The events that have occurred since March 2020 have dominated the global scene and put a strain on most companies. Indeed, the rapid increase in contagions and deaths related to COVID-19 have affected markets, public services, and private services all over the globe, causing one of the greatest crises that compromised even the simplest aspects of daily life. The significant and sudden changes that have taken place in people’s lives have led to the emergence of powerful emotions linked to an uncertain future regarding the modern workplace. All these changes have resulted in people needing to develop new coping strategies to respond to new job demands, especially emotional ones.
The fact that intense emotions emerge in times of organizational crisis is not a new topic. Indeed, some studies have revealed the quality of these emotions and identified their possible effects [1
]. However, we want to emphasize the role of business leaders in managing these emotions through their emotional intelligence (EI). EI allows business leaders to deal with the human and emotional complexities of situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to impact organizations, business leaders’ EI skills such as self-awareness, emotional management, relationships, and effective communication will be essential for coping with daily environmental pressures [5
]. In addition, emotions shown by business leaders are often reflected in the affective group tone [6
] in terms of emotional contagion [7
]. In this case, emotion is transmitted to, and subsequently influences, colleagues, leading to consequences at various levels. Leaders are encountering an unprecedented challenge due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 epidemic, guiding teams through a crisis whose extent and end point is unknown. It is a challenge full of leadership opportunities and difficult decisions. Leaders should use EI as they strive relentlessly to meet the many challenges that lie ahead. Indeed, only those who can adapt and change during times of crisis will survive in this context. It is the role of leaders to demonstrate empathy, hope, and flexibility to guide people out of this crisis.
Therefore, this research explores the world of emotions and the emotional management strategies of business leaders when their organizations are experiencing a moment of crisis. We decided to give a voice directly to the leaders who found themselves facing and managing these kinds of emotional situations. Using a qualitative approach, we can increase the knowledge related to emotional depth and diversity through the different stories business leaders gave us regarding interpreting their emotions and their management strategies. Moreover, we go deeper into how emotions are included in organizational processes and how they influence business leaders’ choices and behaviors, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
Emotions certainly play an essential role in management thinking. Previous research has shown how difficult the crisis experience can be and what emotional issues need attention when managing an organizational crisis [11
]. However, few studies have qualitatively evaluated the emotions of business leaders in their own words. For this reason, we applied a qualitative methodology to ask a group of business leaders to describe their experience managing the organizational crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our principal results are related to the quality of the emotions expressed by business leaders during a crisis and the business leaders’ strategies for managing their own emotions and the emotions of their followers.
The first result of our research is the centrality of anxiety as the primary emotion exhibited by business leaders. Anxiety about the present and the future appear when the conversation is about the COVID-19 pandemic and its determined changes. This result is not unexpected, considering that stress and anxiety always appear during change and crises [1
]. As Weiss and Cropanzano AET [28
] emphasized, the importance of recognizing emotions that emerge in the workplace is mainly related to the impact of employees’ emotions on workplace attitudes and behaviors.
Several authors define the negative emotions of leaders and followers as an obstacle to change and state that these emotions have negative consequences for the individual and the organization (e.g., [81
]). For example, persistent anxiety can disrupt a person’s work–life balance on physical, psychological, and behavioral levels, resulting in a symptomatic burden [82
]. In line with these results, we argue that persistent anxiety can have an undesirable effect on business leaders’ and companies’ performance. Nevertheless, we also believe that in an acceptable “quantity”, anxiety can be an opportunity to pause, reflect, and work courageously for personal and organizational growth. Moreover, negative emotions can foster systematic and careful information processing and redirect attention to force a thoughtful process to resolve the problems produced by the crisis [83
]. Most likely, all the business leaders we interviewed have experienced anxiety, but the difference lies in how they handled anxiety. In fact, some of them reported managing their anxiety and acting courageously. Others denied to both themselves and us that they felt these emotions, as if not wanting to expose their fragility.
In the stories told by the business leaders we interviewed, anxiety also seemed to emerge from the compresence of positive and negative emotions. This aspect is fascinating because little research has focused on positive emotions during crises or periods of change [84
]. The fact that some business leaders reported having experienced positive emotions does not surprise us. Indeed, positive emotions are related to coping strategies, as described by the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions [86
], which prove to be particularly useful in moments of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The leaders who were able to bring back positive emotions proved themselves to be more resilient or able to bounce back from adverse events, resisting them and rebuilding positive development. Positive emotions reported by leaders also positively affect the organization in general. For instance, research on leaders’ positive emotions indicates that positive emotions expressed by leaders can encourage and motivate subordinates [11
]. In addition, resilient individuals cultivate positive emotions in themselves. These leaders are also skilled at eliciting positive emotions in their followers, creating a supportive social network to aid in coping [87
In response to the crisis, we found a whole array of positive and negative emotions in the words of the leaders interviewed. It is relevant that emotions are part of organizational life as much as rational reasoning and cannot be considered an ancillary or even out-of-context factor to leadership effectiveness. This means that emotional intelligence is an important skill and should be part of the skills taught or coached when designing any consulting intervention of leadership development. This conclusion is far from being obvious since, as of today, most Master’s in business administration executive education programs still put little emphasis on this subject in favor of more cognitive skills, such as strategy, business and market analysis, innovation, and so on. A more balanced focus in executive programs will be necessary to prepare more self-aware and influential leaders, as we realize and accept that instability, crises, and ambiguity will increasingly be the rule and not the exception. Therefore, it is necessary to redesign executive education programs to include emotional intelligence as a fundamental skill for leadership effectiveness.
