Emotional intelligence: 10 ways to manage emotions in a crisis

As the pandemic wears on, leaders need to know how to manage emotional responses to crises - both yours and your colleagues'
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Understanding the emotional experiences of our colleagues has always been important: How we feel impacts how we perform. But it’s of paramount importance right now as IT leaders and their organizations continue to work through the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

"It is almost impossible to truly know the range of intense emotions people are experiencing."

“As the pandemic wears on, it is having a significant physical, emotional, and mental health impact on the people in your organization,” says Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications. “Leaders are distant from their teams, and – even with the benefit of videoconferencing – it is almost impossible to truly know the range of intense emotions people are experiencing. This in turn impacts productivity, engagement, and loyalty to the company.”

Knowing how to manage emotional responses to crises – those that individuals on your team may experience, as well as your own ups and downs – is a critical leadership skill.

[ For more advice on crisis leadership, read Emotional intelligence during the pandemic: 5 tips for leaders. ]

“There is a lot of fear and uncertainty around us today. We have been struck with a pandemic that is beyond anyone’s previous experience,” says Dr. Steven J. Stein, founder and executive chairman for Multi-Health Systems, which develops and administers Emotional Quotient (EQ) assessments. “It’s important to be aware of and manage our own feelings as we make our way through these uncharted pathways.”

The following 10 approaches can help:

1. Acknowledge change fatigue

Just because an organization has been dealing with these difficulties for some time now doesn’t mean the emotional impact goes away. In fact, emotional responses may increase. “During particularly stressful times, like those we are all living through now, we’re all getting overtaxed emotionally. This pandemic situation has created a lot of change in all of our lives and now it’s fair to say everyone is getting a large dose of change fatigue,” says Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, who helps leaders build trusting relationships through EI.

“While we all seemed to do a great job at the beginning of this situation, keeping our spirits up, focusing on doing what’s necessary to keep each other safe, it’s fairly obvious now that people are just tired of the stress and difficulty of staying apart.” Emotionally intelligent leaders will recognize that this protracted situation is particularly difficult. “While leaders in an organization may be personally experiencing some of these stresses themselves,” Lynn says, “they must be sensitive that their employees are feeling this as well.”

2. Monitor your emotional vital signs

“As soon as you notice that you are emotionally reacting – feeling it in your body (feeling tense, breathing quickly, heart beating) or noticing it in your behavior (feeling tearful or raising your voice) you need to do something to dial it down,” says Gill Hasson, career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions to Make a Positive Impact on Your Life and Career and Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace.

One helpful trick is to acknowledge and accept the emotion. “Of course, you do not like what’s happening,” Hasson says, “but by recognizing and accepting that you’re fearful, worried, or stressed, you can calm your emotional thinking and engage the reasoning, thinking part of your brain.” Managing your thoughts by identifying what you’re actually worried about, identifying possible solutions, visualizing a positive outcome, or talking to someone about them can also help.

3. Ask questions

Asking open-ended questions creates room for people to share information that you may not have asked about.

Ongoing communication with individuals is important; allowing space for their input even more so. “Asking open-ended questions creates room for people to share information that you may not have asked about. They assume it is okay to share everything,” says Bates. “This helps you become better informed to handle issues and better prepared to answer tough questions from others. It’s also easier to manage your emotions when you don’t jump to conclusions, and the only way to do that is to gather the facts first.”

4. Listen. Really listen.

Smart leaders will over-index on listening. “Not everyone deals with stress in the same way. People react differently to stress,” Dr. Stein says. “ It’s important to be more patient than usual and hear people out. Sometimes just listening to them can calm them down. You’ll also get more insight into what may be really bothering them.”

5. Give people some control

The loss of control is one of the more difficult feelings for humans in crisis. “So wherever possible, offer your team members as much control as you can offer them,” Lynn says. Instead of setting a Friday deadline, consider asking a team how best to accomplish a Friday deliverable. “This tonal change can offer those feeling out of control a measure of control over their work,” says Lynn.

6. Count to ten

Of the 15 qualities that matter most in a crisis, composure is number one, according to research conducted by Bates Communications.

Of the 15 qualities that matter most in a crisis, composure is number one, according to research conducted by Bates Communications. “And yet, it is the quality rated lowest in most leaders,” Bates says. “In surveys of 14,000 leaders, we learned that leaders who are rushing, frazzled, and unable to create a place of psychological safety do not hear bad news that they need to know, especially in challenging times,” Bates says. “People avoid talking to leaders who blow up or make them feel bad about discussing issues.”

The tried-and-true ten-second pause (when angry or anxious) remains one of the best ways to manage in-the-moment emotional responses. “It’s also a good idea not to give an answer when you feel angry or anxious,” Bates says. “Instead, buy time by asking to think about it and get back to people.”

7. Resist the rush

The pull of impulse is strong during a crisis. “Many leaders have a strong action bias, but in challenging times, we all need to slow down and think,” Bates says.” With a myriad of problems coming at you, it’s easy to think you need to quickly check the box and move on, but this is not always the right approach. Give yourself time to get it right the first time, Bates says.

This will mitigate the risk of doing things you will later have to change or retract. “It’s always ok to take some time to think, examine the situation and consider the ramifications to decisions,” Bates says. “You can’t afford to make wrong decisions in the swirl of activity, and you need to set the example for others. Letting the heat of the moment pass will bring more clarity and calm to your thoughts and give you more control over the situation.”

8. Recruit heroes

Harness those members of your organization that seem to be doing well in this environment to help.

Harness those members of your organization that seem to be doing well in this environment to help. “As a leader, you can tap into this energy. These individuals can act as agents to others on the team, checking in to see how people are doing and expressing caring and concern,” says Lynn. “Let those who are adapting well step up as heroes.”

9. Set boundaries

At the other end of the spectrum are toxic personalities, who look at the worst in every situation and cultivate that negative energy. “Limit your time with the toxic people around you,” Dr. Stein says. “If they start pushing all the bad news at you, thank them for the information and let them know you need a break from the news. Give them a time you can reconnect, maybe later that day or the next day.”

10. Step away

“Sometimes, at times like this, it’s hard to unplug from the noise,” says Dr. Stein.

There is enormous pressure to convey to your team that you’ve got this and everything is under control, Bates says. “In order to show up for the team, however, it’s important to show up for yourself. Take breaks, take a walk, pet the dog, play some music, exercise. Spend time doing things you enjoy, and have a regular work schedule,” says Bates. “This is where you must put your own mask on before helping others. You will be no good to your team and your organization if you are depleted.”

Keep an eye on your emotional state. Feeling confused, stressed, anxious, disappointed, depressed? You may want to take some time out for yourself and get back to work later.

[ Read also: 3 mindfulness exercises to try when you feel overwhelmed. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.