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Get Your Empathy On

A Case Study in Using Emotional Intelligence to Diffuse an Organizational Crisis

This is a guest post from Solo PR Pro Premium Member, Karen Couf-Cohen. This post first appeared on The Association for Women In Communications blog.

What should an organization do when a poor decision (or good decisions handled poorly), set off an avalanche of bad press and ill will among stakeholders? 

Personal experience with two nonprofits that faced a pivotal organization crisis taught me a few things about listening. 

Two organizations, two crises. One, a faith-based organization, the other, a cultural institution.  

The poorly handled firing of a clergy member split a faith-based organization in half, with one suing the other. Board meetings were filled with highly charged allegations and potential court appearances. The cultural institution’s decision to raze a beloved historic and aging structure and rebuild it became the catalyst for a slow boil of resentments. 

The lack of sensitivity, transparency and defensiveness by the Board of Trustees in both organizations fueled a climate of mistrust and escalating calamity. 

My role as a trustee and a PR professional unintentionally put me in a pivotal role in the melees. The fact that I am a woman (and had my share of psychotherapy) didn’t hurt either. Here’s how the disasters were averted: by utilizing emotional intelligence. Each group began to understand what the opposition was experiencing… to empathize with them.

Key points: 

  1. Start with the assumption that change and transparency is good and heathy for your organization
  2. Identify the underlying emotional distress of your constituents
  3. Determine what concerns need validating and validate them
  4. Discourage email communications once ANY emotions are involved
  5. Create face to face meetings for stakeholders to voice their concerns 
  6. Follow up on all concerns
  7. Consider a change of staff when appropriate

Both organizations, knowingly or not, participated in emotionally intelligent leadership, outlined in a theory proposed by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman.  Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence was on the New York times best seller list for over a year and a half with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages. Emotional Intelligence was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Business Management Books” by TIME Magazine.

Goleman puts empathy in a 5 part package of tools essential to effective leadership, including self-awareness, (don’t let your emotions rule you)  self-regulation (don’t let your emotions control you), motivation (defer immediate results for long term success), social skills (team players and good communicators), and lastly empathy (the ability to understand the needs and wants of those around you, living in an open and honest way).

And by the way, it may come as no surprise that women are more likely to utilize empathy. According to research by the Hay Group, the preeminent global people and organizational advisory firm, women score higher than men on nearly all emotional intelligence competencies.  In 2011- 2015, they collected data from 55,000 professionals across 90 countries at all levels of management. Using the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) developed by Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis, they found that women employ the emotional and social competencies correlated with effective leadership and management more effectively than men.

While a crisis may involve the health, safety, wellbeing and financial stability of an organization, at the end of the day, in a crisis, people respond emotionally and for that, get your empathy on. 

Karen Couf-Cohen

Karen Couf Cohen is a writer and a public relations consultant living in Franklin MI. When not sharing insightful content with the Solo PR audience you can find her at www.karencoufcohen.com

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash