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Organizations and their leaders must manage both their own emotions and those of others in different ways. It used to be that they could do this in successive steps, but now they have to manage everyone’s emotions at once.

Managing emotions is one of the greatest challenges a leader can face. And in tackling this challenge, the rule of thumb is: manage your own emotions before helping others. This becomes even trickier in moments of great stress, as in a crisis. Indeed, the world is undergoing a particularly stressful transformation right now — and time is not on our side.
It would be difficult to recall a longer period of daily instability and uncertainty than the one we’re currently living through. The battle against COVID-19 is proving to be long and drawn out. To date, over 2,400 million vaccines have been administered. And from this perspective, it might seem like the light at the end of the tunnel is finally within view. But then we read the headlines about another virus variant or renewed restrictions on international travel — and we’re stressed out all over again. Organizations around the world have been in a constant state of alarm for over a year.

For team leaders, managing emotions and anxiety has, during this pandemic, become one of the pillars of their everyday work. And once upon a time, the Kübler-Ross model served as a crucial emotional management tool during crises. Developed by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, this model introduced the now-famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The main virtue of this model, when adapted to an organizational setting, was that it allowed us to contextualize the emotions of our collaborators. It can take upwards to a year to fully implement new technology (like an operating system), integrate a new billing system, or undergo a change management process. So the Kübler-Ross model, among other tools, allowed us to prepare our teams for such changes in a more structured and ordered way, giving them the time they needed to adapt. Even better, the five stages proposed by Kübler-Ross let us anticipate the emotional states of our team members. And in the best of cases, it also gave us a detailed itinerary to navigate the transformations forced upon us by the market.

However, this past year has shaken everything up. Today, the psychological health of our organizations must be reassessed constantly. For an example of just how rapidly everything is changing, look at the vaccine industry. Before the pandemic, research and development of vaccines could take years. It followed a well-known, structured process. And the length and meticulousness of this process was exactly what earned vaccines the trust of the public and enabled a measured emotional reception to the finished products.

Yet since 2020, this process has been dramatically sped up. We are now administering vaccines after only eight months of research and development. This has encouraged many heated discussions and popular resistance. A vocal and sizable minority of the world population is having difficulty accepting that these new and quickly-produced vaccines can be as good as their comparatively slow-to-arrive predecessors.

This situation is repeated — in different industries and with different products — within our organizations. And as leaders, we don’t always have the right tools to deal with the after-effects of change. Think about how we’ve had to manage the shift to remote working. Just sixteen months ago, this practice was an exception. Now companies, people, and entire infrastructures have to fit into domestic workspaces.

All together on the ocean floor

The transformative power of the pandemic has altered everything that regulated the mental and psychological health of our teams. Change came fast, even immediately. We feel exhausted from constantly sitting in front of our screens. And we perceive a constant (whether real or imagined) threat to our economic stability. This has all made the path to transformation a messy, hurried, and anarchic affair.

“I’m drowning. What can I do?” This is one of the most frequent questions organizations are asking themselves. They may not always phrase the question in this way, but the same meaning always comes through. Metaphorically-speaking: the pandemic is forcing us to learn how to swim in the darkest depths of our reality, whereas before we could take our first swimming lessons closer to the shore.

As leaders, we must manage this experience more than we did before. And beyond this act of managing, we have to hold our collaborators’ hands and guide them through all this immediate uncertainty. In doing this, we must ask ourselves how agile we need to be. And focus on the following essential goal: accompanying our collaborators so they can lift up their heads in the midst of change. Together, we must shift our vision: rather than fight for subsistence we should fight for self-improvement. And to achieve this, as leaders, we must enter the arenas of both reason and emotion. That is, we must look at the processes and experiences that can allow our collaborators to meet their objectives.

To this end, we can take advantage of a quality that separates human beings from other animals: empathy. This quality can be defined as: “The capacity of a person to put themselves in another’s shoes, and understand what that other person feels and needs.” But empathy can also be defined in terms of mutual collaboration. Empathy does not require us to think exactly like or even agree with other people. Rather, more precisely, it means being attuned to others’ emotional states and being able to picture the world from their unique perspectives. To be empathetic is to understand, not to justify. So has empathy taken center stage where once stood the arts of teaching, instructing, and communicating.

Swimming alongside our own people

The art of change management has always involved laying the groundwork for people to accept change. But today, we don’t have the time to do that. In a matter of months, our model of leadership has gone through its own transformation. Rather than leading from the front lines, now we lead next to our collaborators, as we help them navigate their emotions while preparing the organization for the future. Hopefully, the trajectories of both our collaborators and our organization will merge when the moment comes to make change a reality. We’re like swim teachers, except now we’re swimming next to our students rather than shouting at them from outside the pool.


By Alejandro Goldstein, Partner at OLIVIA