More than a feeling: why emotional intelligence is crucial for leaders during a crisis

Q&A with Professor Neal Ashkanasy

The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a series of changes to the way we work. From suddenly managing teams working remotely to employees experiencing mental health or financial hardship – the crisis has led to many new leadership challenges.

According to Professor Neal Ashkanasy (OAM), a Professor of Management at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, leaders now more than ever need to have a sharpened awareness of emotional intelligence and how to use it, to help successfully navigate their team through mass disruption.

“The evidence shows a strong correlation between the quality of national leadership and the severity of the pandemic,” says Neal, who is also helping develop leaders in emotional intelligence through the pandemic as a lecturer into the UQ Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.

Neal highlights New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as an example of a leader who demonstrates emotional intelligence in her role, particularly during a crisis.

“The way Prime Minister Ardern interacts with people, listens to other points of view, pays attention to what other people say and tries to empathise with them are all signs of emotional intelligence.”

In the business world, Neal suggests that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is another prominent leader who has demonstrated this skillset under dire circumstances.

“The way he communicated and explained to staff and customers the horrendous cuts that had to be made for the airline to survive enabled him to successfully steer the fine line between making very difficult business decisions and keeping staff and customers onside.”

Neal shares how leaders can develop and utilise emotional intelligence to manage teams more effectively, even during global crises.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence has four core components:

1. The ability to perceive or see emotions
2. The ability to use your emotional thoughts in your thinking and behaviour
3. The ability to understand emotions
4. The ability to manage emotions, both in self and others.

By complementing other forms of intelligence like intelligence, emotional intelligence, or EQ, is integral to developing effective social and working relationships.

Why is emotional intelligence especially important in times of crisis?

Leadership is an emotion-laden process at the best of times. Under high-stress conditions, like navigating a pandemic, it’s more difficult to access our cognitive resources. Leaders who can manage their own emotions, have empathy for others and prioritise relationship-building are most effective in these situations.

An example of this in action is demonstrated by the work of my former doctoral student Dr Jemma King, who is the founder and Director of BioPsychAnalytics, a company specialising in Advanced Human Performance.

In her work with the Australian Special Forces, Dr King found that providing soldiers with training in emotional intelligence enabled them to shoot straighter when under fire. Because of this training, soldiers were able to keep their intense emotions in line during live-fire training, which meant that they were able to think more clearly, hit the right targets and perform more effectively overall. 

How has the removal of face-to-face contact affected how employers manage employee wellbeing?

One of the greatest lessons we’ve learned during this pandemic is that due to modern technology, we can actually work remotely pretty effectively.

One drawback of remote work, however, is that it’s more difficult to communicate emotion via non-verbals than when you’re face-to-face. This can pose a challenge, particularly for leaders who haven’t had to supervise teams or individuals virtually before.

How can leaders increase their emotional intelligence?

Some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, but like any other form of intelligence, emotional intelligence can be improved by putting in the work. Here’s how:

1. Training
There are plenty of training opportunities and resources available online. One important aspect of emotional intelligence training is learning about micro expressions. Micro expressions reflect fluctuations in our emotional state in ways that verbal communication and gestures often do not.

Understanding how to read and interpret micro expressions will help you see if someone is trying to conceal their true emotions. This type of training is used by customs and border defence professionals to detect if people have something to hide.


2. Practice

Every time we communicate with others, we can practice our emotional intelligence skillset, by observing our own emotional state and that of the person we’re interacting with. Another way to practice this skillset is by watching videos online and looking for non-verbal communication cues and micro expressions that may reveal a different story to that being told verbally.

Leaders can also develop their emotional intelligence skillset by thinking about hypothetical situations an employee could be involved in where emotions are at play.

In working through hypothetical scenarios, leaders can think about how they’d identify the employee’s true emotional response and how to respond to achieve the best outcome. The skills you develop doing this type of exercise can then be applied to real-life managerial decisions and situations, and to improve workplace relationships, two-way communication and team morale.


What is the biggest challenge facing business leaders moving forward when it comes to emotional intelligence?

The COVID-19 crisis has sharpened our focus on what we understand as good leadership and has reinforced the importance of emotional intelligence as a critical leadership skill during times of crisis. Many employers still believe showing emotion at work is a sign of weakness. This isn’t the case.

Moving forward, leaders can demonstrate this skillset by modelling behaviour they want to encourage in their employees. By sharing their own vulnerabilities, challenges and fears within established boundaries, leaders will show employees that it is safe to feel and discuss emotions at work.

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