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How to Lead Through COVID: Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence with Empathy, Stress Management, and Optimism

Adam Bouse
Adam Bouse

In the weeks and months to come, leaders of every kind are going to have to fully commit to seeing the possibilities, but not guarantees, of new ways of connecting, relating, listening, guiding, and leading. 

I can feel the tension building up around the country as the pandemic is ramping up to all-time highs since this all began. I could sense the shift during several coaching calls I had this week, the tone and the emotions beginning to swing back to how they were back in March. 

The difficult choices around seeing family, missing out on long-standing holiday traditions, and the ramp-up to increased restrictions based on public health necessity are weighing people down with grief and anxiety and dread. 

The challenges only increase for business owners and leaders. In a year like any other, you’ve adapted to weather the storm—or simply survive—for what seems like an eternity at this point. Many businesses have not survived.  

Laying off staff, adapting to new ways of doing business, and pivoting to new products and services have been just a few of the strategies that have brought you this far in a year of upheaval. But a new wave of cases is fully in motion and the challenge of winter months feels formidable, if not entirely overwhelming. 

There is no silver bullet in this post, no single thing you can do to keep your business thriving or to solve the myriad of challenges you’re facing right now. 

But what I do know, from dozens and dozens of calls in recent weeks, with managers and leaders and executives, is that anyone helping to lead other people right now is struggling to figure out how to help your teams stay connected, focused, and hopeful. 

“We’re a tight-knit group, but since moving to work from home, we’ve lost some part of that magic.” 

“With all of the policies and procedures to keep us safe, people feel like they’ve lost a sense of control in their work.” 

“There is so much uncertainty in our business, let alone the world. The worries are piling up and I’m struggling to know how to handle all the different ways people are responding and feeling about what’s going on.” 

In the weeks and months ahead of us, how we show up for the people we lead may be more important than any particular business strategy or objective. 

What emotional intelligence can teach us about leading through uncertainty this winter. 

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a phrase you may have heard in recent years. It’s a framework, backed up by research and science that can actually predict leadership effectiveness. 

EI incorporates four essential abilities:

  1. Understanding what you are thinking and feeling
  2. Managing your thoughts and emotions
  3. Tuning into what others are thinking and feeling
  4. Managing relationships based on your understanding of yourself and others

During the pandemic, I think three particular EI skills have outsized importance: empathy, stress management, and optimism. 

EMPATHY

Empathy, simply put, is understanding without judgment. 

While some people are more naturally empathetic than others, it is a learnable skill. Empathy includes being able to understand how someone thinks or feels, communicating that to the other person (to confirm you truly understand), and withholding judgment while seeking understanding. 

Do you know how each person on your team is feeling heading into the winter? Do they have kids doing virtual school? Is there anyone they know, family or otherwise, who has been directly impacted by COVID? Are the holidays harder because of a loss in previous months or years? 

Empathy says:

  • “That must really hurt,” instead of “It’s not as bad as you think.”
  • “Tell me more about it,” instead of “Here’s what you should do.”
  • “It sounds like you’re in a hard place right now,” instead of “Everything happens for a reason.”

When we can actively empathize with people, it doesn’t mean we take on their feelings. It doesn’t mean we can’t still have performance-based expectations that keep the business going forward. It simply means we take time to care personally, to tune into their world, and to see them as fully human. Listening well can be a revolutionary act because it creates a relational connection that gives people a sense of stability and increased “we’re in this together” resilience. 

What does practicing empathy look like in the day-to-day?

  • Keeping a cadence of connecting for one-on-one meetings 
  • Starting one-on-one meetings by checking in personally
  • Slowing down to listen all the way through without assuming you know what someone is going to share
  • Thanking people for the honesty and vulnerability it took to share what they are thinking and feeling
  • Communicating the themes of what you are hearing back to the full group/organization 
  • Acknowledging the mood and the emotional temperature without painting a bleak or despairing picture. 

Sure, this takes more time than focusing on the work and getting stuff done. Connecting relationally is an intentional and time-consuming process. But ignoring the emotional undercurrent of this moment will only set you up for leader burnout, increased turnover at all levels, or a despairing and unproductive workforce. 

Maybe the most surprising thing about empathy is this: you can have empathy for yourself. If you have a voice in your mind that criticizes how you responded in a conversation or judges you for feeling a certain way, give yourself space to see your own experiences and feelings as valid and understandable. A

Saying “I can understand why you’d feel that way” is great way to help you empathize with other people. Use this phrase on yourself, too. You’ll create a more accepting posture in your own self-care as a human and a leader.  

