“Contextual intelligence” and related leadership skills

By Elisabeth Goodman, 16th August 2022

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review carries two articles that are relevant to two aspects of our work:

Strategic planning skills

“Contextual intelligence” is a phrase that I’ve only just come across, in Nitin Nohria’s article “As the world shifts, so should leaders”1. Nohria suggests that leaders need to be increasingly aware of external events and of potential internal reactions to them.

This greater awareness will enable them to better shape their organisational strategies, be more proactive in managing internal dynamics, and be better prepared to deal with unexpected crises that might arise.

Examples of the kinds of contexts that leaders need to develop their intelligence around include:

  1. Geopolitical strife and pandemics
  2. Government interventions
  3. Labour movements
  4. Demographic trends
  5. Social expectations
  6. Developments in the world of technology

This list is not dissimilar to the well-established PESTLE model that I’ve used in the past to help leaders analyse external influences when shaping their strategies.

PESTLE stands for: Politics, Economics, Society, Technology, Legislation, Environment… I’ve referenced this in a previous blog on “Organisational awareness – combining intellectual and emotional intelligence

Nohria gives examples of shifts that leaders might be contending with such as:

  • Adopting more local approaches to their business to mitigate global risks associated with wars and pandemics
  • Being aware of shifts in government policies on taxation that might impact an organisation’s financial strategy
  • Recognising that people are wanting more autonomy about when and how they work
  • Responding to different generational preferences or comfort with online vs. in-person interactions
  • Understanding that employees might want their leaders to respond to potentially social issues such as those on climate, gender diversity, racial equality
  • Potential consolidation of technology companies as a result of economic downturns

The big difference that Nohria’s article highlights for me is that people might be bringing their passion and views around social topics into work more than they have done in the past.

Engaging in work that is meaningful and has a greater purpose seems more important to people than ever before. What is happening around the topics referenced here can trigger intellectual and emotional reactions at work as well as at home.

Leaders may need to be prepared to engage in the debate in ways that they have not done before, which is where the second article comes in.

Managing internal conflict on topics related to external events

Many managers and leaders that we work with are concerned about how to manage conflict at work. Traditionally this has been the conflict relating to clashes in personality, or clashes of ideas about work.

We work with people through group and one-to-one coaching to explore how greater understanding and valuing of differences in personality can assist with clashes in personality.

And we know that a clash or healthy debate of different ideas about work is invaluable for creativity, innovation, resolution of problems and decision making in general.

Nour Kteily and Eli J. Finkel2 provide some insightful comments about how leaders can better manage what might be on the rise in the workplace: politically charged conflict. This is the conflict that might arise as people bring increasingly deep concerns and opinions about world and social events into work.

Helping people to recognise that their perspective may be incomplete

I wrote a blog in March: “Difference is all there is. Opening our minds to disagreement” based on the work of Nancy Kline3, and also a previous article in Harvard Business Review by Minson and Gino4. The emphasis here was on how we can be prepared to listen more carefully to what other people have to say, and be prepared to change our mind, or be more accepting of our differences as a result of that.

Kteily and Finkel talk about the value of listening, and also point out that our thinking can be incomplete. Two people’s perspective on the same issue might be affected by “motivational reasoning” or by “naive realism”.

Our perspective of what is true, what we pay attention to and the facts we collect might be based on our ideology and on what is important to us.

Effective leadership then, according to Kteily and Finked, is about creating a culture where people recognise that their perspective might be incomplete, are curious to learn from others and are prepared to have “adversarial collaboration”.

“Adversarial collaboration” is where:

[people] with conflicting perspectives on an issue collaborate on a [topic] to adjudicate between and reconcile their views rather than sniping at each other..”

Kteily and Finkel2

What leaders and organisations can do

The authors suggest that leaders and their organisations create a culture for constructive internal debate by including the following:

  • Onboarding and organisational norms. Explaining the concept of “motivational reasoning” and “naive realism” and setting expectations about how to approach these from the point that people are brought into the organisation.
  • Self-distancing. Teaching employees to recognise and consider alternatives when they are emotionally triggered by something someone says. And to understand that their colleague might be experiencing something similar.
  • Organisational metrics. Making sure that the organisation has transparent values and metrics for instance around hiring minorities. This will support any constructive debate amongst employees.
  • Considered statements. Setting the expectation that if and when individuals make a statement relating to world or social topics, that they support it with a fuller explanation of their thoughts. (The example is at Harmon Brothers, a digital marketing company, where employees are asked to support any comments on Slack with an explanatory video.)
  • Mediating conflict. This is where a leader may need to bring people together with a reminder of any of the above. They may need to facilitate a respectful exchange of views, where people listen to each other fully as the basis for “adversarial collaboration”. Leaders will also need to ensure follow-through with any resultant action, decision or change. And of course the leaders themselves might be one of the parties involved in this kind of conflict.
  • Staying alert. Finally, the authors suggest that leaders stay attentive to the constantly shifting political and social currents that might trigger internal debate.

Some questions for you

Is “contextual intelligence” one of your leadership skills? How are you applying this in your organisation?

Are you seeing signs of internal conflict relating to world or social topics? What measures do you have in place to address this?

What else could you be doing?


  1. Nohria, N. (2022). As the world shifts, so should leaders. Research shows the different eras call for different approaches. Harvard Business Review, July – August, 58-61
  2. Kteily, N. & Finkel, E.J. (2022). Leadership in a politically charged age. What social psychology and relationship science can teach us about conflict in the workplace – and how to manage it. Harvard Business Review, July – August, 108 – 1117
  3. Kline, N. (2020) The promise that changes everything. I won’t interrupt you. Penguin Life, UK
  4. Minson, J.A. & Gino, F. (2022) Managing a polarized workforce. How to foster debate and promote trust.  Harvard Business Review, March-April, pp. 63-71

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