Emotional Intelligence is the Secret to Leadership in Times of Crisis

While we often think of courage, intellect, or decisiveness as hallmarks of great leadership, research shows that one set of characteristics rises above the rest: emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is the Secret to Leadership in Times of Crisis
Image credit: David Lees | Getty Images

Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox

Stay informed and join our daily newsletter now!
Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP
Professors at Babson College
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Amid the chaos of recent months, the world has latched onto leaders who seem capable of righting the ship. Some we may have expected, such as heads of state like New Zealand’s popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel. Others were perhaps less obvious, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, 3M CEO Mike Roman, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

However, the connection between all of these figures can be found in the words used to describe their leadership styles. Ardern’s response to the pandemic has been characterized as “empathetic,” Silver’s as “honest,” and Cuomo’s as “reassuring.” They each have a relational approach to leadership that enables them to cultivate a positive emotional climate and obtain buy-in for a shared vision of how to weather our current crises. For instance, after Ardern was turned away from a crowded café due to social distancing rules, her office said that “she just waits like everyone else,” demonstrating her willingness to share the same hardships as her fellow New Zealanders.

It's all comes down to feelings

Our research over the past two decades demonstrates that emotional and social competence are essential components of effective leadership, particularly the kind of entrepreneurial leadership needed to navigate the uncertainty and ambiguity we currently face. Entrepreneurial leaders have an outward focus and a growth mindset that empowers them to work collaboratively with others to solve complex, undefined problems and generate new opportunities. They draw on their social and emotional skills to promote a positive emotional climate and meet the needs of employees and citizens for trust, security, and connection in the midst of turmoil.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Emotional Intelligence Is the Future of Work

Emotional and social competence are critical for entrepreneurial leaders navigating one of the most challenging moments in our lifetimes. In our research, when we ask people across cultures and contexts to talk about the leaders in their lives, they consistently focus on how these leaders make them feel. Qualities traditionally associated with leadership, such as intelligence, strength, and expertise, are rarely mentioned. These traits are important, to be sure, but our research shows that emotional and social competence are what truly differentiate effective and ineffective leaders.

Emotional engagement boosts employee performance 

Research also consistently demonstrates that leaders’ emotional and social competence produces a number of positive business outcomes. Emotional engagement is linked to managers’ performance and commitment, and positive emotion boosts employees’ job performance, lowers organizational turnover, and helps individuals thrive during times of uncertainty. By reducing the internal noise employees face from workplace stress and negative interactions – especially in challenging times – emotionally competent leaders clear the way for productivity, creativity, openness, and collaboration.

Businesses are currently facing multiple overlapping crises: the financial fallout of the pandemic, the disruptive shift to remote work, and the renewed focus on issues of racial justice and inclusion. To steer their teams and organizations effectively in the coming months, entrepreneurial leaders must attend to the emotional climate of their organizations and create a shared vision for weathering the storm. Based on our work at Babson Executive Education training entrepreneurial leaders and teaching emotional and social competence, we offer five recommendations for how to lead in the current moment of crisis.

Communication is key

In times of uncertainty, employees want to hear from their leaders. Several of the most widely praised government officials, including Ardern and Cuomo, held daily coronavirus briefings to keep citizens informed. Past research has found that in a moment of crisis, employees similarly value continuous communication from corporate leaders. Executives like Mark Zuckerberg who have been silent on either the pandemic or issues of racial justice have been heavily criticized by employees.

Related: How Emotional Intelligence Can Improve Your Productivity

Second, keep in mind that staying connected from afar takes an emotional toll on employees. Leaders must be more engaged with employees, both through formal communications and informal check-ins. Frequent contact with employees can help managers identify when morale is dropping and offer techniques for coping with stress. Communicate with empathy to reassure employees that everyone is in the crisis together.

Third, make space for employees to process their stress and emotions. Effective entrepreneurial leaders create containers for employees to work through their struggles, and encourage workers to take time for themselves and do what they need to avoid burnout. In addition, make it clear that employees’ voices matter. After Starbucks barred workers from wearing Black Lives Matter gear, the backlash was swift and severe. Allowing workers channels to express themselves helps them process stress, fosters transparent dialogue with managers, and increases employees’ trust in their organizations.

Fourth, find ways to prevent remote work from eroding social connection. As employees have become increasingly tired of non-stop video meetings, conversations among coworkers have dwindled. Build time into meetings to check-in and rekindle social connections. Recognize that sometimes the most “efficient” method of communication isn’t the most effective, as the scooter startup Bird learned after laying off 400 employees over Zoom. When possible, pick up the phone rather than send an email or hold one-on-one conversations over the phone instead of video chat. These small changes can help reduce “Zoom fatigue” and inbox overload.

Finally, leaders should make it clear to workers that the company is looking out for their well-being during a difficult time. At the outset of the pandemic, Smuckers issued hardship grants to employees, declared it would pay for all employee coronavirus testing, and dramatically expanded sick leave. Tech companies like Google have responded to anxieties about returning to the office by announcing they will permit remote work through 2021. Individual managers should work to accommodate the schedules of employees balancing multiple responsibilities, particularly childcare.

Whether you’re managing a small team or a large organization, emotional and social competence will be critical to navigating the turmoil of the coming months. Entrepreneurial leaders succeed by acting decisively, encouraging feedback, fostering collaboration, and managing the emotional climate of their organizations. By strengthening connections with employees and setting a positive tone, you can create a shared vision and commitment to weathering the storm.

Related: How to Raise Your Emotional Intelligence in 3 Steps

More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Entrepreneur Store scours the web for the newest software, gadgets & web services. Explore our giveaways, bundles, "Pay What You Want" deals & more.

Latest on Entrepreneur