First Principles Based Leadership: Improving our Social Awareness


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In my first post (which you can read here), in a series of posts about “First Principles Based Leadership”, I shared the importance of developing five types of awareness (self, social, cultural, contextual and systems) in order to build that foundation for becoming a First Principles based leader.

Today, in this third post, we will talk about how we can improve our social awareness. When I talk about social awareness, I mean the ability to know what is going on with the people we lead and work with, as individuals and the interactions between them.

It is our ability to know their strengths and weaknesses, what they aspire to, what inspires them, who needs to be left alone and who needs personal attention (and when).

One-on-One Meetings

One of the best ways that we can get to know the people whom we lead is by running effective one-on-one meetings with them. These meetings are the most crucial meetings a leader can have and are also the easiest to skip and cancel.

I have both seen and experienced many leaders allow other priorities and urgent tasks to come in the way of having these one-on-one meetings. Big mistake. This tells the people that they don’t matter and are not a priority for the leader.

Having one-on-one meetings is one of the most important quadrant II (Franklin Covey talks about in his classic book – First thing First (which was inspired by the Eisenhower Matrix) activities that we have on our schedule.

There is enough material that one can look up to learn how to run effective one-on-one meetings. We can do well to explore as many of them as we need to and continuously learn and improve how we run these meetings.

However, since each one of us is different and each one of the person we lead is different, we can’t follow a standard template for all our meetings.

So, we need to experiment with what works for us AND the person we are meeting. Some people might need a clear structure to the meeting, while some might prefer a more open and casual conversation.

Some people might want to keep it strictly business while others might be open to sharing about their personal lives as well.

Some might use this time to share progress and seek support, some might use this time to share their aspirations and discuss career growth.

Some might want to do as with a regular cadence, while some might prefer to do this as and when either of you needs them.

To each their own. The only thing that I recommend is that we don’t skip it and use our judgement and the needs of the person we are meeting with, to go prepared and take the conversation seriously.

After every one-on-one meetings, take the time to reflect and make a note of what you learned about the person from the conversation. Reflect on these questions – What was said openly? What did they mean, really mean? What was left unsaid? Why?

Team Meetings

The second tool we have in our arsenal is running regular team meetings. In this case, it is important for us to define the agenda and facilitate conversation.

Usually, team meetings are boring and are about updates. In my opinion, team meetings are better when we avoid updates (which can be on email) on projects or the work that everyone is doing.

In my opinion, the best use of team meetings is when we use this time either to connect to one another or to discuss where people need help or support and the team rallying around to find ways to help them.

This assumes that there is already trust amongst the team members and they feel comfortable to open up and talk about what each one of them is struggling with. In order for us to be able to do a good job here, we need to be good facilitators and manage conflict and friction well.

If this is not the case, then I strongly recommend that you use any time together to build up this trust. In order to be able to build this trust, we need to give them our trust and be vulnerable with them and invite them to do so.

We do it until we are able to get someone to follow. The first couple of people who open up and trust you are key. We should try our best to not let them down. This is where our self awareness routine comes to our aid.

And once we have the trust, we revert to using team meetings to help people talk about their challenges and apply the team’s collective insights to help solve them.

In both the cases, we need to be also aware of the conversations and if there are any undercurrents between people. You become aware of this by using another skill that we will talk about, improving our contextual awareness (we will talk about it soon in this series of posts).

You again be aware of what is being said, by whom, why and what do they really mean. You become aware of who has not contributed to the conversation and figure out why (in our one-on-one meetings with them). You be aware of what was not said in the meeting and figure out why.

Water cooler conversations

Last but not the least, the tool we can use to become socially aware is water cooler conversations or coffee corner conversations. These are casual conversations but crucial conversations. Sometimes, this is where you figure out the real undercurrents within any team.

This is the meeting after the meeting. People who are quiet in the meeting usually are the one’s who are chatty in these conversations. It is in these conversations we can learn how effective our communications skills are and how effective we have been.

We just need to be aware that our presence in these conversations, at times can curtail the conversations, but it is our responsibility to build enough trust amongst the team that they don’t shut down.

Also, we could use the water cooler or the coffee corners to take a few people at a time on our team and seek feedback on the content and the running of the meeting just held. You could ask for open and honest feedback within the smaller group. You could ask what others are thinking, without asking for the names.


We can use each one of these tools and with practice, we get better at using these tools and thereby improving our social awareness. We can use these tools not only with our teams but also with our peers and our leaders as well.

The difference between leaders and highly effective leaders is their awareness quotient is high, which includes social awareness as well. Some people might also call this political savviness, but that somehow has a negative connotations attached to it.

I believe that social awareness when used in service of the team we lead and the organisation that we are a part of serves a very important function in the success of everyone involved – the organisation, the team and therefore the leader.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mukesh Gupta
I currently work for SAP as Customer advocate. In this capacity, I am responsible to ensure that the voice of the customer is being heard and play the bridge between customers and SAP. Prior to joining SAP, I have worked with different organizations serving in different functions like customer service, logistics, production planning & sales, marketing and business development functions. I was also the founder-CEO of a start-up called "Innovative Enterprises". The venture was in the retail & distribution business. I blog at


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