Emotional intelligence key to navigating change

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Whether we love or hate change, one thing is for sure: we face an uncertain landscape which is going to require a variety of skills to navigate.

Many are predicting that the workplace has changed permanently. In fact according to a recent flash survey by my company, Actus, only eight per cent of HR professionals believe that the workplace will return back to how it was pre-pandemic.

This means that there has never been a more important time to be a change leader in business. While businesses may often look to HR when navigating people change, this is something that needs to be owned by the entire business.

Luciana Carney
Lucinda Carney: we need leaders who can best out of their people

Not least because HR has been spread extremely thin during recent months trying to represent the best interests of both the business and the individual in the midst of changing working circumstances and new legislation.

When navigating change, it’s ideal to focus on the long-term and think ahead. However, contingency plans are likely to be important for the foreseeable future and being agile is going to be the name of the game for successful businesses.

An ever-changing, remote working environment is going to need leaders who are excellent at getting the best out of their people. Managers need to be flexible enough to lead and follow, as well as understanding how their own behaviour impacts their team. This is almost impossible without high levels of self-awareness and self-control, often referred to as Emotional Intelligence (EI).

Managers need to be flexible enough to lead and follow, as well as understanding how their own behaviour impacts their team

There are five different aspects of EI: self-awareness, self-control, self-motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Self-awareness is extremely valuable for any leader: it’s vital to know how we react to change ourselves, and have an insight into how our natural communication style is typically received.

Understanding whether a message is likely to come over as being positive or negative can depend on the circumstances, delivery and the audience. While honesty is important as a leader, it can also be just as helpful to manage our emotions and exert self-control when responding to changing situations for the first time ourselves. An off-the-cuff comment can exert untold damage.

Another aspect of emotional intelligence is self-motivation and those of us who have thrived during lockdown have had to exhibit this. This skill provides us with the determination to set and complete tasks, even under challenging circumstances without giving up or needing external encouragement.

Clearly, it helps if we can encourage this in our people too. This is important when navigating through change, whether planned for or imposed, as businesses need to be able to overcome the many obstacles and setbacks that may be encountered along the way. It’s also crucial in situations when change is unpopular, or when employees display resistance or apathy towards new processes.

Since it will take time for people to re-adapt and reintegrate, there is a real opportunity for all leaders to step up and for HR in particular to elevate their role

Lastly, empathy and social skills are key ingredients to developing high levels of EI. Our ability to empathise with the emotions of our employees builds trust and mutual understanding and social skills contribute to building important relationships as well as positive interactions with others and the overall workplace environment. A human-centric approach has been common in the businesses that have thrived during the Covid crisis and it is likely that these skills will continue to be important.

Beyond the obvious challenges of change, such as returning to work or adapting to a new business model, there are many unknowns that lie ahead which make Emotional Intelligence a worthwhile skill set for leaders to develop.

If they’re not yet strategising, HR departments and leadership teams should start thinking about how their businesses will navigate the potential influx of holiday requests; how will they know when an employee is suffering from coronavirus as opposed to seasonal flu, and, most importantly, how will they protect the business and the safety of its employees in the long-term.

Organisations need to accept that the workplace is unlikely to return to how it was before the lockdown meaning the way they lead and respond to challenges needs to adapt in response to this change.

Already, nine in ten workers are suffering from some level of lockdown lethargy. The challenge here is about demonstrating the right combination of behaviours for the right social situations that is particularly important when navigating through undiscovered and uncertain paths.

We as leaders need to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic and change brought along with it has been difficult for many of their employees, just as it has been for us. From trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance, to boosting low energy levels and dealing with mental health issues, the last couple of months have affected everyone in a variety of ways. Using emotional intelligence to empathise and communicate effectively will help people join us on this journey through change.

Since it will take time for people to readapt and reintegrate, there is a real opportunity for all leaders to step up and for HR in particular to elevate their role within the business. To lead through the new reality means engaging high levels of Emotional Intelligence and demonstrating the right combination of human and business responses across a range of potential challenges in the future.

Lucinda Carney is a Chartered Psychologist and CEO of Actus She was recently named Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in UK Tech 2020