Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.
Do these situations sound familiar?
● Confused phone calls start coming into the office. The printed announcement of the grand opening of the company's new branch, mailed to current and potential customers, has omitted the branch's location. Trina, the communications director, feels pressure to act fast.
● Everyone looks at the head sales analyst, Jack, in panic. The deadline for the annual report is tomorrow – and a network failure has incapacitated every computer in the office. The IT techs haven’t been able to identify the problem let alone fix it.
● Two construction workers knock down a wall during a company’s office renovation and inform Harriet, the company’s operations manager, what they discover. "We're pretty sure it's asbestos," they explain. "Your employees could get sick very fast."
Crises can emerge in many different forms, and they often strike without warning. Many large organizations have formulated contingency plans for emergencies. But what most of these plans omit is a crucial factor in effective crisis management: emotional intelligence (EI). Intelligent handling of the emotions that come with crisis is crucial. An emotionally intelligent leader will handle any crisis, big or small, better than someone without EI competencies. The four domains of Emotional Intelligence — self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management — each can help a leader face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences.
You demonstrate Self Awareness when you’re conscious of your own feelings and your thoughts about them. The adage, “Knowledge is power,” holds true here. Being aware of your own feelings puts you in charge, not your emotions. When Trina learns about the omission in the announcement, she worries about the amount of work needed to rectify the problem. She is undoubtedly angry with the people who were supposed to proofread the mailing. But with thoughtful awareness of those feelings, she can choose how to handle them in a constructive way ± quickly sending a correction to the announcement, and ensuring there’s better protocol for proofreading in the future.
Likewise, Jack feels frantic about the tech mess confronting him. Without self control, Jack will be in the grip of an amygdala hijack and be at the mercy of his feelings. The amygdala, the “fight or flight” section of the brain, responds rapidly to threats, real or perceived, and during a hijack can overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning and strategizing. In my book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, I call the amygdala the “bad boss” of the brain and the prefrontal cortex the “good boss.”
When you're in the middle of a crisis, you want the good boss to come to work and exert control over the bad boss. You can train your brain to strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s capacity to exert control over the amygdala. Research done by Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn shows that regular practice of simple yet powerful mindfulness exercises can make employees more resilient. All of this can result in leadership that’s much more emotionally balanced and effective.
Harriet faces major challenges in dealing with the asbestos problem and its potential effect on her colleagues. Much of the work before her involves dealing with people who are worried or upset, including potentially sick staff members, the panicky building crew and public-health officials. If Harriet approaches each of these people with empathy for their concerns, she will be much more successful in obtaining their help to resolve the crisis. Likewise, if she has a sense of social awareness for all the ways in which this crisis impacts the business, people, and systems involved in correcting the problem, she’ll be much more likely to succeed in handling it without missing something important.
When crisis strikes, it is essential to manage many relationships among many people. I call relationship management “friendliness with a purpose,” the ability, through inspiring others, managing conflicts, fostering teamwork, and other competencies, to moving people in the direction you desire. Each of these competencies requires self awareness, self control, and social awareness. Developing the competencies will take time and effort, but you will be rewarded for your work. You may not be able to undo a crisis this moment, but emotional intelligence will help make the process of getting through the next one much smoother.