Many companies have long overlooked the importance of social skills in leadership, often to great detriment. Simply put, without robust social skills a leader won’t be leading for long. You may feel that you have a vision worth rallying behind, but without the ability to reach people on a fundamentally social level, a brilliant business strategy will falter. It is a fact that our brains identify social needs as important as physical needs, like food or shelter. Yet, too often organizations fail to appreciate the attention social needs require and as a result, the potential of leadership vision and management initiatives are never fully realized.
A recent study conducted by Management Research Group (MRG) aimed to identify how many leaders were able to manage with both a goal and social focus simultaneously. The findings of this study deserve a spotlight of their own—or perhaps a flashlight under the chin.
The study examined a sample of 60 thousand executives and managers across 4 countries (US, Canada, Australia, and UK), for a ten-year period. These leaders completed Leadership 360 assessments wherein they were rated by their boss, peers, and direct reports on a wide range of goal and social-oriented competencies. Respondents rated managers on a scale in 26 questions and the ranking given overall would separate them into “highly goal-focused”, “highly interpersonal-focused”, or “high in both” buckets.
Placement in these buckets depended on how questions around empathy, cooperation, production, and control were answered—like ability to “deliver results,” “capacity to get people involved,” etc.
Leaders identified as being highly goal focused excelled in areas such as taking initiative, delivering results, business aptitude, and financial understanding.
Interpersonal leaders excelled in areas like sensitivity to other’s feelings, willingness to listen, ability to work with diverse people, and understanding the motivations of others.
The skills where goal-focused leaders excelled proved difficult for those that were interpersonally focused, and vice versa.
In order for a leader to meet the study’s criteria and be considered “high in both,” they’d have to rank in the top 33% of all areas of questioning—in empathy, cooperation, production, and control. Of a sample of 60 thousand managers, only 0.77% were perceived as having both goal and social focus. Yes, less than one percent. When we raised the threshold up to 50%, the outcome was still only 5% of managers having both—still a very low number.
From a neuroscience perspective, things get more complicated still. As I outlined in my Fortune Management article, Why Organizations Fail, the system for thinking socially and the system for thinking about goals and concepts function like a neural seesaw. When you engage one region, it dampens the activity of the other. This is likely why finding a manager capable of high focus in both areas is such a rare occurrence.
A goal-oriented leader that lacks social skills will be end up directing a fundamentally weaker organization. They will not be able to connect with their employees in order to unify them around a vision or strategy. Similarly, if someone is lacking goal-oriented skills, they may be great at Halloween parties but they aren’t going to steer the ship in a direction that achieves business objectives. Striking a balance between the two is both critical and rare.
The solution to this problem is not an easy one, as our brains are not acclimated to shift focus in the way that is needed. But don’t be afraid. Understanding the nature of the brain shouldn’t leave us feeling spooked; it should stand as something leaders need to hone in on in order to improve. The good news is having a heightened awareness of our brain’s inherent tendencies is the first step at better navigating around our social and organizational limitations.
David Rock is cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, a consultant and author of Your Brain at Work. For more on the social brain, watch Matt Lieberman present his thinking on social neuroscience at the NeuroLeadership Summit in Washington, D.C, November 6 and 7. Watch the action via Free Live Streaming if you can't make it.