Our second result is related to business leaders’ emotional management. This dimension, defined as the ability to use and manage emotions in behavioral decision-making, is a key dimension of EI and a central theme in crisis management. Indeed, when most people are confused and uncertain about what to do, leaders need strong emotional self-management to persevere under challenging circumstances [84
]. The business leaders interviewed did not always express efficient management strategies despite this assumption.
As Ashkanasy and Humphrey explained [26
] individual differences exist within the second level of their model in relating emotions and managing them. Specifically, some business leaders struggled to manage their emotions during our interviews. They reported only two different modalities to react to their emotions, directly associated with managing their followers’ emotions.
The first modality of self-management is rational management, which is strictly linked to low self-awareness. Some leaders reported that they did not feel any emotions during the crisis, or that they neutralized their emotions. During such a moment of crisis and change, it is likely that these leaders decided not to express the emotions they felt, considering them inappropriate for the organizational context. Moreover, through analysis of the interviews, it emerged that leaders were better able to recognize and verbalize the emotions of their employees rather than their own. This issue occurs when emotions are principally negative, indicating that the leader is expected to manage the anxiety and concerns of his employees. However, it is not acceptable for him to express his own negative emotions. This type of behavior is linked to emotional labor [88
] and consists precisely of suppressing negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and frustration to make room for only positive emotions. Based on our analysis, it appears that our interviewees hid their emotions from both their followers and us. However, leaders are probably not entirely aware of the effects of this suppression of emotions on workers’ well-being, emotional exhaustion, and burnout [89
]. This may be due to the fact that some business leaders spoke as if it was inappropriate to acknowledge emotions and give themselves space for reflection within their work context. In practice, this idea may lead to the unfortunate conclusion that emotions need to be managed and overcome in order to succeed [13
]. It is no coincidence that those who have this type of response tend to underestimate the role of their employees’ emotions and implement management strategies aimed at suppressing or resolving them as quickly as possible. These leaders are also those who expect the same type of behavior to be enacted by their followers and show less emotional intelligence.
This finding implies that even if leaders are much more aware of the dignity of emotions in professional life, there is still no clarity about which strategies can be used to manage one’s and others’ emotional reactions. From this point of view, both the academic and consulting worlds have to play a pivotal role in helping leaders develop self-awareness and social skills to inform managerial practices with a more self-aware and empathetic approach. Indeed, most of the business leaders we interviewed did not consider their own emotions as a priority in their management practice, as if emotions were a secondary matter or something to overcome for the good of their role. It seems that “managing people” is well recognized as the main priority of being a leader, while “managing yourself” is not part of the deal, and may even sound too self-indulgent. From our point of view, leadership development programs should balance a focus on self-awareness and self-management versus people management. It is only with this approach that it is possible to recognize that leaders cannot be truly connected with others’ emotions if they are not taught how to identify and manage their own emotions first.
On the other hand, we have leaders who were more sensitive to the theme of emotions. They, unlike their counterparts, seemed able to regulate their own emotions and the emotions of others. Such leaders can empathize with their followers, communicate their vision and feelings, and create positive and constructive relationships. During the interviews, these leaders were thoroughly and truthfully aware of their emotions, even when describing negative ones. Moreover, leaders who demonstrated higher emotional intelligence understood that their followers needed to be heard and their emotional state understood. It was precisely this investment of time and energy in their employees that proved to be the key to neutralizing, in a healthy way, the dominant emotions and reactivating the positive resources that each person possesses within themselves.
This research underlined the importance of emotions and emotional management strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our focus was on looking at the role of Italian business leaders from a qualitative perspective, which has not previously been utilized in this research area.
According to the literature and our analysis, leaders who are aware of their own and others’ emotions and able to manage them are better equipped to intervene in emotionally challenging situations, such as the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite this, our interviews only partially revealed business leaders’ EI abilities and awareness. Still too often, in the Italian context, the topic of emotions and their management is underestimated, and authoritarian managers are interested in financial success and not in the emotional well-being of employees (especially in the case of directive listening). However, this behavior is completely dissonant with the prominence that EI has achieved in recent years, to the extent that it is considered one of the critical soft skills for leaders and employees in industries 4.0. [90
] and 5.0. [91
Thus, while academic research [48
] and good organizational practices recognize EI as a key skill, the view of some leaders currently working in organizations is different. Thus, intervention practices should be implemented, such as creating effective training interventions [45
] and promoting an emotionally aware organizational culture [57
]. Indeed, for EI to be recognized as a valuable leadership skill, the action on explicit and implicit norms that guide how people manage emotions and conflicts in teams is crucial, since this will directly influence information sharing, collaboration, and performance.
From our point of view, intervening in cultural changes is necessary to achieve sustainable leadership able to adapt to the transformational change in the post COVID-19 era and move forward.