Crisis Mode: leveraging emotional intelligence in difficult times

27 Mar 2020

Crisis Mode: leveraging emotional intelligence in difficult times

How the emotionally intelligent leader can manage crises and lead through times of disruption.

There are multiple definitions of the word crisis: (1) “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger”; (2) “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made”; (3) “the turning point… when important changes take place". All of them apply, in one way or another, to our current moment, in which the economic, institutional, and personal stresses caused by the COVID-19 epidemic have been exasperated by a worldwide crash in oil prices.

As a leadership and executive coach, I’ve found that the one of the best ways to increase a person’s ability to manage crises—either in their business or their personal life—is to improve their emotional intelligence (EQ).

One reason for this is that emotional intelligence prepares us to respond to adversity in calm, considered ways.

An emotionally intelligent person is better able to manage emotions—both their own and those of others—in times of pressure.

This allows them to seek solutions outside the simplest flight-and-fight paradigms and inspire team members to do the same. For business leaders—from the global executive to the local store manager—emotional intelligence will be crucial to their ability to respond to our current crises.

Emotional Intelligence—why you need it

Emotional intelligence is generally defined as the ability to (a) recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions; and (b) recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others. But it is far more complicated than that.

In my experience, the most functional description of emotional intelligence comes from the EQ-i 2.0 assessment tool, which was developed by Multi-Health Systems, Inc. Its understanding of EQ is best demonstrated by the following graphic:

As you can see, there are five distinct aspects that make up each individual’s emotional intelligence: self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal, decision-making, and stress management.

Within each of these composites, there are three sub-scales, each of which has a direct impact on one’s overall level of emotional intelligence. For example, the factors that predict a person’s ability to make effective decisions are:

  1. Their problem-solving ability.
  2. Their reality testing—i.e. their ability to question whether their interpretation of their situation is the most accurate interpretation.
  3. Their impulse control—i.e. their ability to entertain ideas beyond the first one that comes to mind.

The thing is that not all of these skills are equally distributed in each person or across business populations. Of these three sub-scales, for example, high-level problem solving is by far the most commonly found in business executives. This is probably because problem solving is highly valued by our educational and business cultures, and executives, by definition, are high-performers.

Reality testing and impulse control, on the other hand, though equally important leadership features, receive less overt emphasis—though they tend to be highly developed in athletic and military communities.

This means that many executives and team leaders need to be consciously trained in order to maximize their effectiveness in high-pressure situations.

When we account for each of the 15 sub-scales, it’s clear that almost everyone can improve one or more features of their full emotional intelligence package.

Make informed decisions

A crisis, almost by definition, forces stressed people to make decisions with far-reaching consequences in emotionally challenging circumstances.

High-EQ leaders have a unique mix of emotional and social skills that allow them to do this. That does not mean that they are emotionally removed from or unaffected by the emotional needs on display around them.  Instead, they are able to interpret, work with, or work around that emotional information, which lets them manage difficult and tricky situations and pounce on opportunities when they arise.

When low-EQ leaders are under the influence of strong emotions, on the other hand, their decisions tend to be shortsighted and reactionary, rather than creative and forward thinking.

This, in part, is an evolutionary response: in moments of stress, we either fight or flee. And despite the fact that this binary stress response clearly doesn’t translate well into incredibly complex business situations, it nonetheless defines many business decisions.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, the levels of emotional intelligence shown by a significant minority of business leaders across the industry spectrum plummeted, as did the quality of their decisions. This increased the effect of the crisis on their companies.

For this reason, the fate of an organization—whether a country, a state, a business, or a college—can rest on the emotional intelligence of its decision-makers.

What to do

True, some individuals—thanks to previous EQ development coaching, mentoring, and/or innate talent—are more emotionally intelligent than others. But strong emotional intelligence skills can be learned by anyone.

In moments like this, it’s important for leaders (whether of companies or teams) to work with coaches, mentors, or trusted advisors—people who can help them keep their emotions properly managed and make considered, creative, and non-reactive decisions.  

As we each reflect on how we are personally managing our emotions in the face of making what will be a continual stream of critical decisions, here are a three strategies that can be deployed:

  • Being mindful around the Stress Management aspect of Emotional Intelligence is critical, especially now. It is imperative for leaders to develop the balance between optimism and reality in order to adopt a resilient mindset in the face of crisis. Developing a resilient mindset starts and ends with mindfulness, which is our ability to center our thinking, avoid over-reacting to negative events and responding in a thoughtful manner when dealing with disruption.
  • Maintain focus on Strategic Awareness. The first and most important job of leaders, especially during the Covid-19 crisis, is to ensure that their people are safe and cared for. Disruption from this crisis is definitely going to force everyone to focus on short-term concerns and issues. The immediacy of the decision-making aspect of EI causes each of us to often ignore anything that is not directly in front of you. The Emotionally Intelligent leader will need to keep track of the big picture strategic concerns of the business, as well as remind people of the requirement to do our best at balancing short and long-term considerations. Solving short-term problems without any consideration of the long term often causes decisions that lead the company in the wrong direction.
  • A leader must be mindful of the Interpersonal aspect of Emotional Intelligence, especially when leading in a crisis. Particular focus must be paid to the empathy each leader shows in his or her communications. Continuing to build relationships not only internally but also with customers and suppliers must be a part of a leader’s day during times of crisis. During these critical conversations, listening is a particular skill to focus on. Often, the ultimate test of a leader is their ability to listen to feedback, play it back and truly reflect on what you have heard.

The challenge we all face as leaders seeking to navigate these uncharted waters is to continue to develop the mindset, skillset and organization culture that define what it means to be an emotionally intelligent leader.

This will allow each of us to face the forces of disruption and turn them into a basis for strategic thinking and creative execution.