Emotional Intelligence and Crisis: Does it Matter?


Photo by: Joan M. Mas

A mainstay of leadership is to handle crisis with aplomb and an effective resolution.

Unfortunately, for many leaders this is not always their approach.

At times, the intention may be to lead through a dramatic predicament into order, but the leader may be masking or blunting his or her emotional state, which may impact the way he or she is perceived by employees. This leader may also be paying a higher price in physical health and emotional well-being from the affect of anxiety, stress or even depression.

Clearly, there is also the case of a leader who yells at his subordinates when there is a crisis or stress. This does not engender loyalty or respect, as opposed to being a leader who remains in control of him or herself, while collectedly appraising the circumstances at hand.

When are the seeds planted, which determine how a leaders responds to a critical event?

Childhood upheaval, stress or trauma can have life-long effects; some who have suffered in any capacity as children, grow into adulthood believing the world is an unsafe and dangerous place. Unfortunately, this also creates the foundation for future traumatic events to affect these individuals in a severe manner and be at cause for anxiety or in some cases, PTSD (Goleman, 1995).

In the past, it was believed that individuals who become emotionally numb after a disturbing event were assumed to be emotionally healthy, but research has actually shown the opposite is true; they may actually be more prone to chronic anxiety and/or PTSD. Detachment was accepted as a strength, but is actually a way to keep negative emotions from surfacing and being dealt with by the individual.

Many leaders fashioned this style of coping as favorable, showing an impenetrable expression, which creates reactive problem-solving in the face of disaster rather than acknowledging the reality of a situation and processing supportive strategies.

In a more recent study it was suggested that individuals either deal with traumatic stress by processing or avoidance.

Individuals, who are able to process the event, deal with the dramatic recollection through a process of creating a story and thus find greater effectiveness and ease in dealing with those memories. Individuals, who practice avoidance, also tend to stay away from circumstances, which provide a reminder of the past event. Avoidance does not allow them to process their disturbing or painful memories. The method of coping through avoidance of these internal and external reminders of the affronting recollection only serves to keep the memory active and vulnerable to resurface at any time. (Hunt& Evans, 2004).

The study expounds further on the concept of processing vs. avoidance; it provides research from other theories, which indicate that a person who is processing or monitoring emotions believes they have more control internally of outside events than a person who is avoiding or blunting their emotions.

The person who is avoiding is said to have an external locus of control, which is defined, as the belief that the world is controlled by outside events and the individual is powerless. Their approach to responding to emotional situations is inflexible and tends to be limited in the ability to go through the recovery process; denial and compartmentalizing of emotions is their overall coping mechanism. This supports the concept of those individuals who do process their emotions possess a higher level of Emotional Intelligence than those who do not deal with their feelings (Hunt & Evans, 2004).

Many leaders and their managers who have an external locus of control will believe inevitably that circumstances in their environment make them more reactive, and will try to usurp control of a situation by strategizing or manipulating to overcome or neutralize what they actually cannot subjugate in external factors.

It may seem to work, but is temporary, because it is an illusion of control. Leading others through the use of fear or having any directives based in fear, always guarantees that sooner or later the leader will lose power, respect or the semblance of control.

Individuals who operate with an internal locus of control determine functional versus dysfunctional coping styles when managing their own emotions, it encourages the choice of an adaptive manner of managing in the case of stress and other negative states.

Often times, an individual who maintains an adaptive state of emotional control sees adversity as impermanent and has the belief that "This too shall pass." In a crisis, they are well adjusted and truly understand that the control comes from inspired action rather than controlling reaction. They are not threatened by dealing with intense or painful emotions; they employ effective coping strategies, such as obtaining social support and self-talk. The study summarizes that individuals with a higher Emotional Intelligence handle traumatic events with less negative psychological indicators (Hunt & Evans, 2004).

Leaders who have an internal locus of control manage their emotions and those of others in a more positive manner when going through a crisis. In another study (2011), titled Emotional Intelligence in Social Phobia and Other Anxiety Disorders, a correlation was found between Emotional Intelligence and Anxiety Disorders. This result was consistent with the already recognized connection between problems describing and identifying emotions in individuals with Anxiety disorders, which involve the issue of change in stressful situations (Summerfeldt, Kloosterman, Antony, McCabe, & Parker, 2011).

How important is emotional intelligence in handling crisis?

As a leader, it is important to develop action through consistent understanding and connection to the goal. When crisis erupts it is not the time to deviate and make decisions from a state of reaction. The crisis is temporary. Whether the leader believes this and reacts by trying to extinguish this symptom, "the crisis," or instead looks beyond and readdresses how to reach the goal from this altered state, will determine his or her long term success in meeting a difficult dilemma.

Leaders can increase their emotional intelligence by using self-help tools, working with a coach/mentor or therapist and a variety of programs. Many individuals who struggle at the lower levels of Emotional Intelligence may employ certain tactics, which keep them disengaged from their own internal dialogue. Numerous people spend time distracting others and even themselves, interrupting or changing the subject when it becomes uncomfortable to experience an emotion. It is important as a leader with a high IQ, to connect and regulate his or her emotional state.

Healthy emotions contradict each other, as they rise and fall like a wave throughout the day. Many people are afraid to experience this sensation. The key is to practice self-awareness and not cut the feeling of the emotion short, but to, instead, allow it to reach its peaks and fade away naturally. Every time an individual creates a connection to his or her emotional state they are in effect enhancing their Emotional Intelligence. There are several ways to increase Emotional Intelligence, not mentioned here. The key is operating from this emotionally stable place no matter what is going on in the environment around an individual. In times of crisis, authentic leadership is required.

Goleman, D. (1995). Trauma and Emotional Relearning. In Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ. (pp. 200-214). New York, New York: Bantam Books.

Hunt, N., & Evans, D. (2004). Predicting traumatic stress using Emotional Intelligence. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42, 791-798. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2003.07.009

Summerfeldt, L. J., Kloosterman, P. H., Antony, M. M., McCabe, R. E., & Parker, J. A. (2011). Emotional Intelligence in social phobia and other Anxiety disorders. Journal Of Psychopathology And Behavioral Assessment, 33(1), 69-78. doi:10.1007/s10862-010-9199-0.