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Executive Search Trends: Recovery Through Workplace Engagement

March 2021
Jeff Jernigan, Ph.D., BCPPC, FAIS
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The power of emotional intelligence and resilience in supporting the workforce

A year ago, the world was just beginning to grasp the fact that a crisis was spreading like wildfire in the form of COVID-19. Few could have imagined the magnitude the pandemic would have in a 12-month period, its long-term global implications for every business in every industry[1], or the mental, physical, and emotional toll it would take on people.

As we enter spring 2021, many businesses are beginning to see the results of their response efforts. This type of recovery from a mass disaster often does not begin until a year or longer after the first warning signs of the emergency. [2] While government and healthcare agencies have been engaged in a widespread comprehensive response on every continent in this war against the pandemic, the responsibility for a multifaceted recovery in the business world and society at large falls on the shoulders of every C-suite and board, who are tasked with reimagining the workplace and reengaging the workforce.[3]

“Aligning culture with new strategy in the years ahead will require setting a new course in leadership that emphasizes emotional intelligence skills.”

Aligning culture with new strategy in the years ahead will require setting a new course in leadership that emphasizes emotional intelligence skills.[4] Senior leaders and captains of industry must consider becoming champions, modeling these skills at the highest levels of influence. This may sound tangential to normal executive thinking, but we are living in historic paradigm-shifting times.

Safeguarding Mental Health

Once the greatest impacts of the disaster have been mitigated and reconstruction of business can commence, the longer-term effects of extreme stress start to manifest in people. After 18 to 24 months, a process of somatization begins to convert stress into medical and mental health disease and disorders, and the likelihood of increasing absenteeism.[5] Prolonged stress and uncertainty break down neural pathways resulting in a loss of concentration, focus, memory, and decision-making ability.[6] Depression, anxiety, stress disorders, personality disorders, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, immunodeficiencies, cardiac problems, and sleep disorders are just some of the maladies caused by the sustained low-grade trauma of prolonged stress.[7]

60%

of leaders vow to address the longer-term effects of the pandemic

As recently as 2017, the World Health Organization described depression as the leading cause of global disability, citing stress and anxiety as the most significant triggers.[8] The unprecedented stresses of the past year could have a long-lasting negative impact on employee wellbeing and consequently business performance. In a 2021 survey, the HCM Advisory Group found that almost 60% of leaders say they are committed to – and willing to invest in – addressing the longer-term effects of the pandemic even once the immediate crisis has subsided. The survey concluded that executive leadership must develop and hone three critical skills to take into recovery: emotional intelligence, coaching, and business acumen relating to changing market environments.[9]

Fostering emotional intelligence and personal attributes like resilience creates a proactive, empathetic response that allows leaders to focus on their organization’s most important asset: people. Here we explain how these skills can work together to build the most effective path to recovery.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a leadership skill set that can be learned and characterizes highly successful executives. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage our emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.

“Our natural behaviors in leadership, communication, problem solving, and interpersonal style under duress reflect our emotional intelligence.”

In a time when everyone is stressed and many are concerned about keeping their jobs, their homes, and their health, leaders are called upon to demonstrate emotional intelligence in all their interactions.

Emotional intelligence is crucial to working relationships that depend upon collaboration, teamwork, and good interpersonal communication. It is a function of learned behavior and can be taught and practiced in order to facilitate organizational change coming out of a crisis. Self-awareness, self-regulation, the ability to motivate others positively, empathy, and social skills all enhance one’s leadership effectiveness. Those who don’t cultivate emotional intelligence are putting themselves first and not considering what’s best for others or for the organization as a whole.

Emotions not only mediate our instinctive behaviors but allow us to learn and adopt new behaviors that are not rules-based.[10] Effective communication, for example, makes use of both intellect and emotions in understanding and responding to people and circumstances, especially in a crisis. However, for many the concept of emotions playing a part in business decisions gives them pause because emotions are often confused with feelings. True emotion shapes thought content and depth of thought, energizing goals, enabling empathy, and deepening understanding and commitment in ways intellect alone cannot.[11]

Fostering Resilience

Resilience is the ability to spring back from something as strong and perhaps stronger than you were before.[12] It is an emblematic topic of the COVID era. Marcus Buckingham, in his promotion of the Global Leadership Network Summit, describes the origins of resilience in a surprising way.[13] His organization’s research hypothesized that people who had no direct experience with COVID and no vicarious experience with colleagues, friends, or family who were impacted by COVID personally would have far greater resilience since nothing over the last year has acted to wear them down. To his astonishment, they discovered the opposite was true. Those directly and vicariously impacted by the pandemic were four times more resilient by measure than those lacking that experience. Further, the statistics did not vary around the world in response to how differently countries responded to the crisis.

Resilience is a very personal attribute. If we as members of C-suites and boards do nothing to modify the working environment through our influence and authority, our workforce will not recover as quickly as they would if we prepare them to be long-haulers through these times. Equipping employees to struggle well is more effective than simply minimizing their risk in the workplace and little else.

“Equipping employees to struggle well is more effective than minimizing their risk in the workplace and nothing else.”

