The World Economic Forum ranks cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence as one of the top 10 workplace skills in a changing landscape. As we return to work after lockdown, managing the emotional impact of what has been described as “the world’s biggest psychological experiment” is critical. We examine strategies to embed cognitive flexibility in post lockdown return to work.


Returning to Work & Psychological Safety

Increasingly we hear reports of anxiety, fear and resistance around returning to work from our clients. We know from our disaster response work with organisations like the United Nations that effective recovery from traumatic events requires cognitive flexibility and resilience. Lessons from trauma psychology demonstrate that any return to work strategy must include psychological support with wellbeing at it’s centre.

The Two Tent Approach

Some companies, such as Twitter, Shopify, Square and Facebook have made a permanent work from home shift. It may be that we see a hybrid of remote and office based working. Parity with office based staff for remote workers will be critical. Returning to work after quarantine calls for a two-tent approach: one for the practical considerations of social distancing and one to ensure our often invisible, psychological safety. Navigating this landscape requires emotional intelligence. The “new normal” may never go back to pre-pandemic life but if you’ve looked at the evidence and decided that it’s time to return to work, safely, how can you manage the emotions of return anxiety?

Working With Your Emotions to Embed Cognitive Flexibility

The Atlas OF Emotions & Granularity

The work of Paul and Eve Eckman on the “Atlas of Emotions” is a useful concept when it comes to understanding our emotions. Naming our emotions is the first step to managing them, often we lack the emotional vocabulary to do this adequately. Eckman divides emotions into five broad categories (anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment), each with a subset of emotional states, triggers, actions and moods.

We rarely consider our emotions with such fine granularity, but doing so enables us to identify emotions more accurately. It’s a tool that you can use to expand your emotional vocabulary. Reflect upon how you are feeling about the return to work. Which category or circle does it fall into? Are you able to other words to describe what you’re feeling? This is how to begin to develop granularity, increasing your accuracy when identifying emotions.

Map Your Emotional Energy

The work of Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr addresses the physical energy that accompanies our emotions. They identified four dimensions of energy— physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. They recognise that “Every one of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours has an energy consequence,” Being able to skilfully identify emotions and the physical sensations that accompany them increases our self awareness, a key component of emotional intelligence.

To use the quadrant, reflect throughout the day upon which section you are in. Ask yourself:

  • How long have I been here?
  • How do I feel?
  • Does this energise or deplete me?
  • Am I able to identify time spent in different quadrants or am I stuck in one quadrant?

Take a look at our piece on energy domains to map your daily habits and achieve a greater work life balance to support your cognitive flexibility and wellbeing.

Managing Your Mood

Once you have identified the emotional quadrant that you inhabit it’s time to make a choice. You can decide whether you want to stay in that quadrant or move to another. Look for creative ways to manage your emotions – ask yourself “What do I need right now?”

Create routines and habits that will support your wellbeing, for example, if you are feeling angry, going for a brisk walk may help to shift you into another, more productive quadrant. Consider creating a toolkit of responses that you can draw upon when you need them. Some of the tools we use with clients are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Building short breaks into your day
  • Gratitude journalling
  • Spending time in green space
  • Short bursts of exercise or stretching

Audit Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a key differentiator in the workplace. It will help you to manage your emotions in your return to work. You’ll be able to sort fear based responses from fact based responses that will keep you safe. If you’ve done your due diligence and it’s not safe – don’t return. If you arrive at a point where you’re satisfied that you are able to minimise risk – emotional intelligence will increase your cognitive flexibility whilst you’re there. But what is it?

You’ll recognise EI by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you recognise feelings that flow, encountering one emotion after another?
  • Are you able to identify emotions from moment to moment?
  • Do you pay attention to subtle facial expressions, or, micro expressions when you communicate with others?
  • Are you able to identify the physical sensations that accompany your emotions? 
  • Can you recognise unique feelings and emotions e.g. sadness, anger, joy, fear?
  • Do you experience intense feelings?
  • Are you able to pay attention to your emotions? 
  • Do you consider your emotions when decision making?

Emotional intelligence isn’t something that you either have or you don’t. Neither is it about soft skills or being “emotional”. It’s more nuanced than that. It consists of a profile of competencies.

Audit your emotional intelligence (EI) to identify areas that you would like to develop. There are numerous EI models, the one below is from Dan Goleman and More Than Sound. In each domain list your strengths along with areas that you’d like to improve. Using the framework as an audit tool you can then create an action plan to develop the areas which you have identified as needing further work.

Emotional Intelligence Domains & Competencies

The ability to connect to your emotions, to recognise that moment-to-moment connection with your emotional experience is crucial to understanding how emotion influences your thoughts, energy and actions. When you’re able to to connect to emotions you can draw upon a huge reservoir of information that will help you navigate the return to work.

Want to know more about managing your cognitive flexibility and performance? Take a look at our free Mindfulness at Work Toolkit or any of our online courses

We work with individuals, leaders and Fortune 100 companies to improve performance, build resilience and embed sustainable performance in teams. We provide a training courses, coaching and consultancy. Want to know more? Get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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