Introducing Emotional Intelligence for Remote Workers
As a result of the staggering rise in mental health concerns accumulated within the previous year, leadership teams are now seeing the bleak impact these statistics are having within their workforce. In many ways, managers are at the front line of the mental health pandemic occurring in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic. Work environments expose individuals to cognitive, social and financial demands that can mobilise pre-existing wellbeing concerns such as anxiety, depression and burnout.
Optional remote working is the gold standard when it comes to employee flexibility; however, this new need to remain home during the pandemic no longer renders remote working optional for most. Many employees are now facing new challenges when operating out of the house, as job tasks are now in conflict with changes to childcare, family needs and internal social support. Unfortunately, there are many companies where WFH still isn’t a suitable option, and the job market is starting to see an increase in individuals leaving such employment and reapplying to more remote-friendly companies ( Kelly, 2020).
With this fast-paced turnaround in company dynamics comes, the need to fill management positions quickly – but are the leaders trained enough? Transitioning from a role of managing tasks to a role of managing people brings emotions into the mix. Many companies focus on hiring managers based on qualification and profiles of innovation and bringing in revenue. Still, they often fall short of assessing emotional intelligence competencies and accounting for the human factor needed to manage employees ( Kelly, 2020).
Managers have a specific responsibility to support their staff, and there has never been a greater need for emotionally intelligent leaders than in the post-pandemic workforce. Remote workers are already at a greater risk of loneliness, isolation and work disengagement. People managers must be able to cater to the increased need for flexibility while still maintaining trust between their remote teams. The opposing form of management behaviour – like adopting a rigid, fear-based approach to micromanage distanced employees and keep hawk-eyes on employee performance – drives talented employees away from out-of-touch companies.
We have all met a manager who didn’t place emotional health as a priority on their personal development radar. You may have even heard these managers make insensitive comments to their teams, such as:
“Explain to me why your productivity was so low last month? I don’t have time to talk with you about it, but you should know I expect more from you!”
“I have NO idea why my team is so bent out of shape over this new procedure. They are just way too sensitive!”
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Everyone has good days and bad days (managers alike), but it’s essential to know how impactful poor emotional reactions such as defensiveness, blaming, criticism, and unresponsiveness can be to teams. If a manager has a bad day and doesn’t have the tools to regulate their stress, or if a team is experiencing high levels of emotion, both situations will affect how the dynamic system functions.
The emotionally intelligent leader will cultivate greater emotional availability and awareness, as they are aware of how critical emotional responses are to the organisation’s health. People are not neatly compartmentalised into work-selves and personal-selves; they are holistic individuals that bring their whole selves into their working environments. Emotional feedback at work helps teams identify their most significant creativity sources and discover opportunities for deep learning. Without understanding their value, companies are skimming over the human element that keeps people healthy, motivated and engaged in the job they are performing. In fact, there is no productivity without emotional attachment to the goal.
To be considered emotionally intelligent, a manager must develop five emotional components: self-awareness, regulation, internal motivation, empathy and social skills (Goleman, 1994). Simply said, leaders must be able to acknowledge and regulate not only their emotions but also have a sense of influence over the emotions within their teams. As remote working is expected to be a long-term change to the way companies operate, it is imperative that people managers focus on developing emotional intelligence skills to support their distant teams.
The following framework, adapted from the Embodied Emotional Intelligence Model (Figure 1; Walsh, 2020), establishes quick emotional intelligence tips for current leaders to master:
The first emotional intelligence skill to develop as a manager is the ability to recognise your own emotions. Self-awareness is essential for thriving at work, particularly understanding how we show up to different work situations and what emotional state might be influencing that engagement. As a manager, can you notice the subtle differences between different positive emotions – hopeful, energetic, joyful, thrilled? Although it might be easy to detect the difference between polar emotions (e.g. happy vs sad), it can be harder to differentiate between similar emotional valences – could this frustration be anger, disappointment or sadness that I am actually feeling? Monitoring the slight changes in how emotions feel and giving them precise labels (e.g. this is disappointment) helps you track and trace them as they occur to discover possible sources of emotional change. This is extremely important to do before you develop the following skills, as identifying the emotion and the source will help managers problem solve and adapt actions/environments to promote positive change.
Once a manager has identified their emotional state, the second skill to learn is how to manage the emotion in a way that creates positive change for their team. This doesn’t mean that the manager has to ignore or deny their emotional reality – in fact, the opposite is true! Research shows us that managers who can be emotionally vulnerable with kind awareness are more liked and trusted by their team and cohorts (Brown, 2018).
