Using Emotional Intelligence to Curb Staff Anxiety

Keeping a team motivated, engaged and reassured is a tall task for a leader in the best of times, and 2020 has been anything but the best of times. The pandemic and the accompanying shift to a work-from-home (WFH) environment had many organizations scrambling to figure out the logistics of conducting business at all, leaving little bandwidth for most leaders to check in on their team members’ emotional well-being.

Now we’re nearly eight months into the pandemic and a COVID-19 resurgence is happening nationwide. While there’s hope for a vaccine in the near future, many organizations will continue to operate remotely. And chances are strong that your employees are feeling the strain.

All year, workers have been isolated at home, and perhaps kept out of the loop on organizational decisions. Many have been trying to juggle this new professional reality with an equally unfamiliar shift in their children’s education, and/or caring for aging relatives at a time when assisted living facilities have been an increasingly unattractive option. They’re frazzled, fatigued and worried about the future. Chances are strong that if regular communication and reassurance are not coming from their leadership, they will fill that vacuum with anxiety and doubt.

This is a time when leaders need to be in regular contact with their teams to understand not only whether they’re keeping up with work objectives but how they’re holding up overall. In short, it’s a situation that calls for emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (sometimes shortened to “EI” or “EQ”) is a term that gets bandied about quite a bit, so let’s first take a look at exactly what it means. Google’s Oxford Languages Dictionary calls emotional intelligence “the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s own emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

It’s interesting to note that the definition begins with controlling and expressing one’s own emotions before it gets to those “interpersonal relationships.” In fact, you could argue that four of the five components of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills) are inward-focused. And it’s fair to conclude that we’ll do a better job of being empathetic to others if we’ve learned to be aware of and manage our own emotions.

Right now, however, the “judiciously and empathetically” part of that definition needs to be the focus when it comes to your team. And in case you doubt its importance, an April article from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health notes that “emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high performers apart from others with similar technical skills and knowledge.” In other words, great leadership doesn’t happen without emotional intelligence.

It’s great to say, “Be more empathetic,” but maybe we need a little more to go on than that. Behavioral scientists often break empathy down into three components: imagining you are the other person (awareness), focusing on what you say and how (communication), and the observation of tone and gestures (physical).

That last part becomes even more tricky than usual on a Zoom call, however, when we’re likely to see our counterpart only from the shoulders up. Those non-verbal cues can be hard to detect, so we may have to bridge the gap verbally.

The first step in using emotional intelligence to curb anxiety is to prioritize that activity as a leader. You must set aside adequate time and energy to check in regularly with your reports, and depending upon the size of your organization, insist that they do the same with their reports and so on down the line, providing adequate training for them to do so if necessary.

The actual content of those check-in sessions will vary, of course, but here are some guidelines for handling them with an eye towards empathy:

Acknowledge the reality

Besides the change to WFH and the personal changes already mentioned, you might have had to ask workers to shift duties or take on additional responsibilities this year. If so, explain why that was the case, and where you see things going for them in the future. To the greatest degree possible, fill them in on the big picture as well: where is the company going, what changes are in the works, and why? Be honest even if it’s not all good news … don’t leave a vacuum to be filled with rumors and speculation.

Share the burden

The lockdown has almost certainly affected you and your close relationships as well. Don’t hesitate to share. Knowing that you also snapped at a family member or otherwise have had dark moments helps your team to know that you really are in this together.

Create a safe place

Make it clear that you really want to know how your team members are doing, professionally and personally, and that their feedback and suggestions are welcome and will be accepted without ridicule. We truly are in uncharted waters, and you never know where the next great idea will come from. Invite their ideas and even their challenges, and if you’re wrong about something, own up to it.

Take care of yourself

There’s a reason the flight attendant tells you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you appear frazzled or exhausted, everything we’ve outlined here becomes that much harder. Find time to exercise, reflect or do whatever inspires you … and share those ideas with your team as well.

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