Integrating Emotional Intelligence in Business Trauma Management

by David Vialpando

Have you noticed lately that your incidence of disgruntled casino patrons has increased with the imposition of new rules like mandatory face masks, social distancing, and limited gaming offerings? Do your employees seem to be more on edge, even distracted, working in our enhanced health and safety conscious environment, enforcing new rules and dealing with occasionally angry patrons who disagree with the temporary health and safety requirements? Has stress among casino employees become more pronounced as a result of personal challenges, economic strife in the family, disjointed remote communication, and uncertainty about the continuity of business? If so, you are not alone, and the casino gaming industry is not unique in the business world in dealing with increased levels of sustained stress and anxiety.

Luckily, tried and true proactive organizational management strategies can be implemented to ease the stress on employees and maintain the high caliber performance for which the tribal gaming industry is known. It’s important to recognize that significant employee stress often requires professional help. If there was ever a time to emphasize Employee Assistance Programs, with guided counseling for financial challenges, depression and anxiety, family distress and relationship challenges, now is the time.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (named after psychologist Abraham Maslow), employees will not perform at optimal levels until their basic and psychological needs are fulfilled, which include sustenance, shelter, security, belonging, and a sense of accomplishment. A global pandemic is not conducive to reinforcing confidence that any of these needs will be consistently met. Management can help reinforce consistency and stability in the lives of employees by integrating emotional intelligence within the precept of business trauma management.

Emotional intelligence is all about recognizing and managing emotions in others and ourselves. Mastering emotional intelligence enhances self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, personal motivation, and the skills needed for productive social interactions. With practice, emotional intelligence enables us to control emotions in ourselves and in others. At its core, emotional intelligence in the tribal gaming environment is about understanding and cultivating positive relationships and problem-solving under pressure.

Business trauma management is derived from the concept of crisis management. During times of crisis, such as natural or man-made disaster, organizations strive for stability and consistency amid the resultant chaos. The mission of management during times of crisis is to help employees make sense of confusion, minimize distress, restore confidence, and rebuild operational efficiency. Trauma management has the same goals, the difference being that the crisis is sustained with no foreseeable end in sight, and stability must be restored before the cause of instability has been completely addressed. Think of the trauma as being crisis evolving in slow motion. In trauma management you can’t wait for the crisis to subside before you act. Management must proactively address the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty taking a toll on the workforce. Integrating emotional intelligence with the strategies found in trauma management can restore calm, emphasize stability, and empower employees to effectively deal with the stress of the ongoing trauma environment. 

The basic tenants of emotional intelligence are described in the 1995 publication by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Developing emotional intelligence involves enhancing our proficiency in the following areas: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation.

The first step in developing emotional intelligence is taking stock of your own emotions and increasing self-awareness. As a manager, you can’t take care of your people until you take care of yourself. Recognize and deal with the stressors in your life and understand the triggers that raise your emotional temperature. Understanding the psychology of anger can help you control this frequently destructive emotion. When circumstances trigger anger, our brains downshift into survival mode, otherwise known as the fight or flight response. When one becomes angry, they either verbally strike out at the source of the anger or storm away from the situation. There are physiological changes that occur as well, such as increased pulse, tunnel vision, and an increase in blood pressure along the body’s core. These changes are an integral part of the fight or flight response.

Think about your reaction the last time a rude motorist cut you off on the freeway. You probably noticed a rush of anger, clenched the steering wheel, felt warmth in your face, and began looking for an escape route while muttering choice words at the offender. Mastering self-awareness involves controlling anger. In order to control anger, upshifting our brains from the fight or flight condition is needed. An effective way of accomplishing this is to ask yourself a high-level thinking question, such as what date is this or what is my address. Accessing the high-level data portions of the brain shifts us away from the fight or flight survival brain. Self-management enables us to control and redirect disruptive impulses and moods.

An employee verbally attacking another out of anger can be upshifted by asking them a question, which requires high-level thinking, similar to the questions requiring a data response. Stress and frustration can cause expressions of anger. You may know how to deal with the anger, but the underlying stress and frustration still needs to be addressed.

