The Social Mind at Work

This article, written Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, and Pamela Crooke, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, authors of Social Thinking at  Work: Why Should I Care?, is tailored to Human Resource managers, counselors, psychologists and therapists who support adults in the workplace.

“Social thinking” is how we think about our own and others’ minds—and not everyone is born with the same natural ability.

Social Thinking at Work by Michelle Garcia WinnerWhen people at work say they were “talking around the water cooler” or “making small talk,” what do they really mean? Why is it that someone can come up with a brilliant strategy, but be unable to effectively communicate the idea in a meeting with fellow team members? How is it that a person can be recognized for his productivity on the job, but never is included in the lunchroom social chatter? Where are the social rules of the workplace written, and how come it seems not everyone got the memo?

The “memo,” it turns out, is something most people are born with—an intuitive sense that allows them to be naturally aware of social expectations and feeds them the information they need to follow the social code. But not everyone is born with this ability and that fact may be news to many HR personnel, managers, and even staff!

Many people with highly developed minds related to their professions are not nearly as gifted in how they relate to others’ minds. Think about the doctor with the poor bedside manners, or the brilliant engineer who can’t lead a team of people competently. No matter how intelligent or accomplished these individuals may be in their chosen field of work, if their social mind is not functioning in tandem with their professional mind, this might explain some of the trouble they have operating in the workplace. Or this may be a reason for the lack of promotions they receive compared to other colleagues who may not be as talented in the same field of work.

Indeed, there is an expanding population of young adults who are entering the workforce with brilliant technical minds and abilities, but who struggle with knowing how to be equally successful in the workplace social environment.

The Social Radar System

Most neurotypical people rely on a built-in “social radar system” that helps them figure out what to do or say in any given social situation, as well as how to assess the various people encountered across a day. They can quickly detect who understands the social code and who doesn’t.

Our social radar system gets activated at different times throughout the day, even when we’re not planning to speak to anyone. For instance, when we walk into a meeting where we are expected mostly to listen, it’s interesting to notice how many thoughts and emotions we have about the people around us. We evaluate whether we “like” the person who is speaking, and we find ourselves aware of those sitting nearby. Even if we won’t be talking to most of the people in the room, we’ll still have thoughts and related emotions about all of them. And they will have thoughts and related emotions about us.

In fact, we will (or should) adjust our behavior based on what we think people may be thinking about us. For example, if we feel tired and are with other people, we probably won’t yawn loudly, close our eyes or put our head down to rest as we might do when we’re alone. Why? Because we don’t want to call negative attention to ourselves or cause others to have “uncomfortable thoughts” about our behavior or lack of participation.

Social thinking is how we think about our own and others’ minds. We are expected to be constantly aware of who is around us and to anticipate what they plan to do in our shared space. We’re also expected to try to figure out why people are doing what they are doing, and how they may feel when they are doing it. The social mind is on constant alert. While our other systems can often take a rest, the social mind gets almost no time off.

The Social Mind at Work

Put a dozen coworkers in a room together casually, and notice how almost immediately they break off into smaller groups. What brings them together is not just what is being said, but how others make them feel.

People are more likely to stay if they feel comfortable—if they’re included in the conversation (even if the topic is not of particular interest) or are made to feel that others are interested in them. They are less likely to stick around if they feel uncomfortable—if they become overwhelmed by how much another person is talking, for example, or irritated by someone’s boasting.

Although most people don’t want to acknowledge it, thoughts and emotions—our own and those of others—are some of the most powerful social realities we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is true for both women and men, although they may have different ways of processing and expressing their feelings. One probable reason we don’t like to acknowledge our emotions is the high premium placed in our culture on logic and fact. We don’t want to think that our feelings or emotional reactions are swaying our responses to the world around us. Nor do we care to acknowledge that how we feel about something or someone is such a powerful determinant in our decision-making. Emotional processing even influences whom we hire and how we work with others. The book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (O. Brafman & R. Brafman, 2008) addresses this topic well.

As important as the social mind is, we receive very little instruction about how to operate this complex piece of machinery. As we grow up, our teachers and often our parents give the social mind little attention, and there are even fewer people to coach us in adulthood. We’re expected to learn to negotiate, cooperate, and respect others intuitively. We are celebrated if our social brain naturally figures out how to work well with people, and we can be shunned, demoted, or isolated if our brain does not pick up on the social cues that others grasp easily.

