Emotional intelligence: 4 ways the pandemic is testing leaders – and how to respond

Your emotional intelligence has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's how to bring your EQ to four key tests – from managing fear to delivering bad news
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These trying days of the pandemic have highlighted the importance of a leader’s emotional intelligence (EQ). “The emotional intelligence behaviors have never been so important in these unprecedented times. Future uncertainty, working from home, stress and anxiety, homeschooling, and getting used to new forms of communication are all testing us in different ways,” says Iain Aitken CEO of RocheMartin, which offers EI training and assessment to individuals and organizations.

Emotional intelligence helps leaders help teams cope with and even grow amid drastic change and ambiguity.

EQ – the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and those of the individuals around you ­­– is critical for IT leaders helping their teams cope with and even grow amid drastic change and ambiguity.

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic has presented leaders with an unprecedented challenge: to lead teams through uncertain times of unknown scope and no clear end in sight,” says Gill Hasson, career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions to Make a Positive Impact on Your Life and Career. “Why is this so important? Because in times of uncertainty, the ability to understand and better manage your own emotions will help you to be grounded and centered. You will then be more open to how others are feeling. As a result, you will be in a good position to effectively manage other people confidently and firmly, but also with compassion.”

Four emotional intelligence challenges and how to respond

This global crisis is testing IT leaders on four key fronts: their ability to manage fear and anxiety, their capacity to make clear and confident decisions, their competence in delivering bad news and managing disappointment, and their power to motivate and encourage others around them. In each of these areas, EQ can play a powerful role.

1. Managing fear and anxiety

In times like these, it’s important for IT leaders to recognize and address both their own fears and anxiety and the concerns of those in the organization. When it comes to the former, there are three things people can do when facing any anxiety-provoking situation, says Hasson.

First, they can identify exactly what they are anxious about and consider what the worst is that could happen. Next, they can identify possible solutions or options to minimize the worst-case scenario. Finally, they can make a plan of action.

The EQ skill of empathy has been on display in the world at large as we look out for elderly neighbors, cheer healthcare workers, and show up for friends and family dealing with losses both clear and ambiguous. “[Empathy] is equally important in the workplace,” says Aitken. “Leaders need to show they understand and feel the challenging circumstances all employees are in.”

When managing colleagues’ anxiety, leaders must be more proactive. “It may be that people have not indicated their fears and concerns. In times of uncertainty like these times, you need to take the initiative and find out how people are feeling,” Hasson says. “You simply need to ask them.” Once an IT leader has identified the other person’s emotions or concerns, she adds, they can help the other person using the same steps above.

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2. Making clear and confident decisions

"The key to confident decision making is to balance your emotional reactions with your logical responses."

The EQ skill of self-reliance is equally important as we push through these times, says Aitken: It helps you rise to the major challenges and opportunities that life presents and have confidence in your ability to exercise control. A major building block of that is having confidence in your own judgment – and being able and willing to take action.

Often, leaders may feel isolated. “This is obviously magnified by working from home,” Aitken says. “By showing self-reliance we encourage our colleagues to do the same. The ability to get things done and make sometimes very tough decisions is vital.”

It’s not easy to take the emotion out of decision-making – nor is it advisable. “Making a decision requires both emotion and reasoning,” Hasson notes. “The key to confident decision-making is to balance your emotional reactions with your logical responses.”

High-EQ leaders find some balance between the two by accepting uncertainty and making a choice despite the unknowns. Hasson offers some tips here:

  • Use your head. “In any one situation, identify what’s important in the situation and what you’re hoping to achieve,” Hasson says. “This focuses your mind and narrows your choices so that you pay attention to relevant factors, not irrelevant ones.”
  • Trust your gut. “Intuition happens when everything in your subconscious comes together to tell you that something is or isn’t right,” Hasson says. “When you do feel strongly that a particular path or choice is the right one, know that it’s because your decision is in line with your aims and values.”
  • Be brave. Now more than ever, we know that uncertainty is a given. “For the times when you feel uncertain, know there is no right or wrong decision,” Hasson says. Consider how you’d deal with worst-case scenarios, and where possible, have a backup plan.
  • Own your decisions. When decisions don’t work out, take responsibility. But don’t resort to regret or blame. “Instead, think about what you learned from that situation that you can use to inform a similar decision next time,” Hasson advises.

3. Delivering bad news and managing disappointment

There has been – and will continue to be – difficult information that IT leaders must share with their teams, colleagues, or bosses. Empathy again proves critical. In addition, leaders and managers can take a number of actions to do this effectively and with care:

  • Prepare what you’re going to say. If possible, consider the reactions and questions that might arise. Even if the news is urgent, never just blurt it out. “You can say, ‘I need to talk with you about… ‘ This at least gives them some warning,” Hasson says.
  • Share context. Always explain, as clearly and comprehensively as possible, what’s led to the situation.
  • Expect strong emotional responses. Always acknowledge the feelings. “Your response should reflect your understanding of how the other person feels,” says Hasson. For example, an IT leader might say, “I can see this makes things difficult” or “I understand that this is disappointing for you.”
  • Suggest next steps. If there are actions to take or ideas for how to proceed, share those. “Focus on what can be done rather than what can’t be done,” Hasson advises.

4. Motivating and encouraging others

“Research shows that optimism is the single biggest behavior that positively affects our lives,” says Aitken. “It doesn’t mean being happy all the time. It means being able to see opportunity whilst being underpinned by resilience to keep going to achieve that opportunity, even in tough times.”

Some ways IT leaders can cultivate optimism among their team members right now include:

  • Acknowledge the challenges but emphasize the positive. “If people are unsure or resistant, find out what their feelings and concerns are,” Hasson says. “Inspiring others means you acknowledge the difficulties but are clear that they can overcome difficulties and succeed. Be positive.”
  • Talk about qualities and strengths. Highlight an individual’s or team’s abilities that will help solve problems and contribute to overcoming difficulties. “If you can support people and encourage them when things are difficult,” Hasson says, “you’ll be inspiring them to see the best in themselves and the situation.”
  • Help others visualize success. Talk about what that might look or feel like. “When you’re inspiring people, you’re aiming to engage their imaginations and emotions – to get them to feel and see what’s possible,” explains Hasson. “Aim to describe things in a way that will generate images in their minds that provide a clear picture of what they’re aiming for.”

It’s vital to talk about – and strive for ­– opportunity, now more than ever, says Aitken. “Yes, there is a health crisis, but there is also an economic one that could be even disastrous for vastly many more people,” Aitken says. “As leaders, we must be able to authentically demonstrate that to our colleagues to not only cope but to ultimately thrive once again.”

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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.