To manage emotion, one has to know what they are dealing with – the source – or else they are at risk for pushing the emotional signal into unawareness and act from a place of chaos where every reaction (e.g. snapping at colleagues) feels “random”. However, emotions are not random – there is a pattern to how emotions present in the body and are acted upon – and once identified can be coped with. To cope, there can be two main priorities depending on the need: 1.) Find a helpful way to acknowledge/express the difficult emotion (e.g. write it down, take a walk, use humour to adjust perspective) and 2.) Identify how to modify your day to minimise the exposure to triggers of difficult emotions (e.g. mentally “park” that argument with your spouse and commit to returning to it once off-the-clock). This will help a manager do what they can to prevent falling back into an emotionally draining loop that symptomatically impacts team relationships.
The third skill of emotional intelligence for managers is being able to recognise emotions in others. If the manager has spent considerable time developing the first two skills (identifying and coping), this skill will be easier to master. However, the attention will turn away from the self and towards the other, so the key is developing empathy. Recognising emotion in others is not the same as making assumptions or “mind-reading”, but rather about a curious interest to understand another person’s perspective. A manager will be used to their team’s character traits and quirks, so it might be easy to notice when an employee acts out of character. For instance, if a typically level-headed employee begins to snap at others in the team, that might indicate that they are experiencing difficulty.
Being empathetic means following up that observation with curiosity, externally (e.g. through dialogue) and internally (e.g. through reflection). Emotionally intelligent leaders might think: “What could be going on for Bob right now? This isn’t usually like him. How can I let him know I am here to support him?” The reason leaders must be skilled at recognising emotions is because, in most scenarios, it can be difficult for employees to initiate conversations about genuine emotional reactions – they feel unprofessional and sometimes immature (depending on the context), so there is a natural reflex to guard our leaders against seeing that vulnerability (Brown, 2018). Observations are simply one way of learning information, although subject to bias, and can be extremely helpful when conversations don’t seem appropriate.
These observations might be more difficult in remote working where we are disembodied over a video call, and it can be hard to use our body to intuitively sense when someone is experiencing difficulty. However, there are still some visual cues that leaders can look out for that might indicate a team member is experiencing emotional difficulty (Zane, 2020): shape (body language), rhythm (irregularities in the pace of voice), intonation(tone of voice) and dissonance (discrepancy between what is said and what is observed). If the individual doesn’t appear aligned to their “usual” presentations, chances are you are observing some type of emotional reaction in your colleague.
The fourth skill to learn for emotionally intelligent managers is identifying ways to influence or cause a positive change in their team’s emotional state. Managers should care about how their teams are feeling, as those feelings impact the entire system. Emotional struggles can direct teams into complete paralysis – blurry thinking, unclear judgement and low energy levels. Teams stuck in emotionally difficult states will not be as productive, which will cost the company financially. It is important to note that although it is not the manager’s responsibility to make things better for the individual (which is out of anyone’s control), it is essential for managers to inspire hope and commitment towards team values.
While the skills of identifying, coping, recognising and influencing can be of tremendous help to leaders looking to develop emotional intelligence, it shouldn’t just be up to the individual leader to learn these skills on their own.
How to promote emotional intelligence within the workplace
1. Focusing on upskilling training teams (with wellbeing programs) to manage people, not just tasks.
2. Readapting recruitment process to evaluate EQ in potential leaders.
3. Fostering a work culture where emotions are integrated into the industry’s service (not suppressed) so that genuineness can become embedded into the company culture, image and service.
4. Addressing and improving emotional regulation outside of psychological intervention. For instance, poor sleep has been found to detrimentally impact emotional capacities (e.g. regulation) and emotional perceptions (e.g. recognition), so it’s important for leaders to get good sleep as well as encourage optimal sleep health in their teams (Barnes et al., 2016).
5. Giving leaders regular feedback on their emotional influence within the team. As leaders, the impact that we perceive we have on our teams and the effect that the team subjectively experiences can be quite different, although both are incredibly valid. Without frequent feedback, we can be extremely poor at judging ourselves and how we come across to others. There is always the potential for growth and awareness in honest, compassionate feedback.
As a leader, you will continue to work with people alongside the tasks. Recognising and mastering your own emotions must come before empathetically engaging with others – you cannot pour from an empty cup. As we push forward into a new workplace landscape of 2021, emotional intelligence within leadership will be one of the best assets a team can develop to remain flexible and resilient over the long COVID-19 road ahead.
Zevo Health provide a training programme on emotional intelligence. Participants will leave knowing the importance of recognising their own emotions. But perhaps more importantly, the importance of and being aware and emphatic of the challenges their colleagues may be facing.