Use Emotional Intelligence to Cope in Tough Times

How managers can help staff deal with job insecurity

2003 Volume 6 Issue 1

Managers who use emotional intelligence can ameliorate stress related to job insecurity and also help to reframe the situation so that it positively impacts employee performance.

The current economic downturn and the implications of 9/11 have combined to create a pessimistic business climate, at least in the short term. Such an environment breeds considerable uncertainty and anxiety regarding job security. Given this condition, what is a manager’s role in assisting staff to cope with the worry and stress associated with job uncertainty?

A review of the research shows mixed results regarding the link between job insecurity and performance in the workplace. Some studies suggest that employees who feel uncertain about their job status are likely to work harder and with greater commitment than are those who feel secure in their jobs. The rationale is that employees who believe their jobs are threatened tend to increase performance to secure their positions and enhance the opportunities of contingent rewards. However, other studies have found the opposite to be true. That is, when employees perceive they are in danger of losing their jobs, alienation occurs and results in decreased effort and commitment.[1] The problem that employers face is how to make sense of such conflicting results.

One explanation for the inconsistent findings may relate to the ways that managers deal with employee anxiety associated with job insecurity. That is, the way that managers respond to crises may help shift employee attitudes from potentially negative to more favorable.

The purpose of this article is to present a practical framework based on the application of emotional intelligence that managers can use not only to ameliorate stress related to job insecurity, but also to reframe the situation so that it positively impacts employee performance.

A Framework for Emotional Intelligence

Before presenting such a framework, it is necessary to clarify the meaning and relevance of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence,[2] defines emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”[3] It has been said that those with high emotional intelligence are able to merge emotions and reason, accessing emotions to assist reasoning and reasoning intelligently about emotions.

One of the challenges in determining the value of emotional intelligence is to develop an accurate means of identifying characteristics associated with managing emotions. Taking into consideration a number of models, we suggest a five-dimension framework that incorporates the key ingredients of emotional intelligence. The common themes of emotional intelligence include:

  • Emotional-Awareness: The ability not only to recognize one’s own feelings, but also to identify and understand the feelings of others.
  • Self-Regulation: The ability to monitor and control one’s own feelings and emotions in order to avoid reacting inappropriately.
  • Responsiveness to Situational Cues: The ability to engage in appropriate actions, given the emotional content of a situation.
  • Influence: The ability to understand emotions and feelings, which allows one to shape and motivate others’ behavior. While self-awareness concerns the acknowledgment of emotions, influence refers to one’s ability to impact the behavior of others.
  • Decision-making Astuteness: The ability to discern others’ emotions accurately, thus enabling one to make better personal decisions by anticipating ways in which others will react to those decisions.

A number of studies have shown that these dimensions are skill based rather than being native aptitudes. That is, the ability to engage in emotional intelligence can be taught and enhanced.[4]

The Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

Although still in the early stages of conceptual development, emotional intelligence has been shown to be an important skill in improving performance and increasing job satisfaction. For example, research has demonstrated that physicians who are skilled in identifying patients’ emotions are more effective in treating those patients than are their less empathetic colleagues. In studies of Air Force recruiters and American Express financial advisors, those who were able to demonstrate characteristics associated with high emotional intelligence were more effective in accomplishing goals than were those who did not possess these skills.[5]

A Practical Tool for the Application of Emotional Intelligence

If emotional intelligence has value for the manager, how can skills related to emotional intelligence be applied in an environment of job insecurity? In order to assist managers in dealing with employee anxiety related to job uncertainty, we present a five-step strategy that incorporates the emotional intelligence framework described above.

Emotional Awareness

During periods of uncertainty, managers often tend to deny their own feelings of stress. Perhaps this denial is due to their belief that leaders are required to put on a “stoic face” in order to demonstrate that they are in charge. In fact, they may just be ignoring their concerns. Recognizing emotions related to the situation is helpful because it encourages the manager to take action rather than be passive, that is, to create a plan to deal with the justifiable tension among employees.

The emotional awareness dimension also requires managers to pay attention to the emotions of others. Managers need to show empathy and be aware of the impact that job insecurity may have on employees and their families. Failing to demonstrate caring, understanding behavior may send inappropriate messages that have a negative impact. Employees who perceive a “lack of understanding” are likely to share that perception with others in the organization. Such negative communication can lead to an epidemic of bad feelings throughout the organization.

Body language and other non-verbal cues are good sources of information that can alert managers to the level of tension that may exist in the office. Few smiles, a lack of informal conversation and eye contact, and a demonstrably reduced energy level among the staff are examples of subtle yet significant signs of heightened stress among employees.

Verbal cues often are subtle, but sensitivity to indirect verbal messages is important in perceiving problems and in responding with appropriate concern. For example, a statement such as, “I guess there are going to be a lot of changes around here,” may really be asking, “Is my job safe?” It is suggested that managers pay attention both to their own emotions and to those of employees. It would be wise to listen actively and carefully to verbal signals and be able to perceive non-verbal signals as well.


Uncertainty about job status generally results in increased tension in the office. Managers may react defensively if pressure from employees regarding job concerns continues to mount. While it is appropriate to display emotions, one should nevertheless remain in control of them. Remaining “in control” in times of stress is widely perceived as sign of leadership. Sometimes a manager who experiences stress may lash out and vent negative feelings on employees. Such behavior usually proves deleterious to business relationships as well as to the work environment. Balance and self-regulation help preserve harmony in the workplace.

When seeking to cope with extreme impulses in stressful times, managers may find it helpful to place themselves in the “shoes” of their staff members. Questions such as, “How would I respond in a similar situation?” or “What would I be feeling if my family were dependent solely on my salary?” may enable managers to empathize with the job fears of others. Such questions may also assist managers in dealing more effectively and sensitively with their own feelings.

