Leading With a Focus on Emotional Intelligence – and Now Even More Important, Emotional Agility

Bryan Zaslow

Oct 5, 2021


The number of employees headed back to the office has gone from a trickle to a steady stream. Here in New York City, our mayor just announced that all municipal workers who are still working remotely have two weeks to return to their desks. On Wall Street, the majority of the largest financial and investment firms have instructed their employees to return to the office

At JBC and Janou Pakter, the large majority of our client base have gone from being remote to telling employees that they will be back in the office — even just part time — very shortly. Overall, employers in Manhattan predict that about 41% of employees were back in the city’s office towers by the end of September. That’s less than the 62% they had hoped for just a few months ago, but it’s clearly an upward trajectory.

As organizations revise their policies to take into account the latest announcements about the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the workers who’ve been hunkered down at home for 18 months are stoked to come back. (This includes a lot of parents who have finally been relieved of around-the-clock childcare duties as their kids head back to school.) Other workers admit to having mixed feelings about returning. And there are some who say they don’t want to go back under any circumstances. We’ve been discussing these types of reactions at JBC since May, when I called a mandatory all-hands meeting to discuss returning to the office. We decided that moving forward there would be three types of colleagues at JBC: those who prefer working remotely, those looking forward to being in the office full-time, and those (like me) who believe that the best solution for them will be some kind of middle ground.

The last 18 months have been challenging for anyone who runs a company. How does a leader connect with the people around them, especially when they’re experiencing a wide range of emotions about coming back to work?  Even more importantly, how does a leader foster the connections for newer colleagues who joined their organization during the pandemic? How can a leader help them succeed and keep them engaged in their work? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Emotional Intelligence and how it guides the way you manage your organization.

Emotional Intelligence — often simply known as EQ — refers to a person’s ability to understand, use, and manage their own emotions in positive ways to empathize with others, overcome challenges, relieve stress, communicate effectively, and defuse conflict.  Those with a strong EQ know how their behavior can have a direct impact on others. People with high emotional intelligence make good leaders because they can accurately gauge how their employees are feeling and can make better decisions.

According to Harvard Business School, EQ is the strongest predictor of success in a leader. It accounts for 90% of what sets the best leaders apart. Things like IQ also matter, but they are the “entry-level requirements for executive positions.”

As important as Emotional Intelligence is, the events of 2020 into 2021 have required more. I believe the leaders at the most successful companies have transitioned from Emotional Intelligence to Emotional Agility. They have gone beyond just awareness of their own emotions and have successfully been able to navigate through them, detaching from them so that they do not define their reactions and responses by those emotions. 

Having the gift of Emotional Agility allows you to center and call out your intent and the impact you want to have, then communicate clearly your ideas without emotions. It never invalidates your emotions, but treats them as a point of data. They are no longer a driving force in how you manage what’s in front of you.

Like all of us, sometimes you’re going to experience negative emotions. Pretending that they don’t exist might help you get past a single stressful situation, but isn’t productive in the long run. According to psychologist Susan David, whose work on Emotional Agility is nothing short of groundbreaking, says suppressing emotion can pile on stress, increase errors, stifle innovation, and hurt job performance. Emotional Agility requires examining your emotions and understanding how they impact your leadership. When you have an anxious or angry impulse, think about what is triggering it. Have you felt that way before in a similar situation? How did you react at that moment? Emotional Agility lets you step back, examine your feelings, and make better decisions. For example, consider David’s concept of “showing up.” Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions, just face directly into them with curiosity and understanding. Alternatively, think about “stepping out.” Finding a mechanism to create a detached observation of your emotions in an effort to react most appropriately without letting emotions hold you back.

Incorporating Emotional Agility into your management style doesn’t just have a positive impact on you — It affects your entire organization. Dr. David said it best: “The truth is that organizations themselves can never be truly agile unless the people who work within them are agile — and more specifically, emotionally agile.” 

Whether you know it or not, your team is following your lead. When you handle stressful situations well, don’t be surprised if they do as well. Practicing Emotional Agility in these difficult times pays off in many unexpected ways.