How emotionally intelligent leaders handle 6 difficult situations during the pandemic

From Groundhog Day syndrome to change resistance, this pandemic is testing us all. Here's how leaders can use emotional intelligence to help teams navigate the hard situations
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Emotional intelligence, or EQ, has always been an important component of effective leadership. However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has both heightened the awareness of EQ in the workplace and also tested it. What’s more, the pandemic is just one of multiple stressors IT leaders and their employees may be dealing with right now. There’s also a divisive upcoming election. High levels of unemployment. Civil unrest. Any of a number of natural disasters. And then the normal day-to-day stress of work.

“Essentially, when we are tired, or sick, or stressed, we don’t have the same ability to manage our reactions. So we might not react in a way that’s consistent with who we want to be as a leader, manager, or team player. Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of different stressors at once,” says Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, who helps leaders build trusting relationships through emotional intelligence.

“Right now, we’re essentially having a global bad day, except it’s stretching into several months,” Lynn says. “So emotional intelligence becomes even more critical because it is a tool that can help us turn our initial bad day reactions into a more measured approach that is more consistent with who we want to be.”

[ Need help with making meetings less of a drag for your team? Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

Emotional intelligence: Anxiety vs. your team

Uncertainty, change, and anxiety can leave IT leaders and their teams feeling more defensive, fearful, or reactive. “How we manage these feelings to be effective at a time when we need to be on top of the game, resourceful, and innovative is vital,” says Jill Pennington, consulting director for PSI Talent Management.

Emotions are a form of data for leaders. And right now, they are front and center.

Emotions are a form of data, says Dr. David Caruso, a management psychologist and research affiliate with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. And right now, they are front and center. “Emotions, whether we recognize it or not, can help or hinder our decisions, propensity for risk-taking, and work performance,” Caruso says. “During times of crisis, emotions take a more prominent and powerful role; they are harder to ignore. With organizations experiencing turmoil and employees facing additional stressors, leaders have a choice between putting their heads down and ignoring the swirling currents of how people feel or being more skillful at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.”

Emotional intelligence can help leaders navigate a number of difficult situations right now:

1. The loss of real-life interactions

One of the most obvious challenges for IT leaders and managers right now is how to lead teams virtually. “The constraints that this creates for leaders are challenging. Leaders I talk to tell me that they are noticing this is particularly difficult when they want to solve problems and generate ideas as a team,” Pennington says. It also makes tasks like onboarding new employees or delivering feedback more difficult.

“Connecting with others is a key element of emotional intelligence and is underpinned by the beliefs we have about ourselves and others as well as our self and other awareness,” Pennington says.

To overcome the barriers created by remote working, emotionally intelligent leaders dial up their awareness of others when communicating virtually to make team calls and conversations as productive as possible. “This means being fully present – making time for people, switching off email alerts, and listening not just to what is being said, but how it is said,” says Pennington.

[ Read also: Virtual onboarding: How to welcome new hires while fully remote. ]

2. Emotional reactivity

"Working to create new assumptions is a powerful EQ tool."

Some individuals that Lynn has been coaching have found their team members to be less cooperative or even lashing out in response to normal work requests. “In this case, the best thing a leader can do is to work to create new assumptions about the situation,” Lynn says.

Instead of assuming that the reactions are personal, the individuals considered that the team members were feeling burned out, and one extra task (even one they would normally do) felt overwhelming: Then the leader adjusted their approach to get a better result. “Working to create new assumptions is a powerful EQ tool,” says Lynn, “because it makes you question your own assumptions and their accuracy and because it provides a different lens to view a situation.”

3. Performance problems

While assuming the best of employees and being empathetic is critical, some situations demand more than a shift in thinking. “Leaders will still need to resolve conflict in a positive and respectful way,” Lynn says.

One leader Lynn was working with had an employee whose performance was beginning to negatively impact a client. The leader approached the situation with a high level of emotional intelligence by scheduling time to listen to why the employee was struggling and working with the employee to find a solution that would work for everyone. During the discussion, the leader acknowledged that he had a hard time realizing that his employee was struggling with the technical aspects of the job when leading remotely, but by really listening to the situation from the employee’s point of view, he was able to find a collaborative solution.

“Listening to develop understanding is an emotional intelligence tool because it requires leaders and managers to put aside their initial impressions of a situation and really work to understand another’s perspective,” Lynn says.

4. Extreme VUCA

"One way to manage the uncertainty when making decisions is to involve others as much as possible."

VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, chaos, ambiguity ­­– has long been a cornerstone of scenario planning as leaders considered what unexpected disruptions the future might bring. But now we are all dealing with VUCA writ large every day. “Uncertainty is also a big test for leaders,” Pennington says. “The pandemic has meant that planning and making decisions is harder because it is harder to predict the future.”

High-EQ leaders, however, don’t go it alone. “One way to manage the uncertainty when making decisions is to involve others as much as possible,” Pennington says. “Pull groups of people together to pool ideas and discuss options. Keep things as rational as possible so you are not making decisions too quickly or when emotions are high, as this will skew your thinking.”

5. Groundhog Day syndrome

Lynn has noticed a number of leaders she works with struggle with a feeling of stasis. “[They feel] they’re not able to do much, change much, impact much because right now everyone is stuck in pandemic mode and waiting for normal to resume,” Lynn says. But this is where the EQ dimension of personal influence – the ability to positively inspire oneself and others – shines.

“Leaders need to demonstrate to employees that while everyone is experiencing a bit of a Groundhog Day syndrome and feeling a bit stuck waiting for normal, that there are things that we can do to propel ourselves forward,” Lynn says. They can share what they’re doing to improve their own skills. They can schedule one-on-one conversations with employees to talk about their own development or just build rapport.

“While some leaders are frustrated that they’re not able to offer their employees traditional classroom training opportunities, they are able to set up coaching and mentoring relationships that can help everyone progress,” Lynn says. “Leaders need to demonstrate that they’re taking actions of their own and that there are things that others can do as well.”

"Leaders can enhance their relationships, be a bit vulnerable, and share how they are managing themselves."

It can be hard to build EQ skills during times of crisis, but there are some compensatory strategies leaders can deploy, as Caruso describes in A Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence. “They can enhance their relationships, be a bit vulnerable, and share how they are managing themselves,” Caruso says. “Morale and engagement and a sense of connection may increase as a result.”

With that openness as a model, leaders can then check in with their staff. “With this level of openness, trust can be enhanced. But good leaders do not end there – it should not be a complaint session,” Caruso says. “They match the emotions of others and connect. Next, they review how effective the current emotions are, delve into the meaning of the emotions, and anticipate how people may react. And finally, actively moving emotions as the situation changes. It’s a simple approach, and easy to implement.”

6. Change resistance

The pandemic has left many employees feeling anxious, insecure, and ­therefore more resistant to change. Yet big changes are afoot. “For change to stick, leaders need to connect with people and spend time with them to help them understand the need for change, the impact of change, and to help people adapt,” says Pennington.

Typically, change is more sustainable when people can gather in-person to discuss new ways of working, but that’s off the table for many right now. “Think about what you need to do to drive the change you need without worrying about the fact that you can’t work with people face-to-face,” Pennington says. “Then consider how you can recreate the same experience virtually.” Creating psychological safety by listening, showing appreciation, and being authentic and honest will help. “Mistrust is one of the biggest blockers to change,” Pennington says.

 [ Are you leading through change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation. ]

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.