On the other hand, a danger arises if managers take in too much of the employees’ pain and anxiety. If they experience excessive identification with employees’ concerns and problems, they may lose objectivity. While managers are required to understand the employees’ feelings and needs, they nevertheless must practice emotional self-management so that they do not spread the contagion of employees’ negative feelings.

Responsiveness to Situational Cues

Awareness and regulation are important first steps, however action is also required. The manager’s ability to express empathy may be valuable in dealing with the anxiety of job uncertainty, and being empathic is important. But the use of empathy is not without risks and dangers. To be effective, empathy ought to be sincere. If it is not, employees will likely recognize it as being hollow and sterile. Such lack of sincerity would then exacerbate the employees’ anxiety and might also generate angry feelings toward the supervisor.

To use empathy effectively, it is necessary for managers to genuinely respect the worth of the individuals. For example, in a well-publicized response to the anxieties and insecurities felt by United Airlines employees during the company’s 2002 downturn, the CEO walked through O’Hare International Airport hugging employees and passing out buttons stating, “United Will Stand.”[6]

Another helpful technique for managers to practice is asking open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about your concerns” and “What can I tell you that would be useful for you to know?” The empathy shown by seeking specific input about anxieties does not mean that the manager will then and there solve the problem. Neither should the response falsely reassure employees that there is nothing to worry about if indeed there is reason to be concerned. For instance, if upper echelon company officers have informed the manager that lay-off decisions will be announced soon but request this information not be revealed to the staff, the manager is obligated to respect such confidences. However, that does not mean the manager cannot empathize with employees by listening to their concerns. In such a case, a manager might respond by saying, “I can understand your feelings, and I know why the uncertainty is so stressful, but at this time, I do not have an answer for you.”

Word of possible layoffs usually gets out, however, and the manager needs to recognize this and address such a contingency as forthrightly as possible. Employees want to hear from the manager, not from the rumor mill. In management, issues of trust are of paramount importance and concern.

Empathy expressed by the manager allows employees to be recognized and understood. Employees who feel “unheard” may convey even stronger feelings of insecurity and anxiety that can spread to other members of the organization and also impact employees’ families.


Maintaining healthy and productive relationships between employees and the organization can be a high leverage influence. When managers seek to continue a spirit of shared goals with employees, they can become quite convincing that it is in the best interest of the employee to remain a part of the team. Not behaving as part of the team can lead to greater job insecurity than may presently exist and possibly to termination when such an eventuality might otherwise never have occurred. Another way that managers can frame the issue is to explain to employees the value of maintaining quality performance even in light of uncertain job status. Performing well and even being proactive in taking responsibilities can enhance skill development so that the skills gained can be used in the current organization or may be transferred to another position elsewhere.

It is important to stress that managers who demonstrate sincerity and genuine care for the well-being and welfare of employees are likely to engender positive responses. For example, difficult situations can be framed in ways that allow employees to identify positive and productive actions that may be taken to ameliorate difficult situations. However, effecting such insight is a fine balancing act. Nevertheless, an unrealistic response is likely to engender frustration in employees that may lead to loss of trust and undermine employees’ confidence in a manager’s message. Ultimately such a reaction could lead to reduced job performance and/or job satisfaction.

Decision-Making Astuteness

In a global business environment, it is increasingly difficult to accurately assess emotions. Maintaining an open door policy and seeking opportunities to “walk around” can give managers improved opportunities to judge employees’ feelings.

In Conclusion

The emotionally intelligent manager is able to think through options and incorporate anticipated reactions of others in order to improve the quality of decision making. Individual managers are required to take into consideration the relationships they have with each employee, then carefully select the most appropriate and sensitive responses that will be effective for each individual. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach in wrestling with the challenges presented by job insecurity and its resulting anxiety. Instead, effective managers are advised to assess each situation and the personalities involved, then to use their most insightful responses and techniques in making the best decisions.

Noted mathematician, logician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has written, “Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.”[7] In a complex and insecure business environment, managers need to use every available tool to successfully survive and to serve both employees and the companies for which they work. We suggest that these tools include familiarity with and choice of appropriate responses to emotional as well as to cognitive concerns.

[1] C. Galup, C. Saunders, R Nelson and R. Cerveny, “The Use of Temporary Staff and Mangers in a Local Government Environment,” Communication Research, 24 (1997) p. 698-730; L. Greenhalgh and Z. Rosenblatt, “Job Insecurity: Toward Conceptual Clarity,” Academy of Management Review, 9, (1984), p. 438; M. O’Driscoll and C. Cooper, “Sources of Management of Excessive Stress and Burnout,” in Psychology at Work, (ed.) P. B. Warr (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1998), p. 188-223.

[2] Daniel Goleman , Working with Emotional Intelligence (NY: Bantam Books, 1998)

[3] ibid, p. 317

[4] Daniel Goleman, 1998; R. Boyatzis and D. Goleman, The Emotional Competency Inventory, Boston: Hay Resources Direct, 2001).

[5] Tony Schwartz, “How Do You Feel?,” Fast Company, (June 2000), p. 297-312.

[6] James F. Peltz, “United Vows to Maintain California Presence,” Los Angeles Times, (December 10, 2002), A, p. 1.

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues with Alfred North Whitehead, (Boston: Little Brown, 1954), p. 232.

About the Author(s)

Mark Mallinger, PhD, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management's at Pepperdine University. He teaches in the full-time, fully-employed, and executive programs. Dr. Mallinger is a management development consultant and has published works in a number of academic and practitioner journals.

Jeff Banks, PhD