Returning to the Office: the importance of Emotional Intelligence in meetings

A recent article at trainingindustry.com has us thinking about the importance of emotional intelligence, or EQ, as US businesses start to return to in-person work. Of course, EQ and its component parts—self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills—have been considered an essential management skill set for decades. At the same time, in conversations we’ve been having with colleagues and friends, we’ve learned that meetings are among the most concerning aspects of the return to in-person work. After all, it’s been a long time since any of us have been in a room with multiple people we don’t live with and whose health and vaccination status is unknown to us. Both professional and primal, survival-oriented fears are raised, and leaders need to be prepared.

So we’ve been thinking about how to make those first in-person meetings less stressful by encouraging mindful, thoughtful application of EQ in the meetings you lead and participate in.

Working the Five Elements of EQ

Each of the five elements of emotional intelligence plays a role in managing the transition to in-person work. We’ve reordered them a bit here to help you start in the right place and build to what your employees will need.

  1. Recalibrate your self-perception. Ask yourself how you feel, and be honest. As a leader—of a team, a department, or a whole company—you’re used to being the rock everyone depends on. But you’ve been through the same scary year that everyone else has, and it’s bound to have changed you. Your previous self-image may no longer be accurate. Managing through crisis—and doing it remotely from the living room—was not something anyone was prepared for. In your own life, there may have been illnesses, political arguments, and the stress of managing a family and a workplace all from home. Take time to envision yourself in the work situation that awaits you. What scares you? What are you most looking forward to? What permanent changes are you most challenged by? You can be sure that the questions you’re asking of yourself will be asked up and down your org chart. While staying focused on the work—processes, responsibilities, expectations—take time at your first in-person meeting to talk this through. Begin by sharing your insights about yourself, and then let others speak about the kind of team member they expect to be going forward. Remember to give as much attention to the ways people feel they’ve gotten better as you do to fears or doubts.
  2. Start every meeting with empathy. Empathy means being able to consider a person’s situation—what they’ve been through and who they are—in order to understand what they’re feeling now. Empathy will tell you how your employees are handling the extra layer of stress around meetings: sharing the same indoor air and being in front of people and fully visible for the first time in months. You may even have people on your team who were hired during the pandemic and haven’t met anyone in person! Here’s where you might engage with the flipside of the work conversation above. Talk to your team members individually. If you’ve earned their trust, they should be candid with you about what they’ve been through and what they need to get up to speed smoothly. (Be sure you’ve collected information about any assistance your company offers, like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), work-from-home rules, or technology reimbursement). Equipped with an understanding of each individual, you can begin your meetings from a position of empathy, adapt participation to your team’s new reality, and demonstrate a lot more patience for the inevitable hiccups that will occur. As a result, you’ll make better decisions about how to manage your team into the future.
  3. Accept that your self-regulation will be challenged; resolve to manage it. Self-regulation means being able to control the visible manifestations of your own emotions. It means not exploding when you’re angry and not perceiving every error or misstep on someone else’s part as a personal affront. Organizations are planning to go back to business-as-usual with an entire population suffering from mild to debilitating levels of PTSD. People you’ve known and relied on for years may act in ways that baffle or frustrate you. Self-regulation means that you take a deep breath, engage your empathy, and recognize that getting from A to B on a business matter may take some winding emotional paths before your colleagues can do what would have been straightforward less than two years ago. And if your own fuse is short, think of ways you can give yourself a break. Handing over the reins of the meeting, tabling hot-button issues for another time, or shifting some topics to one-on-one conversations or written discussions are all ways to keep a meeting functional when everyone’s self-regulation, including yours, begins to falter.
  4. Motivation is likely much more complex now. Our motivation for our jobs tends to run on autopilot unless something major intervenes to shift our priorities and our perspective. A pandemic definitely counts as “something major.” If you think about it, everything has changed, from the social cachet of putting on a suit or planning a business lunch to individual families’ financial situations. Your own motivations should be reexamined in light of where you are in life right now. Practically speaking, you should begin meetings with a more careful framing of the purpose and benefits of the meeting, even if it’s a mundane, recurring event. Remind those present of why both the meeting itself and the larger work being discussed are important, not only to the company but to them as individuals and to the larger world. Be prepared for motivation to keep shifting—for yourself and your colleagues—for a while yet.
  5. Everyone’s social skills are rusty. Be patient with yourself and others. If nothing else, our adaptation to the artificiality of Zoom meetings—talking over each other, not making real eye contact, the dreaded “your internet connection is unstable”—have changed how we talk in groups. Our return to normal group interaction in meetings is going to feel like moving from climbing a craggy mountain to suddenly standing on an ice rink: with the limitations gone, people will slide around and maybe even fall. In addition to paying special attention to managing the give-and-take in meetings, you may want to add more structure to your interactions. Tactics such as breaking into small groups for part of meetings, taking a moment for participants to write responses they then share out and creating highly-structured agendas will help ease the transition from the weirdness of Zoom to the opposite weirdness of regular conversation.

Insightful leaders know that emotional intelligence is far more than being nice to people. It is a necessary management skill that eases times of transition and ensures employees have everything they need—physically, intellectually, and emotionally—to get their best work done. Having a solid plan in place, beginning with your own changes, fears, stumbling blocks, and needs, will help your teams through this time of transition with as much health, grace, and satisfaction as possible.

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About the Author: Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now vice president. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches and holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s founder, Dale Ludwig.

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