Our emotional systems are lodged in the deepest, most primordial areas of our brain. Consider the famed fight-or-flight response. We may thank our early ancestors for deploying it so effectively, but today those automatic impulses can prompt disproportionate responses. Or, in the face of a pandemic, contribute to the social transmission of fear.

The fact is, there’s no getting away from our emotional selves – we’re hardwired to be emotional creatures. They come with us everywhere – including to work. But at times, emotions have sat uncomfortably in the workplace. Leaders have shed their emotions to become more function than person, while employees feared being pigeonholed as “too emotional”.

2020 has changed all that. The stressors in our external environment as we’ve lurched from one crisis to another this year have pushed many people’s emotions off the charts. There’s no way we can ignore them any more. To help their people, leaders today must seek to understand their own and others’ emotions. Conversations are changing. And that’s a good thing.

At times, emotions have sat uncomfortably in the workplace. The 2020 pandemic has changed that. Click To Tweet

Moving forward together

Being a leader today isn’t about being the strong person out in front, it’s about being empathetic, compassionate and understanding. This is only possible by meeting people where they are, not where you think they are or where you want them to be and consciously including everyone.

As Carol Tomé, CEO of United Parcel Service, puts it: “Know that it’s not about you; it’s about everybody else. You are there to support them. You are there to invest in them. You are there to see them shine and get the most out of their potential. That’s your job as a leader.”

While it’s not about you, it does start with you. Leadership today is about transporting people from one place to another, including emotionally. But people will only be willing to come along if they trust and respect the person leading the way.

Three steps to move towards optimism

Even in these extraordinary times, leaders can and must help their people move productively through their emotions. They need to Reflect, Recognize and Respond to unite their teams through change.

REFLECT: Understanding emotion is the first step in aligning where you are with where your team is. Daunting? Possibly, because people don’t always say what they feel, and no one will be in the same emotional place. But through listening, you can understand where your people are on “Emotion Curve”.

Observing emotional responses that individuals have in a particular circumstance is the starting point. Only then can start to understand the thoughts prompting these reactions and how you should respond in turn to help guide them through the curve. Observing avoidance and shock? That’s anger. Is your team avoiding big-priority conversations? That’s withdrawal. Are they asking questions about what the next quarter might look like? They’re on their way up the curve.

Assuming that you understand where you are in this process, a great first step is determining where your employees might be on the curve, this quiz can help with that.

RECOGNIZE: Understanding your own emotions and how you lead is the yin to your people’s yang. Bringing understanding to both sides of the equation is critical to moving together through the curve. Ask yourself:

  • Where do you think you are on the curve?
  • How aligned is your stage with where your team/others are on the curve?
  • If there is misalignment, are you ahead of them or behind them?

RESPOND: People process and move through disruption at different rates and leaders need to adjust their response to reflect this.

Leaders are often ahead of their people on the curve and may want to race ahead, thinking they can push their people through. The risk is, their people fall further behind. Instead, take time to pause and listen. By slowing down you can take the time to create alignment and build ownership. In doing so, you’ll create a “pull” rather than a push to move forward together.

If you find yourself behind your people on the curve, what will it take to catch up? Commitment, projecting a positive attitude and resilience are all essential to leading through disruption, so think about whether you’re feeling challenged in one of these areas and what you can do to change that. It might mean finding sources of inspiration or identifying new goals to shift your focus forward.

To learn more about helping your people move forward, join Korn Ferry and guests in the webinar From Fear to Trust: Leaders Share Their Stories.

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