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Amanda Cahal

A Q&A with Director of MBA Global Programs Amanda Cahal

Shortly after the unsettling reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, employers and employees worldwide began facing raw and difficult emotions. Amanda Cahal, director of Global Programs for Daniels’ Executive and Professional MBA Programs, discusses the value of emotional intelligence during these uncertain times.

Q: What is emotional intelligence and why is it important, particularly right now?

A: Emotional intelligence (EI) is essentially composed of two key pieces: self-awareness and social awareness. Navigating change, particularly sudden and drastic change, has the potential to intensify our emotions. When we’re operating from a place of stress, our self-awareness is usually the first thing to go. We essentially lose our filter, and we often slide a bit further into our comfort zone. This typically means our responses become more rigid as we grasp for control, and rigidity in the face of complexity only makes matters worse. Emotional intelligence has always been important, but it’s crucial when navigating uncertainty and change as an increased EI leads to more adaptability and flexibility.

We have an unusual opportunity to practice empathy right now because we can safely assume that everyone we meet is also operating from a place of stress. By dialing into others’ emotions, asking questions, really listening to the answers and communicating from a place of empathy, we have an opportunity to purposefully build our relationships. The distinction between communicating, which is transactional, and connecting, which entails building an emotional rapport, is important. The solidarity that comes from all of us being in this together is also key to managing our emotions and building our empathy.

Q: What types of emotions arise in the midst of sudden and drastic change?

A: Typical emotions include fear, anxiety, depression and frustration. We’ve all felt these emotions, but when life gets in the narrow, our emotions intensify. Coping mechanisms are important, as some of our usual techniques may be unavailable, such as meeting friends for dinner, playing basketball in the park, shopping and going to the gym. Making a list of coping mechanisms can be really helpful. Know when you need to phone a friend, go for a walk, watch a favorite movie, take a break and play with your pet, etc.

Q: What should we focus on during crises?

A: For every negative news story we read, there are thousands of positive stories – thousands of people helping others and going above and beyond to do so. I think it’s important to hang on to these stories, as we can easily lose sight of the big picture and focus only on the problems. The sense of solidarity a crisis creates is not something that is easily recreated. Ask yourself how this crisis might bring out the best in you. How might you improve your ability to connect with the people around you? The skills we hone now may serve us well for the rest of our lives.

Q: What new challenges arise when working remotely?  

A: Communication and procrastination are two issues. Working from home means we are living on Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and email more than ever. Communication is 7 percent literal, 38 percent is tone of voice and 55 percent is body language, context, and eye contact, according to research by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA.  Because we lose so much communication over email and text messages, video-conferencing is really important if we want to catch more than the 7 percent that is purely transactional. We also know that communicating with a high degree of emotional and social intelligence is the glue that holds a team together, and transactional communication is the solvent that dissolves the glue. Procrastination was always deemed a time management issue, but it’s now considered an emotion management issue. There is typically something about a task that has you putting it off: Fear of failure, boredom, anxiety. Once you begin, you’re likely to finish, but taking that first step requires true self-motivation when we’re working from home.

Q: What are the primary EI skills leaders must demonstrate in a crisis?

A: I urge people to watch the six-minute video from Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International. He was brilliant, candid, vulnerable, emotional, empathetic, humble and the definition of an emotionally intelligent leader. The message he had to deliver was really tough, but he did it in a way that has the whole company behind him.

Q: What’s your best advice to those in the harder hit industries for staying emotionally healthy?

A: Coping mechanisms are incredibly important for, say, folks in the oil and gas industry or healthcare. If you’re not taking care of yourself and having a real heart-to-heart with your own emotions, you won’t be able to effectively lead your teams and companies through this crisis. We cannot operate on autopilot, which is what we tend to do when we have a low sense of self-awareness.

Q: What additional insights about EI have you gleaned from the current crisis?

A: Having the news on all day will drastically increase your anxiety. My advice to people is to stay informed via reputable sources, and then turn off the news. Perhaps dedicate 30 minutes of your day to staying up to date. The media’s role in producing anxiety-inducing stories has been phenomenal. [Actor] John Krasinski’s [YouTube Channel] “Some Good News” is a great response to this and has millions of views every week.

Cahal is also a faculty member in Daniels’ Executive Education. She is certified in Insights and will teach a Insights Discovery July 17. Learn more on the Executive Education website