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.

They know where they can get buy-in; recognize unspoken expectations so they can effectively manage them; can speak the language of their stakeholders; and understand the root causes of various issues, positioning them to better resolve them.

Cultivating Organizational Awareness

In the words of editorial cartoonist and columnist Frank Tyger: “Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.”

As I learned that summer with the Pentax, Organizational Awareness is cultivated first and foremost through observation.

This sounds simple. But actually, it’s more complex.

To really observe we have to get out of our own way.

Observation isn’t only about what we see — it’s about what we can feel, know, and understand by engaging all six of our senses, intuition included.

One way to think about observation and building Organizational Awareness is to take an inner, inter, outer approach to listening.

  • Inner: Self-awareness helps us hear and recognize our internal thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, using them as a barometer to make sense of our environment. The more attuned we are to our minds, bodies and emotions the more information we are able to access.

What do you notice? How do the dynamics around you make you feel? What does your body do in the presence of certain elements of the system? From your perception, can you distinguish between what is projection, what is judgement, and what is intuition? (This is a BIG ONE.)

  • Inter: Every time we connect with someone or something, we build a relational field — an invisible but palpable field of energy. The quality and strength of this field depends on how empathetic, attuned, and resonant we are. It depends on how present we are to verbal and non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, use of language, or even someone’s position in the room.

What are the social dynamics? How does someone hold themselves differently in the presence of different people? How does power get transferred from person to person? Is there conflict? Are you curious and connected to a sense of empathy? What do you ‘hear’ even when it goes unspoken?

The next time you approach a conversation with a person or group, ask yourself, “am I listening to respond or am I listening to understand?”

  • Outer: Because organizations are complex systems, change in one part of the organization inevitably impacts movement in another — even when the two places don’t seem directly connected or related. Observing and listening at the outer level is about seeing and understanding the ripple effect of every action. It requires taking a three thousand-foot view of the system and thinking in terms of impact.

How does the physical environment inform the system? When you make a change in one area what do you notice in another? What does the map of interconnection look like? Given how things relate, what is possible?

Another way to cultivate Organizational Awareness is to map out all or part of the system you live or work in. On a big piece of paper, write down the key players, identifying how they relate and overlap. Then, see if you can identify their values, their concerns, and the power they have to either support or undermine your progress towards a goal.

What does this tell you about the system? Who are your allies? Who might you approach in a new way? How does this understanding inform your ability to build coalitions towards an outcome?

In Conclusion

Many of the problems we face — from climate change to poverty to racial injustice — are asking us to be change agents. Old ways are dying and all of us are tasked, in some way or another, with being a part of the great transition to a more sustainable and equitable way of being and operating in the world.

This isn’t idealism. It’s a fact.

Evolution is happening regardless of how we feel about it. Some are scared. Others feel the changes can’t come quickly enough.

Organizational Awareness helps us think more deeply about how the system functions and the role our thoughts, beliefs, and actions have in forming it.

It helps us see that a move we make in one part of the system ripples out, impacting individuals, communities, and ecosystems we may not always see in our day to day.

This is a giant shift for cultures that prioritize individualism — cultures that haven’t paid as much attention to the diversity of elements, quality of relationships, and patterns of behavior that inform the worlds we live and work in.

The biggest issues of our time are calling all of us to develop a whole-systems understanding of the world — to acknowledge that the whole is more than the sum of its parts — and to listen, deeply and consistently, with all of our senses, in order to strategize a more sustainable and equitable future.

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Reimagining leadership, communications, and work culture. Emotional Intelligence Coach, storyteller, and workplace strategist invested in social change.

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Reimagining leadership, communications, and work culture. Emotional Intelligence Coach, storyteller, and workplace strategist invested in social change.

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