Organizational Awareness: Systems Thinking With Emotional Intelligence

I picked up my first camera when I was nine. It was a Pentax K1000— a black and silver box with a single-lens reflex and Kodak 35MM film inside.  

That year, I spent the entire summer walking around camp shooting candids on the tennis courts, moments in the art studio, and capturing counselors huddled in conversation outside the dining hall. I captured facial expressions, people making eyes from across the lodge, and individuals sitting in silence along the side of the lake. 

After shooting each roll of film, I would go to the tiny cabin of a dark room, where I would develop the negatives and wait patiently to see what they would reveal.

I learned a lot that year. 

Not just about photography, but about the unspoken culture and networks of summer camp.

I learned who liked who, how young campers addressed the older folks in power, and that the best tennis player was actually a ten year old from New York— someone who had never picked up a racket before that year, but who hit the courts every evening after dinner to practice his half volley. 

I was cultivating what Daniel Goleman calls Organizational Awareness. One of two social awareness competencies in his framework of Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Awareness refers to how well we know and understand the systems we operate in. 

When we are strong in this competency, we are able to:

  • Identify the values and culture of our organization or team;
  • Acknowledge the spoken and unspoken rules at play;
  • Name the processes, structures, individuals, and networks that get things done;
  • Navigate the system in order to make progress on our individual and collective goals. 

Organizational Awareness is about seeing the invisible web of connections—between individuals, teams, and between the system and the wider world.

Developing this competency requires Self-Awareness, Emotional Balance, and Empathy. It helps us with Adaptability, Influence, and Achievement Orientation, giving us tools to think strategically, navigate complexity, and mobilize others towards an outcome.

Systems and Influence 

What is a system?

A system is a collection of interconnected elements. Like individual stars form a constellation, a system is the pattern or ‘whole’ formed when individual elements— such as people, plants, or even ideas—come together. 

An organization is a system. A family is a system. A community of faith is a system. A forest is a system. Our bodies are made up of endocrine, nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems.

A system is a web of interactions and relationships that share a purpose, exhibit patterns, establish order, and operate around a set of rules and norms.

When it comes to being a changemaker in an organization—influencing others in order to get things done—researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that rank in a company’s formal hierarchy doesn’t matter nearly as much as how well someone can read and mobilize the informal networks needed to make change occur.

When it comes to getting things done, being “the boss” is less important than understanding who is connected to who, the quality of those relationships, and the explicit and implicit ways the elements within the system conduct themselves. 

When you understand the patterns of values, influence, power and emotions that exist within an organization, you are more capable of maneuvering complex human networks.

An understanding of relationships, hierarchies, and decision-making processes position you to better communicate and get things done. 

A Triple Focus 

How many times have you sensed into something that wasn’t as obvious to someone paying less attention? 

Sharpening our focus and widening our sphere of attention allows us to feel the unspoken tone, tide, and climate of the systems we live and operate in. 

This relates to what Daniel Goleman calls a ‘triple focus’, a way of describing three important levels of awareness: self (inner), people (other), and environment (outer). 

My colleagues and I at the Emerging Leaders Project (ELP) talk about this using the language of inner, inter and outer. The premise: in order to be change agents in a rapidly transforming world, we need to attend to each level of awareness.

It’s not enough to be self-aware, we also need to understand our impact on others and on the world around us. 

These three levels of awareness exist at the individual and organizational level. On the individual level, they look like self-awareness, relationship awareness, and the ability to see and understand the systems we operate in. Organizationally, they look slightly different: 

  • Inner: The culture, emotional climate, purpose, values, networks, and collective enthusiasm of the organization.
  • Inter: How the organization relates to others including suppliers, competitors and key stakeholders. 
  • Outer: The larger systems in which the organization exists—everything from the economy to political, technological, and social trends. 

Well-focused leaders think, observe and operate on all three levels. They see how things connect and with that understanding are better equipped to strategize and adjust according to feedback from the people and from the environment. 

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