Employees anticipate changes in working culture as facilities are adapted to new requirements for physical and psychological safety. Employees expect employers to provide resources to help deal with prolonged stress and uncertainty, the anxiety of succumbing to disease, or the constant threat of becoming homeless and helpless. A sense of hopelessness is already surfacing in the most vulnerable populations.[14] Workplace engagement and recovery are the responsibility of every senior leader and will move forward on the shoulders of good decisions – emotionally intelligent decisions – that each of us can model.

Workplace Mental Health Skills

Out of this understanding of emotional intelligence and the role mental wellbeing plays in decision-making, a set of trauma-informed workplace mental health skills has been developed.[15] Leaders around the world will manifest these skills differently due to cultural norms and social boundaries. The key to using them appropriately is understanding the undergirding principle and making it one’s own.

Empathy is a destressing skill that enables others to shed stress. Active listening is one of the best ways to communicate empathy. Leave your schedule sufficiently flexible so you can engage in spontaneous unhurried conversations when people approach you. People listen and speak out of both the cognitive and emotional areas of the brain. When they experience (information and emotion) that you have walked in their shoes and “get it,” they will leave the conversation having been listened to, understood, and taken seriously. These three experiences, taken together, release stress.

2. Social engineering allows us to resolve conflict individually or between groups or teams. When confronted with a need to work through conflict resolution, make sure you get at least three sides to the story: person/group A, person/group B, and what really happened. The key to unraveling the conflict is understanding what’s really going on, and it allows you to help others focus on the relationships involved and not make the person or group the problem. It also allows creation of a context for putting the problem on the other side of an imaginary fence and coming together in an approach that asks, “How are we going to solve this problem together?” Problems shrink to manageable proportions with this kind of leadership.

3. Self-regulation is a term used to describe how one manages their own temperament well rather than allowing their personality to manage themselves. Emotionally laden conduct and terminology will always overshadow the message to the point the message never gets across. Self-regulation is key to avoiding paralysis or panic that will be reproduced and amplified in others.

4. Stress erodes memory, learning, concentration, and focus. Offer forgiveness to others for misremembering conversations or circumstances and get back to finding solutions instead of fixing blame. Very often people lack a bigger picture of what is going on and take action on poorly informed conclusions. Forgiveness has the effect of pouring water on troubled waters, something recommended by Pliny the Elder, and shifts focus to what is important without distraction. [16] Ancient advice that remains true today.

5. Acknowledge others by developing an attitude of gratitude that is expressed openly in appreciation for others. Saying “Thank you!” often is a place to start. In the workforce, we want to develop an understanding and passion that leads to commitment to act on behalf of the organization, the team, and in that larger context, for ourselves. Our character is the most effective tool we have to model these things.

These are the skills that will deescalate stressors in the workplace that negatively impact performance, collaboration, and teamwork as well as reduce absenteeism and restore resilience and morale. For leaders, this is a crucial time to take action in helping not just the organization but its people make a full recovery from the crisis.

About the Author:

Dr. Jeff Jernigan is a board-certified mental health professional and Life Sciences & Healthcare Director with the Los Angeles office of the Stanton Chase global executive search firm.

Sources:

[1] Interventions Following Mass Violence and Disasters, Strategies for Mental Health, Richie et al Editors: Guilford Press 2006

[2] Strategy in Rebuilding: Principles to Building Post Traumatic Growth, Miller and Jernigan; Mindshift 2021

[3] Disaster Mental Health Case Studies, Lessons Learned from Counseling in Chaos, Halpern et al Editors, Routledge 2019

[4] Strategic Planning, Selected Readings, Pfeiffer Editor; Pfeiffer 1991

[5] PTSD and the Neurology of Learning: How Stress Robs Us of Understanding, Research Article, Jernigan; American Institute of Stress 2021

[6] Whole, Miller; Josey Bass 2020

[7] Physical Ramifications of Prolonged Stress, Research Article, Jernigan; American Institute of Stress 2020

[8] Fostering Emotional Agility in the Workplace, Research Article, David; Virgin Pulse 2018.

[9] Learning State of the Industry, HCM Advisory Group, Research Report; HCM Advisory Group 2021.

[10] Neurobiology, Amphor; Wiley 2014

[11] Emotions and Decision Making, Learner et al, Research Report; Annual Review of Psychology 2014

[12] Treatment of Suicidal Ideation and Self-Directed Violence in Military Populations: Evaluation and Treatment of Suicide Spectrum Disorders: Active-Duty Military Personnel, Veterans, and Their Families, Conference Keynote presentations sponsored by the National Medical University of Moldova and held at the Ministry of Defense Compound, Jernigan, February 2020.

[13] Global Leadership Conference, Buckingham promotion; Global Leadership Summit, Global Leadership.org, 2020

[14] Explicit and Implicit Hopelessness and Self-Injury, Gray et al, Research Report; Journal of American Society of Suicidology, 2021

[15] Olive Branch International, Inc, 2008 – 2020; Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Central Africa, USA

[16] Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder, AD 23-79

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