The elevator doors opened and I was on the 5th floor, the President of the company’s floor. It was on the 5th floor because he did not like heights but also wanted some level of removal from the general public. Right in front of me was a reception desk.
I was nervous. Here I was, fairly new to the company and middle management at best, going to meet with president of the company. I walked up to the receptionist desk slowly. She asked, “Do you have an appointment?” I answered, “Yes.” She took my name.
She told me I could go see him. I was a bit confused since there was no visible hallway or office space. It was as if the reception area was all there was. I knew that wasn’t true because the office building was large and the floor would have much more space associated with it.
I asked her where to go and she apologized, excused herself and explained that she had forgotten to push the button. Just after she pushed the button, what looked like a permanent wall opened up, allowing me to walk through and go to the only office on that floor.
I’ve eaten with CEOs in private dining rooms and visited buildings where the executives are housed separately from the rest of the employees. I’ve seen privileged parking spaces that 99% of the company does not have access to and all other sorts of reminders that executives and leaders live very different lives than those that work for them.
When you’re so far removed from your people on a daily basis at work and you compound that with the differences in your home lives, it is simple to see how one can lose a sense of empathy. Comparing everyday situations such as the ability to afford quality childcare, having reliable transportation, being able to choose where you want to live, having help around the home such as a housecleaner and more; it is easy to see how one can lack understanding.
All of that changed when COVID-19 wreaked havoc on our nation. Many of us know that COVID-19 spotlighted the great challenges and inequities we face as a nation. People in minority communities were hit harder by the virus than others. The ability for women to stay in the workforce has been significantly challenged due to current circumstances. However, what we paid less attention to is how COVID-19 has improved our leadership skills. In many ways, it sharpened the key leadership skills necessary for success in today’s workplace: Empathy and Emotional Intelligence.
For the first time company’s leadership are heavily focused on the health and well-being of their employees. You are probably asking how a virus could give us such a gift. The virus stripped away a great number of privileges that leaders in companies took for granted every single day. High-level executives are dealing with a fact that their cities and towns have shut down and their kids are going to school virtually. It is difficult for them to get certain supplies at times such as toilet paper or disinfectant wipes, and many of the special services they have grown accustomed too are no longer available. They struggle on Zoom calls with pets jumping across the screen, how to change the virtual background or children coming in with questions. And when they see their employees going through the same things there is a sense of connection, camaraderie, and understanding. Leaders have gotten a glimpse into their employee’s lives and have experienced some of their challenges as well. It has created an evolvement in their empathy and their emotional intelligence when it comes to working with their people. In other words it leveled the playing field. Think about it, as perverse as it may sound, for many, COVID has been a great equalizer.
The absence of a daily commute due to more people working from home now means that those that live closer and drive do not have a time advantage compared to those that live farther away and use public transit. The expanded virtual world of work, entertainment and shopping is creating opportunities and accessibility for the disabled and those with complex medical issues that had not been there before.
Unfortunately, this spike in leadership skills is much like a sugar high. It won’t last for long. As soon as vaccines are more readily available and we have found ourselves under more manageable circumstances; the haves will go back to their separate offices, dining spaces and other privileges. The questions we must now ask are: “How we can keep the playing field level? How do we create a culture in the world where the separation between leaders and workers are not so distinct?”
Five ways to develop empathy and Emotional Intelligence include:
- Get out of your usual setting and situation
- Walk in another person’s shoes
- Become curious
- Be vulnerable
- Recognize emotions
Every single one of these vehicles to improve our leadership were a gift provided to us by a virus. So the question is: “How will you keep the gifts alive when COVID-19 is no longer dominating our lives?” That will be the difference between short term gain and long-term leadership sustainability.
What is more empathetic than allowing parents to adjust their schedules, including sanctioning parents to temporarily shift to part-time status as needed? What is more understanding than permitting parents to select when they do the portions of their work that don’t require completion at a particular time or location, to accommodate their caregiving obligations during the work day? That is exactly what many organizations did. Why did many employers not allow this type of flexibility at all prior to the pandemic? There is only one reason. They did not see a compelling justification, that is, until leadership and management were impacted as well or peered inside their employee’s homes and recognized the challenges they were facing. Empathy.
Ironically productivity did not fall during the pandemic and corresponding surge in remote work. However not everyone benefitted. Organizations that were led effectively and addressed the needs of their employees have seen a productivity increase, leaving behind those organizations that did not. The gap between organizations has actually widened. The key difference being Emotional Intelligence.
Study after study has shown Emotional Intelligence delivers by increasing productivity, sales, customer loyalty, market share, inclusion, engagement and reducing turnover. Emotion can lead to our worst or our best decisions because emotions push people; and people propel performance. To overcome the odds we must learn how to acknowledge emotions, identify them and appropriately utilize emotions as data in decision making. Essentially, Emotional Intelligence is successfully melding thinking and feeling to make the best decisions possible.
So how can we keep the playing field level beyond this pandemic? Invest in our people. Invest in our leadership. Develop Emotional Intelligence that transcends beyond any given moment or situation. Truly learn to recognize that emotions are data and need to be made a part of our decision making process, but intentionally and thoughtfully. After all, at the end of the day, we are much more than a balance sheet, property and some equipment. We are a community that relies and depends on one another for success.