These days, working in isolation and communicating through computer screens is an obvious necessity. Still, without in-person connection, emotional intelligence is more important than ever — especially at small businesses, where teamwork can be a critical differentiator.
As managers, we know we can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to leading and managing a team, and that’s never been more apparent than now. Emotional intelligence appreciates that every team member is different and brings their own needs, motivations, and biases to the dynamic.
What I’ve found — and what the rest of the business world is quickly realizing — is that seeking emotional intelligence is the smartest way to keep co-workers focused and motivated, especially in the shelter-in-place world. I start every one-on-one or team meeting with a personal check-in. It’s important for me to understand my colleagues’ current mental states so that I can throw the agenda out the window if someone is struggling.
Just because we’re more than six months into a pandemic doesn’t mean “we’ve got this.” Stamina is starting to wane, and checking in is more important than ever. It’s the quickest and most powerful example of emotional intelligence. Here’s how you can ensure you’re tapping into yours:
1. Find meaning for each of the people on your team
It’s impossible to lead everyone with the same road map, especially now that their experiences are so different. One teammate may be juggling child care and work responsibilities, while another may be feeling alone and isolated. In this time of social distancing, it’s more important than ever to understand the struggles your team members may have and offer ways to ease the pain or find ways to bring them joy.
I’ve done an exercise with my marketing leadership team that I like to call “finding meaning,” inspired by the work of David Kessler. The synopsis: Have members of your team share what they’re grieving and how they’re finding meaning in that grief. For instance, I shared that I was grieving not being able to see my son graduate from high school this past May. On the flip side, I shared that I found great joy in spending the past six months with him watching TV, playing video games, dancing around the house and walking the dog — shared, connected moments that we would not have otherwise had.
Sharing your experiences and having team members share theirs (as they feel comfortable) really helps you serve and support your team in a very intentional way.
2. Perform some role play
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you understand them better. Not just pretending, mind you: actually doing it. While our team is largely based at our headquarters, we have expanded to other hubs and hired some permanently remote employees as we’ve grown. From time to time, we’ve had team members located at HQ sit in a different meeting room and dial in so they can have empathy for the remote team member who always calls in from afar. Those exercises foreshadowed our current situation perfectly.
Anyone who’s taken part in a conference or video call remotely is now painfully aware of the frustrating snags that can occur. Being able to empathize with others’ situations helps everyone work together better. Only when you experience the actual challenges of others can you imagine ways to help solve them.
3. Admit failure and mistakes openly
Being transparent at all times, especially when things aren’t going perfectly, ensures that others on the team and within the organization feel comfortable doing the same. Open, honest communication is even more critical in uncertain times. Everyone makes mistakes; addressing them head-on gives your co-workers confidence that their leader is fair and empathetic.
That’s what the National Basketball Association did after being criticized for its easy access to COVID-19 testing when the rest of the country struggled to qualify for it. The NBA acknowledged the backlash and made sure to keep the conversation centered on solutions, not defending itself.
Take your actions even further by offering solutions and asking for feedback or ideas. Once remedied, work to put in place safeguards to prevent repeat mistakes. Use these events as teachable moments for you and your team. This approach shows that you are far from unqualified because of your miscue; rather, you are committed to leading by example.
4. Develop a high-low exercise
The high-low matrix helps managers effectively learn exactly what motivates (and disappoints) an employee and, more generally, who that person really is. The matrix establishes what an employee’s top skills are, as well as their willingness to complete a particular task.
It’s essentially a box with four quadrants: the vertical axis representing will and the horizontal measuring one’s skill level. The top-right quadrant, then, is an experienced employee who has both the skill and willingness to perform a particular task. The bottom left is the opposite.
These assessments are best conducted at the end of a month, quarter or year, when people reflect on what did (and did not) work for them in a professional capacity. I find another best practice is to ask for both personal and professional highs and lows, which helps you become a more comprehensive manager because you’ll have empathy for that worker’s entire life — not just the hours they spend performing tasks.
Once you learn to appreciate the differences between team members and how to leverage those varying characteristics, your organization can move toward real success. When you are emotionally intelligent and work to tap into the particular strengths (and minimize the weaknesses) of a team, co-workers feel empowered and the company reaps the rewards.