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How leaders’ emotional intelligence changed during the pandemic.

A person in a suit looks at a 3-D illustration of a brain

As telework became the norm in 2020 in response to the global pandemic, executive leaders faced a unique set of challenges. In a rapidly evolving world — with changes to routines, regulations, communication and so much more — the emotional intelligence of executive leaders was being tested more frequently. As the pandemic continued through 2020, the BEATTY team investigated how leaders were using emotional intelligence. Were they using different skills? Which emotional intelligence skills were more necessary? Were leaders reprioritizing the skills needed to navigate uncharted waters?

In the fourth quarter of 2020, BEATTY surveyed more than 50 executive leaders to learn more about their emotional intelligence during the pandemic. These 51 leaders were among 60-plus who were surveyed pre-pandemic about their emotional intelligence. The findings suggest executive leaders are reprioritizing their emotional intelligence skills. In fact, some say they’re using skills they didn’t know they had.

Why is emotional intelligence important in leadership?

In a 2008 article published in American Psychologist, John Mayer, Peter Salovey and David Caruso defined emotional intelligence (EQ) as the following:

“Emotional Intelligence includes the ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior. That is, individuals high in emotional intelligence pay attention to, use, understand, and manage emotions, and these skills serve adaptive functions that potentially benefit themselves and others.”

Leaders are often defined by their business acumen. While business IQ is obviously important, research has shown that great leaders are defined by their EQ. A leader’s ability to manage people, listen to and interact with people, build relationships and motivate others is greatly tied to their EQ. In fact, performance is tied to emotional intelligence according to David McClelland, a researcher in human and organizational behavior. In 1996, he studied senior managers at a global food and beverage company and found the divisions of leaders with exceptional emotional intelligence capabilities outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20%. Conversely, divisions led by those with below average emotional intelligence underperformed by nearly the same spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated the need for these traits. Employees were feeling more isolated and missed day-to-day interaction with their peers and leaders. With many workforces performing job functions at home, leaders had to be intentional about maintaining and fostering relationships.

What is the Emotional Intelligence Quotient model?

BEATTY utilizes the Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQI) 2.0 model to assess a leader’s EQ. The EQI model has five attributes to determine one’s emotional intelligence score: self perception, self expression, interpersonal relationships, stress management and decision making. Within the categories are 15 factors that are the foundation of abilities including communication, resilience and time management. The BEATTY team uses the data from this evaluation to assess job competencies, productivity, strengths, weaknesses and other measures of success.

Participants answer a series of questions on a five-point scale, ranging from “Never/Rarely” to “Always/Almost Always.” The assessment is administered through an online portal.

Attributes of emotional intelligence.

Self perception is defined by one’s inner strength and confidence, tenacity in pursuing personally relevant and meaningful goals and ability to understand what, when, why and how emotions affect thoughts and actions.

Self expression evaluates one’s tendency to stay self-directed and openly express emotions while communicating feelings in constructive and accepted ways.

The Interpersonal relationships attribute is defined by one’s ability to establish and cultivate relationships with trust and compassion, show empathy, and show concern for others with actions.

Stress management assesses one’s ability to cope with emotions during unfamiliar and unpredictable situations, while staying resilient during the setback and maintaining optimism about the future.

The decision making attribute involves understanding how emotions affect decision making, including one’s ability to resist or delay impulse decisions and stay objective to avoid hasty, ineffective attempts to solve problems.

Self awareness, emotional expression increase in leaders.

Fifty-one executive leaders participated in an EQI 2.0 survey in the fall of 2020 to evaluate their emotional intelligence. These same leaders were among 61 who had completed the survey before the pandemic began, providing valuable insights into the emotional intelligence response to the pandemic.

The results found executive leaders relied more on emotional self awareness and emotional expression during the pandemic. Emotional self awareness is the ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions, why one is experiencing those feelings and identify the source of those feelings. As entire teams moved to a virtual work environment, leaders were focused on checking in with their teams and making a concerted, measured effort to express themselves in a sensitive manner. An elevated focus on self awareness and emotional expression indicates a conscious effort to continue to build relationships and understand the challenges their team faced.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leaders surveyed struggled with self regard, stress tolerance and flexibility. Self regard measures one’s understanding and acceptance of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Those with a well-developed self regard are often fulfilled and personally satisfied.

Stress tolerance is associated with one’s ability to manage stressful or difficult situations and the belief that he or she can influence those situations positively. Lastly, flexibility measures one’s ability to adapt emotions, thoughts and behaviors to evolving, unpredictable situations.

The pandemic was a new experience for virtually everyone. Leaders were experiencing volatility in nearly every facet of business, faced with constant change and the inability to plan for the future. When those in leadership positions typically lean on the ability to influence a negative situation, the pandemic left executives with limited options (sometimes, no options) to make the situation better. Between elevated emotions and the rapid pace of change, leaders felt less equipped to make decisions and it showed in the results of this survey.

It is important to note that the leaders surveyed have shown remarkable resilience during the course of the pandemic. The changes in scores are not statistically significant, but the scores do show a shift in prioritizing certain emotional intelligence skills. Executive leaders are leveraging different skills to navigate the uncertainty of today’s world.

Leverage emotional intelligence with coaching from BEATTY.

Emotional intelligence is critically important in executive leaders, and not just in a pandemic. EQ can be especially vital when an employee has a health scare, during a natural disaster, after the loss of a loved one or any other significant life event in a person’s life. In the workplace, great leaders lean on EQ to navigate organizational change management, such as mergers and acquisitions or major process changes. As Daniel Goleman wrote in Harvard Business Review in January of 2004, emotional intelligence is no longer a “nice to have” component of business leadership. This soft skill drives performance, whether during a pandemic or not, and is a “need to have” human skill for those in leadership positions.

BEATTY utilizes a set of tools to assess leaders based on each of the attributes associated with emotional intelligence. We evaluate behaviors and skills to develop a personalized development plan. With Dr. Ann Beatty’s executive coaching, your executive team will discover and leverage emotional skills to elevate performance, team building and leadership. Contact our team to learn more and schedule a consultation today.

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Providing your leaders with the insight and skills they need to unleash their potential is the first step toward moving your organization forward. Let BEATTY lead the way!
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