This article originally appeared in The Hindu Businessline
Recently I wrapped up coaching conversations with women leaders. In the last few months, especially during the pandemic, the expectations from the leaders got recalibrated. The focus has been to understand the science of emotions and their intersection with our lives at work. We built a program to enable our leaders to augment their leadership and communication style to bridge the gap of emotional vacuum that employees may suffer due to lack of real communication against virtual connect. We found that managers who were sensitive to pick up nuanced social cues and acknowledged their own emotions could foster open communication and trust, enhance team morale and collaboration and quickly gather themselves as a team to effectively adapt to the ever-evolving situations.
Termed as “emotional contagion”, this phenomenon wherein one person's emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people. In work, organizations realise the important role that emotional contagion plays in employee engagement and experience and, therefore, are developing strategies to help culture where there is a higher degree of work interdependence, the effects of this phenomenon, that can be positive or negative, can be seen at a greater level. Increasingly a cohesive, satisfied, and happy workplace environment by identifying the instances and possible causes of emotional contagion across the workforce.
With a paradigm shift to digital workspace due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one may assume that this contagion may have lost heat with physical interactions becoming almost negligible. However collaborative technologies today enable us to grasp, feel, transfer emotions and thus drive contextualization in virtual interactions too.
Emotional contagion in leadership in the post-pandemic era
The key to an organization’s success lies with the effective leaders who are the change agents and perhaps the most influencing elements for enhancing employee experiences.
At times of crisis, people naturally turn to their leaders for guidance and support. A leader can set the tone that either offers reassurance to the employees or deepens their concerns and fears. The inquisitive, innovative traits of a leader can get picked up by the employees, and such qualities spread across the workforce, helping develop forward-looking work culture. Therefore, being a leader, especially during a crisis, can be a formidable responsibility.
In the post-pandemic world, it becomes even more essential for leaders and managers to recognize that emotions can be contagious and make deliberate efforts to curb any potential adverse effects arising from them, and instead find ways and means to draw value from them for the benefit of the organization.
It is a known fact that reasoning and emotions are deeply interconnected – if you or your team members are under stress or worried, your ability to process information logically and take effective strategic decisions is adversely affected. On the other hand, positivity leads to better employee morale, enhanced work performance, fosters trust, and a stronger sense of belonging.
It is thus imperative that leaders learn to intentionally manage their own moods and emotions as well as work towards identifying the emotional triggers in others, to draw optimal value out of this phenomenon.
Steps to create a positive emotional work culture
The “people first” sentiment running through the veins of most organizations today defines the approach to employee engagement and wellness.
Leaders who understand the importance of emotional health and wellness can positively impact their employees. Therefore, with the ongoing virtualization of work, there is a drastic need for managers and leaders to be coached on aspects such as Emotional Intelligence (EI) at workplace, identifying and addressing conscious and unconscious biases, and so on, to be able to pinpoint and deal with these elements as and when they occur within their teams, as well as design effective strategies to remove associated detriments.
To this end, leaders must ensure that their tone, voice, or choice of words do not reflect any inflection of anger, stress, or discord, especially while collaborating in digital space. The leader or manager should sound supportive and non-judgmental, even while discussing deadlines or critical projects.
Adopting an empathic and positive approach is a given, especially as people strive to strike a work–life balance in the remote work environment. With workplace and personal space merging in the new normal, and the constant fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, many employees face mental stress and burnout. Leaders must understand that each individual has a different coping mechanism in dealing with any situation or circumstance and leaders need to delve deeper into the context that underlines the employee’s behaviours and choices. Spreading the message that we are “virtually together” can reinforce cohesion and inclusion amongst the workforce.
Additionally, by providing integrated wellness programs, the employees get access to tools and resources to help them deal with the anxiety and stress triggered by the pandemic and enable embrace their inner strength to navigate through these times without resorting to panic.
Acknowledging one’s feelings can help in connecting with the team and leads to a positive relationship. The secret behind striking a balance between realism and optimism lies within the paradox of realistic optimism, which means having the faith to share the most positive and empowering story possible in any given situation and the will to face hard facts head-on.