Don’t Lean In – use Social Intelligence

A couple of times in every decade someone pokes their finger into the existential socket of life and electrifies the Zeitgeist. We’ve all been there – we read or hear something that not only gets it right but illuminates a darkened corridor we intuitively knew was there. 

These are the moments we hang out for, hoping as the sun rises on a new day that it will illuminate wonder. 

A public illumination happened in 2013 when Sheryl Sandberg entreated women across the globe to take a seat at the corporate table and lean in. Ms Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, urged women to lean in to a culture created and largely dominated by men; a gender that was not theirs. She told women who followed her advice that they could become more a part of the corporate culture of success.

Sheryl Sandberg electrified the Zeitgeist. Sort of.

In essence, Ms Sandberg counselled women to accelerate their careers by becoming part of the dominant culture; to come in from the outside and claim a seat at the table. Literally. However, while she established herself as a genuine beacon for women walking corporate corridors, her advice to lean in was never going to be enough. 

A bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead made millions of women feel more positive about their place in the world and about opportunities to climb the corporate ladder. However, subscribing to an alien tribe with no real prospect of ever being part of it was, sadly, to mislead her readers.

There is no doubt it made many women feel better about their place in the world. But why would a woman choose, as her ideal success strategy, to join a tribe of men? Or even, in the name of gender equity, join a tribe of women for that matter? Why would she join a tribe at all?

My gender has for centuries made the rules of political, economic, and social life. And those rules advantage men at every turn while simultaneously authorising the exclusion of women. As men, we enjoy an unearned privilege that goes largely unobserved and unrecognised by us. But not by women.

Why then would women wish to join a tribe that disadvantages them, that views them as non-men?  I remember Groucho Marx saying he would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member

So, if leaning in is not the answer, what is? Is it a matter of how smart we are? Or how hard we work?

This is the point at which another illuminative moment occurred in my life. I teamed up with Siobhan Forbes, a very smart woman with experience in senior corporate roles. If Sandberg’s entreaties to lean in was not the pathway, what was? 

We turned to research data collected over five years by the Roy Morgan Research Institute from 253,000 respondents and were startled by what we found. It is not intelligence (IQ) or emotional intelligence (EQ) that determines your success. It is your social intelligence or SQ.

Social intelligence is our ability to use our improbably large brains to successfully make and navigate complex social relationships and arrangements. It is the new wave of social neuroscience shaping our world.

We found that social intelligence, rather than our IQ or EQ, uniquely makes us what we are and provides our roadmap to success and happiness in life. 

Sheryl Sandberg was on the right track. Her argument was just built on a false premise. It is not enough to play the game, someone else’s game, or to submit to a dominant tribe. We need to forge a new path. A smarter one. A more socially intelligent one. 

The evidence showed we need to be more collaborative. And given that we are fully autonomous, self-regulating adults, it falls to each of us to take responsibility for our own individual and collective success in life. Being more like someone else, bowing to others by leaning in, is not the answer. 

‘Lift yourself’ is better advice than ‘lean in.’ Light bulb moment.

When we dug deeper, the research revealed that our social brains divide us into two groupings. We called these two groups Creators and Makers, and they are as different as night and day – both essential, but very different. What makes each type so different is their level of social intelligence, described by American social scientist Dr Karl Albrecht as “the new science of success.”

We already knew we used different parts of our brains for analytical thinking and for social thinking, but the lightbulb flashed when we discovered that when one is activated, the other is suppressed. So, analytical thinking (usually associated with Makers) is great for logical reasoning and rational problem solving, but, alarmingly, it simultaneously reduces our socially intelligent thinking (typically associated with Creators).

Fortunately, social intelligence is plastic – part of the neuroplasticity phenomenon. In other words, each of us can change our brains to be more socially intelligent. You and I can change our SQ by changing our awareness, attitudes, and behaviour in response to our complex social environment. And those changes are in turn reflected in our SQ. 

A person with high social intelligence is not necessarily more intelligent than someone with a low SQ, they just have different values, attitudes, skills, aspirations, interests, and desires. 

So, it’s not enough to be clever. Take non-human primates like chimpanzees. They are really clever at being able to make observations and remember things. Their memory is better than ours, but they are really bad at handling complex interpersonal relationships.

Scientists used to believe they could understand human beings, rats, pigeons – and chimpanzees – by just watching what goes on, and writing it all down. As it happens, these so-called behaviourists were wrong – this simply doesn’t work. What matters are the things that drive our behaviour, not just the behaviour itself. 

Leaning in is just another behaviour. But using social intelligence to lift yourself is a state of mind, a driver of behaviour.

So, by now you’re probably wondering if you have high or low social intelligence? A starting point is to decide if you’re a Creator or a Maker. Then you get the good news.

Creators are one–third (32 percent) of the population. People with a Creator mindset have strong self-esteem, an abiding sense of purpose. They look for meaning in everything they do. Driven as they are by internalised motivation, Creators feel the need to prove something to themselves – not so much to others. Empathetic and curious, they cultivate meaningful relationships and practice creative problem solving – and are likely to focus on what is working, not what is wrong. Creators exhibit and value courage, resilience, and persistence balanced by humility and generosity of spirit. They tend to be happier, more optimistic, more confident – and more engaged – than the rest of the population.

According to the research, Creators are largely urban dwellers (68 percent live in capital cities) and while they tend to be younger (66 percent are aged between 18 and 49), one-third are aged over 50. Creators are well educated (almost half have a university qualification) and are most likely to be in professional, creative, or community/personal services occupations. If you’re a Creator you’ll make a great entrepreneur and creative problem solver, inspiring leader, or change agent.

Makers, at 42 percent of the population, tend to be analytical and logical thinkers. Typically with healthy egos, people with the Maker mindset exhibit the kind of analytical thinking essential to logical reasoning and problem-solving. Results-focused, they believe their analytical decision making and intense motivation to get things done is more important than how people will feel about every decision and its potential for success. Makers are more likely to focus on what is wrong rather than on what is working. Comfortable with a rules-based workplace model, they tend to feel more anxious and are less optimistic than Creators.

Makers are a mix of urban and regional dwellers, and while they are typically older (with half aged 50+), one-quarter are under 35. They tend to be less well educated, although 35 percent have a university qualification, and gravitate to jobs that have structure and systems – working with the blueprint, not creating it. If you’re a Maker you’ll be a great technical manager, a terrific analyst, and a safe pair of hands.

Creator or Maker? Your social brain makes the difference. 

By the way, the remaining 26 percent is made up of a bunch of people for whom the lines are less clearly drawn

So, what’s the good news? Well, if you’re a Creator you’ll be more empathetic and collaborative, while, if you’re a Maker you’ll be more analytical and logical. Which is better? That’s easy. The good news is that one is not better than the other. 

The final lightbulb moment in this tale is that if you’re a Maker, you can increase your social intelligence. And if you’re a Creator you can use your social intelligence to become more analytical.

Success and happiness in life is an aggregation of small wins. Social intelligence is pivotal in driving our success and happiness; in taking small steps to manage the complexity of being social animals in a connected world.

Leaning in is simply not enough. You need to find the true, essential social self. To forge a better, happier, more fulfilling future, you need to … lift yourself.