STRESS MANAGEMENT

Everyone has a tipping point at which stress starts to break them down. How do you know when you are starting to feel stressed out? 

Do you internalize and just keep pressing on, while ignoring the spiraling thoughts in your mind? Maybe you externalize and become more blunt or directive with other people, grasping at control wherever you can because it feels like so much is out of your control? Do you notice stress in a particular part of your body? Do you turn to comfort foods or exercise as a way to deal with the emotions of stress? 

Recognizing what you are thinking and feeling, and actually sitting with those experiences, is the first step to being able to manage your stress. Sure, taking vacation and finding time for recreation are good starting points. But this winter won’t be like any other we’ve seen in our lifetime. 

To manage stress, we have to name it, figure out what is causing it, and then identify what message that stress is trying to communicate to us. 

Stress is a sign we’re hitting some kind of limit. It is a psychological (and physical) system designed to make us pay attention to building pressure that may lead to emotional or physical pain or damage. 

Stress can be motivating, helping to keep us focused and motivated. But it can also be overwhelming and reduce our productivity and effectiveness.

Stress doesn’t mean you have to shut down, it means you need to pay attention to building pressure and approaching limitations.

You may be reaching a limit. You may be maxing out your capacity to make decisions, to do physical work, to focus, to process emotional information, or to take in more data. Sometimes acknowledging the stress we are feeling or experiencing simply means taking a break. And sometimes stress points to a true limitation. You are doing something you aren’t currently able to do without using a lot of energy—physical, mental, or emotional—or without risk of creating real damage.

To increase your stress management skills, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What thoughts, behaviors, or physical signs do I notice when I am feeling stressed out or I am starting to feel overwhelmed? 
  • What specific responsibilities, tasks, or relationships are adding to my stress level? 
  • What are my tells? How can other people tell when I’m getting stressed out? 
  • How do I typically de-stress? And how effective is that at helping me release tension and stabilize my emotions? 
  • Who at work and in my personal life is best situated to point out when I am showing signs of being overwhelmed or stressed? 
  • What are three practices I can incorporate to help me release stress, release control, and be refreshed? 

And here are a few tips to consider as you build a stress management strategy, for the winter or really any time in your life. 

  • Simplify your priorities. Identify the most important two or three things to focus on each day/week/month. Don’t confuse these for the most urgent things.
  • Set boundaries around work hours. Working from home makes this much harder and much more necessary. 
  • Disconnect from all email and social media in the evening. Give yourself at least two hours free each evening. 
  • Get back into your body. Go for daily walks, start jogging, play basketball, or pick up a virtual yoga class to destress. Outdoors is always better when possible. 
  • Start a gratitude journal. Even doing three bullet points at the end of each day can make a measurable difference over time. 
  • Consider a meditation or mindfulness app. Headspace and Calm both provide easy-to-learn paths to a more mindful presence. 

OPTIMISM

My definition of optimism is “choosing to find possibilities in an unknown future.” And like empathy, optimism can be developed. 

Optimism isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses and presenting a total confidence that “everything will work out.” It also isn’t just “hoping for the best.” Hope isn’t a strategy. 

But we can choose how we look at our current circumstances. While some people naturally see the gaps and holes in a strategy or plan, there is also always a choice to look for where things could possibly go—the future is not set in stone. 

Optimism and curiosity go hand-in-hand. Optimism is the posture or the mindset. Curiosity is the path we walk down. When someone chooses to ask questions, dig in, and explore what is beyond their understanding, that is curiosity. Curious people hold their conclusions lightly, yet take seriously the questions that lie just below the surface, begging to be asked. 

As you think about your team or organization and what they need over the next few months, what will they need most? 

Clear priorities? Time to connect with each other? More feedback? More flexible work hours? More autonomy? Inspiration and purpose? 

Whatever you think they need most, keep pressing to find possibilities for how you can support them, connect with them, relate to them, lead them. And one thing everyone will benefit from is having leadership who admits the challenges but also casts a clear vision about what is possible down the road. 

Experts agree that when people have something bigger than themselves to contribute to, they have a greater sense of hopefulness, resilience, and emotional stability. What’s the bigger story you are inviting people to participate in through their work for your organization? What difference can they make in the lives of their coworkers—or the community around them? How will your team enable them to step into that story and live out a larger purpose over the coming months?

Whatever the winter months bring us, we have control over how we show up and respond each day. While I can’t give you a guarantee on how the nation, your community, or your organization will respond to such unique challenges, I can tell you that people who choose to practice empathy, stress management, and optimism will be able to find a path forward and bring people through this together.

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