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Addressing leadership stress: Managing derailers and cultivating emotional intelligence 

Leading through challenging times is no easy task. But, by cultivating emotional intelligence and building on key areas such as empathy, leaders can be more in-tune with the emotions of their team. This understanding can then help build a strong team that shares the burden of stressful times, and ultimately minimise or even avoid losing valuable team members to other opportunities or burnout. 

Remember the classic airline advice to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers? A similar approach can also be taken when it comes to leadership and stress management. When leaders don’t have a handle on their own stress, they will struggle to support others. As a result, their negative personal tendencies – what we call derailers – start to show up under stress. 

Derailers are the parts of our personality that can hold us back from being effective, and we all have them. These include personality traits like becoming argumentative, controlling, or impulsive under stress. We can’t change our personalities, but we can learn to manage our reactions and responses under stress. 

So how can leaders cultivate emotional intelligence within themselves and amongst their teams?

Leader’s Big Role in Engagement

Leaders play a vital role in engaging their teams, but this task is especially challenging yet vitally important during times of uncertainty within a business or industry. We all know the value of an engaged workforce, but employee engagement is more than employees being happy at work. It’s how people show up at work and how committed they are to their role and team.

Europe has the lowest regional percentage of engaged employees, hovering at only 13% in Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report. However, DDI research has found that organisations where leaders practice emotional intelligence to better understand both themselves and others see higher employee engagement, productivity and retention. They also see less burnout. 

When Stress Enters, Emotions Run High

When times get stressful and emotions run high, it may be tempting for leaders to want their teams to discard their feelings at the door, focusing on the work at hand. But attempting to create a feelings-free workplace simply doesn’t work. Human beings have emotions; what matters is how they handle them. That’s why leading with emotional intelligence will have a better short- and long-term payoff.

Usually the problem isn’t that leaders are cold-hearted or don’t care. Rather, leaders are under pressure. As they try to control their own stress, they have less energy to lead their teams with emotional intelligence. Signs of burnout are growing among leaders, with 72% reporting that they often feel used up at the end of the day, an increase from 60% in 2020. They are faced with monumental tasks to pivot the company and their teams. They feel the pressure to show a brave face for their team and keep the cogs turning, and it may feel counterproductive to focus on feelings when there’s so much work to be done.

But ignoring their team’s emotions can lead to disengagement. Employees may struggle to put in the bare minimum effort. And high-performing employees are more likely to experience burnout or decide to leave their role if it feels too much.

In that event, not only do business results suffer, but it can take a deep physical and mental toll on employee health. This is what makes leading with emotional intelligence so important.

What Do We Mean By Emotional Intelligence?

The definition of emotional intelligence is “Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage yourself and your relationships with others so that you truly live your intentions” according to author and international leadership consultant  Adele Lynn.

Without emotional engagement, it’s much harder to drive sustained, high-quality team performance. As a result, leaders end up frustrated and confused about why they aren’t getting the result they intended. A big part of this is down to empathy; understanding what it is and how to demonstrate it in an effective way that will have a positive impact on your team’s engagement and performance

Managing The De-Railers

It’s all very well cultivating a culture of caring when everything is running smoothly. But there will always be bumps in the road for any business, and how leaders manage these derailers can be make or break for teams.

Rather than entering panic mode, leaders should take a step back and manage the situation in three parts.

  1. Take time to think
    When anticipating upcoming stressful situations leaders can ask themselves, “what outcome do I really want?” Then, if they start to feel stress coming on, PAUSE and count to 10. Taking a moment before responding can help make sure they do so in a way that reflects their intentions. It is important for leaders to acknowledge, but not celebrate, their derailers. If they overreacted to something, leaders should apologise but remember that apologies wear thin after a while. It’s not OK to use derailers as a justification, using phrases such as, “I’m sorry, but I just had to say that…I am impulsive.” By taking this approach at the start it will begin to become a natural response to a potentially stressful situation.
  2. Read the room
    Work on empathy, i.e. recognising emotions in others. Many leaders struggle to show empathy. They think it means they must feel bad for the person or they can only respond if they have faced similar scenarios first-hand, for example, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so stressed. I understand why you didn’t get the report done.” But that’s not the case. Empathy does not require agreement with the person’s opinions or actions. It’s simply the acknowledgment of how they’re feeling and why they are feeling that way. For example: “From all you’ve shared, it sounds like you’re overwhelmed because there are so many competing priorities right now.”Leaders often fall into the trap of wanting to “fix” situations for their employees, but until they have demonstrated true active listening by capturing the facts, feelings, and showing that they understand how the person feels then they cannot move to the practical next steps.
  3. Be part of the solution
    The final step is the one that drives results. When both the leader and the team feel stressed, it’s surprising how much it can help to share the burden. Acknowledging feelings of uncertainty, stress, and pressure to perform goes a long way to helping people feel understood.  When leaders understand their own emotions and the emotions of their teams, they can start to guide people toward what needs to be accomplished. Plus, people feel more bought-in to the final solution if they’ve been involved in the process. Leaders need to listen to and act on their team’s feedback, which is often the hardest part to implement. That doesn’t always mean doing what the team suggests, but instead finding a way to acknowledge and incorporate feedback into the final solution.   

A three-step formula isn’t the magic wand that will fix some of the most complex challenges leaders face. But, by cultivating emotional intelligence and building on these key areas such as empathy, leaders can be more in-tune with the emotions of their team. This understanding can then help build a strong team that shares the burden of stressful times, and ultimately minimise or even avoid losing valuable team members to other opportunities or burnout. 


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