Leading with Emotional Intelligence in a Crisis

​Although organizations have historically faced financial and economic crises, business leaders have never seen one such as the COVID-19 ...

​Although organizations have historically faced financial and economic crises, business leaders have never seen one such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with the other challenges 2020 has ushered in, the world has been turned on its head for most Americans. The need for stability, security, and empathy is omnipresent.

While emotional intelligence (EI) has been a critical competency of successful leaders, it’s arguably infinitely more important during this crisis and for returning to a new normal. The emotional well-being of workers is strained. Think of emotional well-being as water in a glass, which, in normal times, might evaporate slowly, with leaders needing to add more every once in a while. But in a crisis, change, uncertainty, stress, and anxiety act like holes in the glass, causing the water to leak out all over the place. To keep emotional well-being steady, more needs to be added from the top.

While some leaders may question if it’s their job to worry about their workforce’s emotional well-being, remember that work priorities can’t get done until you first address the people priorities. It’s human instinct to follow emotions and be reactionary; however, as a leader, managing emotions and being skilled at recognizing and understanding others’ emotions is critical.

Now is the ideal time to recognize and develop EI capabilities that can help leaders face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity, and fewer unintended consequences.

Importance of Self-awareness

Self-awareness means you’re aware and conscious of your feelings and your thoughts about them. While leaders are often affected by stress even in normal times, it can become significantly elevated during this unprecedented pandemic. Leaders are likely feeling confused, angry, or even sad. Acknowledging your feelings and emotional state puts you in charge, not your emotions, and this awareness permits leaders to manage their feelings in a constructive way. Without this awareness, your emotions will dictate your actions and in the middle of a crisis, leaders need to use the part of the brain that allows rational thinking, not the part of the brain where emotions are experienced.

Practice being calm and in control, and be aware of your reactions to challenging situations. It’s also important to know your values and what’s most important to you. Slow down and examine your emotions before reacting. Try journaling or meditating a few minutes each day to help you better identify how you’re feeling.

Social Awareness and Empathy

Leaders’ ability to understand other people’s emotional makeup and their unique experiences is fundamental to EI. The capacity to empathize with others helps to unite workers and enables teams to face challenges together. Displaying empathy for employees’ concerns allows leaders to obtain support and help in resolving the crisis. Give employees the support and resources they need, whether that’s offering someone to talk to or someplace to vent; providing them with resume and job search help; or delivering inspirational talks—anything workers need to take the next step forward.

A social awareness of how the pandemic is impacting the business and its people gives leaders the complete picture of what needs to be solved, improved, or modified. Leaders can start by showing their own vulnerabilities and how they’re managing the crisis and their emotions. Doing so can go a long way in building a sense of connection and engagement. Getting through the pandemic requires leaders who can share pain with their teams and look at situations from others’ points of view, so listening is more critical than ever.

Managing Relationships

In times of crisis, leaders need to manage many relationships among many people. Effectively managing them includes building and maintaining rapport, inspiring others, and influencing people in the best direction. Leaders with high EI show gratitude and flexibility, and praise the efforts of resilient colleagues who are making work happen under high adversity.

It’s essential to keep employees engaged by celebrating the wins, big or small. Consider implementing cloud-based employee rewards or recognition systems to track the wins, and remember to keep appreciation top of mind. Have team members nominate their colleagues for various awards, send a quick ecard, post victories on social walls, or find other opportunities for peer recognition.

Having a strong vision and direction for the business is also essential. Leaders who show optimism, take responsibility for their actions, and find solutions to problems will help themselves and others. Good communication skills are even more important to keep employees on the same page when they’re physically and mentally in different places. At a minimum, communication should address what the future holds for employees and any possible impact on their jobs.

A key contributor to employee stress and low morale is the inability to experience their usual office culture and in-person camaraderie. Leaders can help to overcome this by building a virtual “water cooler” where employees can participate in casual conversations and create a lively atmosphere. Keep it informal and outside of regular, formal team meetings so workers feel comfortable speaking their minds in a safe and profound way.

An Opportunity to Build EI

Now more than ever, you can leverage the power of emotional intelligence to remain grounded, avoid panic, and focus on building the future you want for your business and community. This crisis offers an unusual opportunity to practice empathy because it’s safe to assume that everyone else is also operating from a place of stress. By being in tune with others’ emotions, asking questions, really listening, and communicating from a place of empathy, leaders have an opportunity to build relationships purposefully.

The pandemic has presented the ultimate opportunity to assess leaders as they deal with unprecedented challenges that are testing their values and skills. There’s never been a more extraordinary moment to strengthen and apply emotional intelligence competencies.