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COVID-19 | School of Public Health Expert Insights

COVID-19

School of Public Health Expert Insights

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How to Lead With Emotional Intelligence in the Time of COVID-19

By Laura K. Murray | April 21, 2020


As public health faculty at Johns Hopkins, we have been monitoring not only the map and progress on vaccines, but the impact COVID-19 has on the human condition.

This is where I come in as a psychologist.

In my work around the globe, I’ve had the opportunity lately to speak to and observe a wide range of leaders facing a range of challenges: Those running businesses and organizations, who are trying to save jobs and pivot creatively. Leaders in academia, now working through new processes for ensuring student progress and holding graduations. School leaders trying to keep families and kids happy while working with teachers who themselves have children at home. Public health experts making recommendations for people in poverty-stricken areas, where social distancing or hand washing are unattainable luxuries. Leaders in ministries of health in low-income countries, who are struggling to share honest information while staving off fear and violence.

There is no doubt that leadership will be one of the most heavily tested skills throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s easy to read articles about how leaders “should” or “should not” behave or “be.” In real practice, however, behavioral changes are hard and take practice, little by little.

Emotional intelligence is at the core of being able to make these behavioral shifts and ultimately helping you attain all those adjectives describing stellar leadership. Research shows that EI accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high performers apart from others with similar technical skills and knowledge.

Here are some specific suggestions to help leaders achieve (or get closer to) these shifts during the time of COVID-19.

Spend time on your own self-awareness. At the core of EI, self-awareness is the area that leaders typically least enjoy or spend time on. They may see it as self-focused or a waste of time, but we can effectively work with others only if we get really good at knowing ourselves, our thoughts, our emotional reactions, and our tendencies.

As a small step, try spending 60 seconds writing down what you think and feel before you start your day and at the end of the day. Are you fearful, worried, angry? Write down at least two prevailing thoughts running through your mind. You do not have to solve these or work on them for now—just know where you are.

Practice empathy. A lot is written about empathy, but few know how to break it down into actual steps, practice them, and get skilled at them. Behavioral scientists have studied this and outlined that it includes mental awareness (imagining you are the other person), communication (what you say, how you say it), and a physical aspect (observation of tone, gestures).

Try considering all three of these with each team member. The more attention you focus on who you are speaking to and really listening to them, the more your thoughts will resonate with theirs, making the delivery of empathy easier. If you are set to meet with a team member, take five minutes to write down what you imagine that person is thinking and feeling, and then a sentence that addresses this.

Label the fear. A proven technique from psychologists and negotiation experts is to label fears in order to defuse them. Labeling the fears of your team members tells them that you are aware. This is particularly critical in times like now. Such statements may include something like, “We understand that you were all hired to do jobs that may not be working the same way right now. You may feel like we are treating you unfairly or are making decisions without each of you and your personal situations in mind.” Cue into your team members’ possible fears; name and label them directly and with empathy. Anger tends to stem from fear, which is best managed by labeling—and empathy.

Be real. This is common advice, but let’s break down what it means. Share with others your own personal worries, concerns, and common thoughts. Tell the story about how you snapped at your teenager just because he or she is around all the time now. Or perhaps share your concern for an older family member. Now of all times, your team members really need to hear specific ways that you are in this with them.

Take care of yourself. We have all seen posts or videos of leaders who frankly just look exhausted. Any leader (business, parent, teacher, politician) is still human, and we cannot care for others without being healthy ourselves. That means leaders have to be good at this—really good! At a basic level, take time each day to do something that brings you happiness or pleasure. What is your fuel—the thing that refills your own tank? Positive psychology is real science that rewires your brain and leads to greater productivity and stress reduction.

Change your internal thoughts. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intricately connected. Changing thoughts to be more helpful will have a huge impact on the intensity of your emotions and shift your behaviors to be much more productive. This sets off a chain of events leading to more positive thoughts and even changes in neurochemistry.

For example, try shifting from:

  • Thought: My business is going to go under. I will probably get fired.
  • Feeling: Anger (10/10), Frustration (10/10), Fear (9/10)
  • Behavior: Yelling at people, taking a long time to make a decision

To:

  • Thought: My business and many others are going to struggle a lot.
  • Feeling: Anger (7/10), Frustration (8/10), Fear (5/10)
  • Behavior: Calling on mentors or board members to discuss creative solutions

You have a critical role in helping others get through these times. At the same time, the challenges they bring will shape you and allow you to grow as a leader. Emotional intelligence will be at the forefront of this growth and worth the investment.

Laura K. Murray, PhD, MA, is a clinical psychologist and a senior scientist in Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.