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A socially intelligent leader helps people contain and recover from their emotional distress.
If only from a business perspective, a leader would do well to react with empathy rather than indifference – and to act on it.

– Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence

One of my 2018 goals was to read lots more books by authors I admired, including Dr. Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2006). Yep, that would be the Daniel Goleman who launched a publishing cottage industry with his Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam, 2005).

You may have noticed I’m just barely skinnying this particular goal under my end-of-year deadline, but I’m happy to report that Social Intelligence was both worth the wait and the late nights spent making that deadline. Why? Because so much of what Social Intelligence addresses has an immediate and important application to your LIS career satisfaction.

You’re wired to connect

According to Goleman, even those of us who are die-hard introverts are cognitively wired to connect with those in our lives, whether family members, friends, colleagues, or even strangers. As he notes, you are “wired” to be sociable, whether on a small or large scale. Because these connections are so important to not only your overall health but also your ability to perform at your highest levels, it’s no surprise that toxic leadership in your workplace will damage you in multiple ways. Which is why finding a ‘secure base” should be one of your top priorities for the coming year.

Bosses who create secure bases

Goleman surveyed many individuals from around the world to determine the characteristics they felt comprised good and bad bosses. His findings:

The best bosses are people who are trustworthy, empathic and connected, who make us feel calm, appreciated, and inspired. The worst – distant, difficult, and arrogant – make us feel uneasy at best and resentful at worst.

In effect, good bosses create a “secure base,” a safe space from which you can explore and reach your maximum potential. Rather than being threatened by your strengths, these managers seek out, support, and promote them.

Characteristics of good versus bad bosses

The qualities Goleman’s individuals cited for good bosses included:

  • Great listener
  • Encouraging
  • Communicative
  • Courageous
  • Possessing a sense of humor
  • Empathetic, willing to demonstrate empathy
  • Decisive
  • Willing to take and/or share responsibility
  • Humble

Not surprisingly, bad bosses had attributes of poor listening skills, doubting employees (whether judgment, competency, truthfulness, or ideas), secretiveness, intimidating others, bad temper, self-centeredness, indecisiveness, blaming others, arrogance, and mistrust of others.

As someone whose career has included an inordinate number of truly awful bosses, I certainly concur with these assessments. Even more importantly, however, I can confirm that your ability to bring your best stuff – your smartest ideas, your highest energy, your greatest level of commitment, your deepest passion – will be overwhelmingly driven by the quality of your manager.

Maybe it really is them, not you

Per Goleman, psychologist and leadership professor Dr. George Kohlrieser (International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) notes that “having a secure base at work is crucial for high performance.”

Feeling secure, Kohlrieser argues, lets a person focus better on the work at hand, achieve goals, and see obstacles as challenges, not threats. Those who are anxious, in contrast, readily become preoccupied with the specter of failure, fearing that doing poorly will mean they will be rejected or abandoned (in this case fired) – and so they play it safe.

By now you may have recognized your own work situation in these descriptions. Does your manager enable you to perform at your highest level while encouraging you to grow your skills? Or does he or she exude those negative qualities noted above that are guaranteed to produce a toxic workplace and low-performing teams? If the latter, this explains why your job is simply never going to be a good fit for you and you’re probably pretty miserable on a daily basis.

Do you need to move on?

If your current boss fits the “manager from hell” profile, it’s probably time for you to move on. Terrible managers tend to last forever and are certainly likely to outlast you. For multiple reasons, HR departments tend not to be overly responsive to complaints about toxic managers, so resolving this situation will pretty much be up to you.

If you make a decision to move on, however, you don’t need to give notice immediately. Take the time you need to explore your options, and most especially to consider how you can better assess your next potential boss as you apply for jobs.

Finding a socially-intelligent boss

There are several ways to get a sense of what type of boss your potential manager would be.

First, if you have any contacts at the hiring organization, speak with them about their perceptions of the department’s morale and leadership. Is there a lot of turnover? Do they come up with innovative projects and programs and/or a lot of process improvements? Do people seem to laugh a lot? Is collaboration and individual initiative encouraged?

Second, take advantage of the point in your interview where you get to ask questions. Ask your interviewer (assuming he or she will be your boss) what strengths are most important in the job, and what attributes they like to see in their staff. Ask what they most appreciated in the previous person in the job. Ask what type of working relationship and communications processes they would like you to have with them. Your goal is to get a sense of whether they support or are threatened by strengths, initiative, and competence. Watch for signs of a hyper-controlling personality.

Third, try to get a sense of whether the department and organization are committed to providing that secure base for employees. Do they reward initiative and tolerate the occasional failure that inevitably follows trying new things? Do they consider employees to be one of their key stakeholder groups, and treat them that way? Do they solicit employee feedback, acknowledge it, and act on it when possible? Do they respond with empathy rather than anger, recognizing staff as human beings rather than as easily-replaced placeholders?

These answers may come from connections within the organization, from exploration and “hypothetical” questions you ask during your interview, or even from reaching out to individuals on LinkedIn who used to work for your potential employer but no longer do. (They’re often much more comfortable sharing the “inside skinny.”)

You deserve a socially intelligent workplace – and a secure base

Working in a toxic environment is damaging in so many ways that you owe it to yourself to make a change if you can. No boss is going to be perfect (spoken as a manager who has been far from perfect on many occasions!), but a good boss will want to support his or her staff in a way that enables them to contribute at their highest level and feel emotionally safe while doing so.

If your boss falls into the toxic category, perhaps 2019 is the year to find that secure base from which you can grow into your highest-performing professional.