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March 26, 2020

How to be an emotionally intelligent leader amid COVID-19

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 20, 2020.

    The rapidly evolving COVID-19 epidemic presents clinical leaders with an unprecedented challenge: leading teams through a crisis with unknown scope and no clear end in sight. This is a marathon, not a sprint and the weeks ahead will present endless leadership moments and difficult decisions. 

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    As leaders work tirelessly to meet the many challenging moments that lay ahead, they must do so with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence requires fierce orientation to purpose, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and compassion. In short, emotional intelligence allows us to manage the human and emotional complexity of a moment like this.

    Below, I've outlined four tips leaders can follow as they personally navigate the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

    1. Position yourself to decide, not react, by orienting to a clear purpose.  

     It all starts with purpose. In this moment of crisis, health care leaders' primary purpose should be health and safety. That applies to the health and safety of patients' local communities, and the clinical and non-clinical staff members who care for them. At the same time, leaders also must ensure they are maintaining the financial health of their organizations—all amid sudden extraordinary pressure. Finally, leaders, like everyone else, must be committed to the health and safety of their own family. 

    The complexity of this moment simply will not permit easy choices. These purposes will frequently be in tension with one another. You will be making many difficult decisions, big and small, many times a day.  Some of the decisions will feel impossible. There is no easy guidance here other than to position yourself to decide, not react.  To do so, you must be deeply aware of what matters most at any given moment and in any given decision. The best leaders are relentlessly oriented to purpose. They don't always make the right decision, but they always make the decision the right way.  

    2. Don't get emotionally hijacked—practice self-awareness and self-regulation

    After orienting to purpose, recognize that the rapidly evolving circumstances impacts everyone, including you. A difficult moment or complex circumstances can emotionally overwhelm, some might say hijack, even high-performing leaders. The best leaders operate with a level of consciousness that allows them to notice those outsized feelings before they erupt into unproductive reactions. 

    At a moment like this, you can be sure there will be circumstances throughout the day that can trigger an unproductive reaction. To account for this, check in with yourself frequently. When you have a brief moment—even 60 seconds between meetings—take a beat and close your eyes to notice how you're feeling.  

    A helpful tactic in these moments is the "label and learn" response:

    • Label your emotional reaction (fear, anger, frustration). Research shows that naming your emotion starts to disengage the emotional brain (the amygdala) and re-engage the logical brain (pre-frontal cortex) which allows greater calm in the moment.
    • Learn what that feeling is telling you about yourself and the situation. Your reaction is data.Notice it to better navigate the moment.

    Meeting these moments can be difficult, but consciously processing your own emotions allows you to stay grounded and to continue to be an effective leader for your team.

    3. Don't stand alone - tap into your community of friends, peers, and colleagues for support.

    Being a leader, particularly a senior leader, can be isolating. Your mandate is to lead and to maintain calm. But you are human too. You need others with whom you can share frustrations, seek counsel on difficult decisions made, and find friendship and support.   

    It can be helpful to turn to trusted friends, peers, and colleagues outside your organization for support and counsel.  Even communicating with a trusted peer over a few texts can be cathartic and validate the challenges you're facing. A number of leaders use a standing text exchange with one to three trusted others.  This standing forum allows them to process an emotional moment, or a difficult decision, and to send and receive support. You may also just need to vent and unload after a difficult day or moment! Trusted others will let you do that.

    Then, after those moments of release, pivot back to your purpose so you can continue to remain present and engaged in your organization’s ongoing challenges.

    4. Be the Chief Empathy Officer and let staff know they are genuinely cared for.

    This is a time for caring deeply for patients, family—and critically, staff. It has been said frequently the past few weeks that C.E.O. must stand for Chief Empathy Officer in a moment like this. With every communication, big and small, ask the question: Am I leaving this person/team/members of this organization feeling genuinely valued and cared for?" 

    As one leader put it to me: “This is going to be a marathon– how do I keep my workforce feeling cared for, COVID-free, and engaged for the next several weeks or months as the situation deteriorates, as more people are infected, hospitalized, as PPE and care capacity are overwhelmed, as the economy deteriorates and peoples’ spouses or loved ones start losing their jobs?” 

    As a leader, when you make tough choices about your COVID-19 response strategy, notice if there is a provider or staff member that will be disproportionately impacted by your decision. It's likely that these individuals will have outsized reactions and may require additional care and attention.  Simply put, the individuals you lead need to know that you care about them.  It is sometimes hard to know exactly what to say to accomplish that aim. Here is a question you can ask any team member at any time: You are important to me and to what we’re trying to accomplish. How are you feeling right now?

    It's important to recognize that members of your organization are probably scared and to approach their reactions with empathy. Accept that everyone in your organization is trying to get by—your frustrations are not the fault of one person or one situation, and always assume positive intent. Everyone you're collaborating with has the same purpose—to serve patients.

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