Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a must for high-performing leaders during regular times, but it is especially important during crises. When times are uncertain and decisions are especially complex, leaders need to tune in to their own emotions in order to better understand and manage them. They also need to be aware of others’ emotions to better understand and manage their relationships with them. In the first several months of the pandemic, I worked with one executive who had to become better aware of specific aspects of her EQ to make sure she was leading effectively through the various COVID-19 challenges.
One of the assessments I use in my coaching work with executives is the EQ-i 2.0. In this assessment, emotional intelligence is comprised of five main scales: self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal relations, decision-making and stress management. Average scores for leaders on these subscales typically range between 90-110, with 100 being the median. A score lower than 90 indicates a lack of a specific dimension, which needs to be “dialed-up,” while a score higher than 110 indicates that the leader overuses an ability that needs to be “dialed-down.”
Gabby (not her real name), a young leader in a large metropolitan hospital, had been working with me since before the crisis started. Her EQi report revealed, among other results, a score of 78 on empathy, and a score of 124 on stress tolerance.
Empathy in this context is the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the way others feel. Gabby’s results suggested that it was difficult for her to display empathy on a consistent basis. She admitted that she found it hard to step into others’ shoes, particularly when their views were radically different from hers. As we discussed different situations at work, Gabby explained that when she makes decisions, she is typically more focused on facts than others’ feelings and reactions. This sometimes led her to misread others’ thoughts and emotions. It was difficult for her to articulate her colleagues’ perspectives and she found that others’ emotions often eluded her or caught her by surprise. I suggested that her preference to remain slightly detached may be coming at the expense of creating collaborative relationships.
Stress tolerance, on the other hand, is the ability to cope with and respond effectively to stress and mounting pressure. Gabby’s score indicated that she is well-armed to withstand stress, frequently drawing on her repertoire of effective coping strategies. She is usually able to manage her emotions, remain composed and maintain her performance, even when times get rough. However, the high score also indicated that her high resilience may cause her to miss signs of her own exhaustion and burnout.
As soon as COVID-19 started to hit the community in which her hospital is located, Gabby was charged with a major project: the redeployment of 15,000 employees to various new areas. For example, the ICU and Medical/Surgical units needed to increase their capacity by more than 50%, and nurses needed to be retrained and redeployed to these areas. Remembering our conversation about empathy and stress tolerance from a few weeks before, Gabby realized that holding the nurses to the same expectation for tolerating stress may come across as cold, unempathetic, and even unrealistic, especially when some of the younger and less experienced nurses may not be as resilient as she is. Therefore, she decided to put in practice two of the empathy tactics that we had worked on: active listening and connecting on a personal level.
As she held group and individual meetings with the nurses undergoing the changes, she listened to them without interrupting, and with curiosity and compassion. She also took the time to connect with them at a personal level by asking them about their children, parents, pets and hobbies. In her future interactions with them, she drew on that knowledge to show her sensitivity to their needs by saying things such as: “You must really be feeling stressed with two kids at home and no child care available. How can we help?”
Gabby’s own resilience and stress tolerance helped her deal effectively with the various changes resulting from the COVID-19 crises. But it was her awareness that others may not have the same levels of stress tolerance and her newly developed empathy that enabled her to support the nurses. Her commitment to show up every day as an emotionally intelligent leader made sure that the redeployment project was implemented successfully across the organization.
Amer Kaissi is the author of “Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High-Drive Leadership“