High EQ leadership: 10 ways to put your people first during the pandemic

What can you do to create psychological safety, demonstrate empathy, and build trust with teammates right now? Leaders share 10 ideas to change your leadership style for the better
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As the weeks stretch into months, many people are finding their new version of "normal" during the pandemic. For leaders, this new normal entails connecting with their employees on a more personal, human level than ever before.

Not only are leaders getting a more intimate view of their employees’ lives – for instance, who has young kids at home, or who’s caring for an older parent – they are also gaining a deeper understanding of the mental and emotional toll of sudden, extreme changes to daily schedules and a 24/7 news cycle on each individual member of their team. These new insights are changing their leadership style – in many ways, for the better.

"We all owe that to each other right now, to make sure that we are taking the time to ask these questions."

“I’m starting every call by checking in with everyone on a personal level, asking simple questions such as: ‘How are you doing? How’s your family doing? How are your parents? How are your kids? Is there anything you need?’” says Bryson Koehler, CTO at Equifax. “Connecting at a human level is so important, and I do it because I am genuinely interested and I do care. I think we all owe that to each other right now, to make sure that we are taking the time to ask these questions. We’re all humans, and we can all get sick, so why don’t we act like that? 

“Frankly, we should probably continue to check in on each other even when we don’t have this going on, instead of jumping straight into the work topic du jour,” Koehler adds. “It might not be such a bad thing,”

What else can leaders do to show support, create psychological safety, demonstrate empathy, and build trust during this challenging time? Read on for 10 ideas from emotionally intelligent leaders.

[ IT leaders in our community are sharing advice on navigating this crisis. Read also: How to lead in the age of newly remote teams and Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety. ]

1. Extend meetings for personal connection

“We’ve extended all internal meetings by 15 minutes to allow for extra check-in time,” says Miles Kelly, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Skedulo. “This is for the purpose of genuine, human-to-human interaction. This isn’t business-related or regarding company matters, but rather to stay connected. Employees have really appreciated that time to share how they’re doing and what’s going on in their lives. Now is the time for empathy and understanding. Even if you’re not personally affected by COVID-19, there is widespread concern and anxiety. It’s important to support one another and listen.”

"It has been eye-opening to have everyone open up in a deeper way about their concerns and emotions."

“During times of crisis or uncertainty, as a manager or executive, you have a responsibility to support your employees,” says Kelly. “I’ve been following my own advice to take a pause before jumping into meetings. As a result, those extra 15 minutes have allowed me to better understand what my team is going through. It’s been eye-opening to have everyone open up in a deeper way about their concerns and emotions. This has helped me understand how far-reaching and seriously this is affecting my colleagues, and in turn, how I can better support them.”

[ Read also: 7 tips for emotionally intelligent managers of newly remote teams ]

2. Remember that everyone's experience is unique

"Each day brings new challenges personally and professionally. Don’t assume that what worked last week will be effective today,” says Melanie Katzman, author of WSJ bestseller, Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning and Joy at Work. “Remember that not all team members will respond the same way, nor are they under the same pressures. Allow for individual differences.”

Katzman offers several questions that can help leaders and their teams right now:

  • Where there any shifts in how we worked yesterday that really helped the team or you personally?
  • What can we do differently to help you shine? To survive? “For example, perhaps you’ll learn that meetings first thing in the morning aren’t best if people aren’t sleeping or professionals are struggling to get their children settled before jumping into work activities,” says Katzman.
  • What is giving you energy and what might be depleting it? “Be open to hearing that all of those briefings or social events are not having the intended positive effect,” she says.

3. Provide a channel for things that can't be said on a video call

“Now more than ever, it’s important for leaders to be highly intentional and not make assumptions,” says Paul Chapman, CIO of Box. “In action, this means not only asking the right questions but also utilizing multiple channels and methods for team members to signal if they need any additional professional and personal support – from practical things like having the correct technology and ergonomic setup at home to mental health support.”

Chapman continues, “Not all questions can be asked via video conferencing. We also need to use chat tools, team channels, and email for regular and consistent updates. We also need to make sure we set time aside for stand-up team check-ins and all-hands meetings with ‘AMA’ (Ask Me Anything) as a key part of the agenda. The goal is to provide as many ways as possible to keep your finger on the pulse of your organization and its people while all working remotely.” 

4. Listen for subtle clues

Reading those signals can tell you who is struggling with the situation.

"I still start every meeting with my teams by asking how they are doing, are they getting what they need, and what would help – that isn’t new. The difference now is that I listen more specifically to how they answer,” says Jaeson Paul, senior strategist at CI&T. “Do they seem different from their regular selves? Do they seem more stressed? Are their answers longer or shorter than usual? Has their communication style changed, possibly due to a changed state of mind? Reading those signals can tell you who is struggling with the situation versus who is taking it in stride.”

5. More face time may be unhelpful

“Many managers are holding extra meetings to stay connected. While this is a good idea in principle, don’t be rigid – read the room/Zoom,” says Katzman. “Sometimes a quick check-in is better than a long meeting. If you are offering time to socialize as a group, make it optional. Those Zoom cocktail hours or company talent shows may provide a welcome distraction to some while creating additional work and anxiety for others.

“These days, our attention is pulled in multiple directions,” she says. “We have to attend to our normal work, the crisis work, and our domestic demands. In addition, we are continually scanning the news in an effort to stay safe and informed. As a result, our brain is running on multiple channels simultaneously. Just as the cities are shutting down non-essential services, try eliminating non-essential meetings to free up mindshare.”

[ And for the essential meetings? Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better ]

6. Challenge your team to find the good

Michael Johnson, managing principal at the management consulting firm Bridgepoint Consulting, is challenging his teams to think ahead to how this experience will change their business for the better.

"How can we take these learnings and generate goodwill? Who can we help, just for the sake of helping?"

He says, “A few of the key questions our leaders have been asking their teams and colleagues in this new environment are: What is one new fact you learned today? For example, this could apply to an employee, a client/prospect, or be relevant insight about the industry in general. How can we take these learnings and generate goodwill? Who can we help, just for the sake of helping? Are we learning a different way of delivering our services now that everyone is remote? Can we be better and more efficient so that our service delivery can scale? We should be developing habits or automating processes now to make us even better once we’ve overcome this pandemic.”

Let's examine four more great tips from leaders:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.