia night or leading group exercise classes - anything that allows people to let off some steam and feel more comfortable with their managers and colleagues.

Set clear boundaries (and respect them)

Being empathetic and flexible is vital when working with a distributed team, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. By setting and communicating clear boundaries and expectations, distributed team members will know where they stand and there will be fewer misunderstandings. As a manager, it’s also important to make yourself accessible for people to raise concerns early and avoid a more disruptive conflict down the line. For example, if someone is feeling pressured to work longer hours and it’s affecting their mental health or family commitments, they need to be able to share this with the boss so that they can get together and set reasonable schedules that work for everyone.


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