The social mind has a powerful “social memory” that can hold people accountable for their behavior over time. If we remember that someone criticized an idea without using tact, we are not likely to be a cheerleader for ideas he presents. Tit for tat—the social world can be a harsh and unforgiving place. But it can also be warm and encouraging; it has a lot to do with how we play our social cards.

The social world also makes use of “mental manipulation.” We occasionally say things we don’t truly mean to encourage a person to have a better thought about us or to motivate them to do more for the company. In political campaigns, all candidates make promises they can’t or won’t uphold. Knowing that, people tend to vote for the candidate they think is telling the fewest lies or offering the ideas they most want to hear. This type of mental play is accepted as a normal human foible. Most any socially neurotypical person will confess to a time he assured a friend she looked good when he didn’t really think so, or said that she was doing well when she really wasn’t. While as a society we value honesty and integrity, bending the truth to take care of how our words make someone feel or think about us is an accepted form of the social dance.

Multiple Intelligences and Social Learning Challenges

Many of us grew up with a single idea of intelligence, related to tests we were given in school and how well a teacher or parent thought we were learning academic concepts. Good language skills, a healthy vocabulary, and aptitude in one or more subjects are the types of strengths we learned to identify with someone who is “smart.”

But the definition of smart should not be based on such limited parameters. Many talented athletes, artists, writers and mathematicians didn’t perform well in school; Einstein was one famous example. Looking beyond test scores, it is apparent there are many different kinds of smarts—athletic, artistic, social—more readily gleaned through observation rather than quantified on paper. Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of cognition and author of the seminal book Frames of Mind (1993), proposed this concept of multiple intelligences in 1983.

Processing and responding to our own and others’ social minds is often referred to as social intelligence or social cognition. It has nothing to do with a person’s I.Q. or the academic credentials after one’s name. Yet, many people find it confusing or have trouble accepting the idea that people who are gifted academically can also be weak in their social thinking.

We are good observers of each other’s talents and challenges, but we are often the least kind to those who lack social gifts. We do not judge a person who doesn’t have natural athletic talent, but we often hear someone with social learning weakness described with isolating adjectives such as odd, weird, rude or arrogant— because this is how they are perceived.

These individuals face great frustrations. It is not uncommon to find that teachers, counselors, social workers and psychologists are not aware that people can be born with social learning disabilities, and therefore these helping professionals do not create appropriate supports or treatment. Instead they might encourage the person to just “be more social” or “behave better,” not realizing that this type of comment can do more harm than good to someone who does not intuitively understand what it all means.

The good news is that there are many more social thinking tools at hand today that can help both employee and manager, counselor and client, psychologist and patient, better understand social thinking and the synergy that exists between social thinking and success in all areas of life.

8 POINTS TO CONSIDER about our Social Abilities

  1. We are expected to be constantly aware of who is around us and anticipate what they plan to do in our shared space.
  2. As important as the social mind is, we receive very little instruction about how to operate this complex piece of machinery.
  3. To use social thinking and related skills well, we have to be constant social observers and problem-solvers.
  4. To change how others think about us and remember us, we must alter our social behavior to alter the social perception.
  5. Attempting to interpret each other’s emotions is as much a part of the workday as doing our actual jobs.
  6. We act in a way that shows we understand what others expect, and that allows them to keep having normal or good thoughts about us.
  7. Others interpret your intentions based on their own thinking. You cannot decide how your inten­tions are interpreted. If you think you have good intentions, this does not mean people would agree with you.
  8. Remember, no one is perfect at social interpreta­tion—everyone makes mistakes.


About the Authors

Michelle Garcia Winner is a Congressional award-winning speech language pathologist, clinician, prolific author, and international speaker who coined the term “social thinking” in the mid-1990s and developed a Social Thinking treatment method for children and adults.

Pamela Crooke is a speech language pathologist, a senior therapist at Winner’s San Jose, CA treatment clinic, the Social Thinking Center, and is part of the faculty at San Jose State University.

About the Book

Written for the adult who has trouble deciphering the social code of the workplace, Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? is a primer about the inner workings of the social mind while on the job. It teaches core concepts of how we think about our own and others’ thoughts and emotions, and how social thinking is pivotal to achieving success in any environment. Excellent for HR personnel and corporate managers to better understand social thinking across the work day.