Making your emotions work for you — and against COVID–19

Emotional intelligence is the top trait of effective leaders. UAB leadership expert Jean Ann Larson, Ed.D., explains how to take control, whether you are managing colleagues or your kids' fears.
Written by: Matt Windsor
Media contact: Adam Pope


(Digital Composite)Most of us look up to leaders who can weather the storms of life while pointing to brighter times ahead. Today is the day for you to do likewise, whether you or not you have an official leadership role. The secret: emotional intelligence.

That’s the message from School of Medicine Leadership Development Officer Jean Ann Larson, Ed.D., who joined UAB in 2016 with a mandate to be “a catalyst for positive culture transformation throughout UAB Medicine.”

The biggest factor in creating a positive culture, Larson said, is boosting emotional intelligence — that is, a capacity to recognize and take control of your emotions.

“We all get a little better at this as we mature, but the minute you start to get super-stressed, lose sleep, get sick, hungry or worried, it becomes difficult to harness the emotional intelligence you have. If I’m stressed out I’m more likely to snap at someone, to assume negative things, to tell a story in my head that may be far from the truth.”

If you “can harness your emotions in a productive way, you can be more creative and collaborative,” Larson said. “It helps you perform better and remain productive in stressful situations. We are all going through a stressful situation right now with COVID–19, but we’ll continue to have stressful situations all our lives.” 

Begin with you

Developing emotional intelligence is an ongoing skill, Larson said. That means you can work on it a little at a time, starting today, by building self-awareness and self-regulation or self-management. (See her tips on questions to ask yourself and activities to practice below.)

“The most difficult thing you manage in every situation is yourself,” Larson said. “As a leader — and we all have people around us who look to us for leadership — people are looking to us for direction but also for emotional cues. When you see that calmness in a leader, you feel yourself settling down as well.”

Today, the most common emotions you and your co-workers, family and friends are probably experiencing are stress, anxiety and fear. “Emotional intelligence is probably more important now than ever,” Larson said. “It helps us deal with change, uncertainty, ambiguity — and you could argue those are things we all need now.”

So where to start, especially if you, like millions of Americans, are working from home?

rep ei runner 550px1. Take care of yourself

“The first thing I tell people is to make sure they carve out time for the activities that help them relax,” Larson said. "That is different for different people — it could be cooking or reading or listening to music. I happen to be a runner. Going out and disconnecting is very helpful to me.”

For UAB faculty and staff “who are now on the front lines — our doctors and nurses and other health providers — this is just as important,” Larson said. “Even if they don’t have much time. I tell them, ‘You need to restore yourself quickly and intentionally.’”

2. Set a schedule 

“Especially when you are working from home, and I learned this in my own consulting practice, you need that structure,” Larson said. “Get up, get dressed, have that cup of coffee, make the list of things you are going to work on. That is self-management.” It also helps you focus and stay productive.

3. Listen — and share

“One of the things I’ve put in place with my team are very brief, daily check-ins,” Larson said. “I ask: How is it going? What are your concerns? What are you needing?”

rep jean ann larson 550pxJean Ann Larson, Ed.D., Leadership Development Officer for the School of Medicine

Larson also encourages her team to look forward. “Think about difficult times you have been through,” she said. “You got through that and we will get through this. What are the productive things we can be doing in the meantime?”

And she shares what she knows. “Part of our daily virtual huddles include me sharing the information I have with my team,” Larson said. “If I know it and I can share it, I will share it. If we don’t have the information we have a tendency to make up stories, and those are often way worse than reality.”

4. Take advantage of technology — to slow yourself down

“Self-regulation is hard when you are under stress,” Larson said. “But we all need to learn to pause before we react. The good news for me with things like Zoom and other video meeting software is I can’t just blurt things out. That built-in delay helps you pause.” 

5. Be patient with yourself and others 

“We are all adapting to new tools and processes in a stressful time,” Larson said. “Being very patient with each other, and ourselves as we learn, makes those meetings or projects much more effective.”

Practice to inspire

Research indicates that emotional intelligence accounts for up to 90% of the difference between star performers and average performers in a wide range of fields, Larson said. "And emotional intelligence is really all about self-awareness and self-regulation.” [The information below is drawn from an article Larson wrote for leaders in the School of Medicine.]

Emotion-spotting

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others. Here are some questions and activities to try — Larson recommends picking one or two that you feel you can incorporate in your daily routine:

  • Ask yourself: What is my current emotional state? Am I experiencing discreet feelings and emotions? Can I name them?
  • As you identify emotions, describe them aloud or write them down.
  • Feel your emotions physically.
  • Pay attention to your emotions and behaviors and see if you recognize patterns throughout the day.
  • Reflect on the connection between your emotions and your behavior.
  • Know who and what pushes your buttons.
  • To improve your ability to self-assess, ask a family member or trusted advisor to describe your strengths and weaknesses. Compare their perspective with your own self-assessment.

Emotion-taming

Self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods and your capacity to think before acting. Once again, choose one or two of the exercises below to incorporate in your daily routine:

  • Practice self-restraint by listening first, pausing and then responding.
  • When you are becoming frustrated, stop and identify what brought on that emotion.
  • Create effective responses to stressful situations by finding strategies for altering a negative mood.
  • Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” in order to consider the reality of the situation.
  • Journal occurrences during which you were able to regulate your responses or emotions. How did the ability to self-regulate affect the outcomes and your relationship with others?
  • Begin regular exercise, yoga or meditation to increase your ability to manage your emotions and relax both body and mind. Exercise regulates your emotions by releasing endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine.
  • Get adequate sleep and rest. Without it, even with the best intentions, it is too easy to react in a way that you’ll regret.