Keeping anger in check helps us to practice self-regulation. Self-regulation keeps us from reacting impulsively, allows us to channel our stress productively, remain calm, and enhances rational decision-making. Self-regulation requires physical fitness, rest, healthy eating, productive hobbies and personal interests which help us recharge the mental batteries needed  at work. Effective self-regulation is enhanced by relying on a trusted colleague or friend to share concerns, fears, and insecurities. It is important for a manager’s mental health to have someone to talk to. Effective self-regulation enables us to adapt to changing situations, such as business changes necessary during an evolving pandemic.

Emphasizing social skill development enables managers to establish trust and open communication with employees, which is essential in effective business trauma management. Managers possessing effective social skills build good rapport with their employees, engender confidence, and encourage organizational stability so vital in dealing with uncertainty and chaos. Employees with whom a good rapport has been built will seek counsel and advice in helping deal with the stress and frustration they encounter in the workplace.

An important element of social skill-building is practicing active listening. Managers seldom learn anything new from listening to themselves talk. Practicing active listening involves paying attention to others, asking questions, and providing feedback to ensure information provided has been accurately processed. Active listening demonstrates to others that you are passionate about your work and recognize the value of collaborating with others to solve problems and complete projects. Keep in mind that an essential part of communication is paying attention to and understanding body language and non-verbal communication. This includes the messaging you potentially send to others through your own body language.

Practicing open communication strengthens organizational structure and culture. Promoting open dialogue allows our diverse workforce to actively participate in decision-making, adapt to new challenges together, and reassures employees concerning the future of our gaming establishments. Dispel rumors and keep employees informed regarding salaries, health benefits, operational changes and changing working conditions. The intent of this strategy is to minimize polarization, defensiveness, counterproductive rumors, uncertainty, and an every-person-for-themselves attitude.

During periods of stress and trauma, conflict is bound to arise. Channeling conflict towards addressing circumstances that can be controlled or influenced, and avoiding conditions over which there is no control, minimizes tension in the workplace. Some managers hold weekly or monthly management team meetings at the beginning of the week or month. In trauma management, consider holding management team meetings at the end of the week. During these meetings, allow team members to vent about problems, issues, and difficulties they’ve encountered. Definitely explore options to deal with these issues, but the main intent is to allow all that negative energy to be expressed, then use the upcoming weekend to dissipate this energy and return the next week with a fresh and hopefully positive outlook.

Empathy allows supervisors and managers to examine business processes, challenges, and issues from the perspective of line employees. Empathy affects the behaviors, emotions, and interactions stemming from employee/management relationships. Examining employee complaints, criticisms, and dissatisfaction from the perspective of the employee helps management to identify solutions or at least locate the middle ground upon which to resolve differences. Managers should acknowledge complaints or expressions of frustration, even if the manager disagrees with the issue. Letting employees know their input has merit can frequently lead to a compromise where everyone feels valued.  Empathy is about acknowledging feelings and reinforcing the value of all employees.

Mastering empathy enables managers to calm distress and help employees make sense of confusion. Managers are able to reassure employees that the organization has the resources and commitment to persevere through any adversity.

During periods of trauma, reinforcement of self-worth and value are very important. From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, reinforcing belonging and sense of accomplishment leads to motivation. That last component of emotional intelligence is motivation. Managers who possess strong emotional intelligence are motivated to achieve personal and professional goals for the sake of what those accomplishments provide. Creating a positive and supportive environment motivates employees to achieve their own personal and professional goals, as well as the organization’s goals.

A positive attitude on the part of management is important in a normal business climate, but absolutely essential during periods of business trauma. Positivity and enthusiasm are contagious, and you should strive to remain optimistic and be a positive role model in everything you do. A can-do attitude in the face of adversity and obstacles can ripple through an organization like a virus (no pun intended) and even transfer to casino patrons through the expressed positivity of employees. To encourage a climate of positivity throughout our workforce, encourage employees to focus on what they love about their work. Optimistic employees can inspire and motivate others. Management’s emphasis on programs encouraging and rewarding employee optimism and exceptional performance can help organizations to persevere through periods of adversity.

The goals of business trauma management include maintaining stability, minimizing distress, encouraging confidence, and ensuring operational efficiency. Integrating emotional intelligence in business trauma management allows us to make good decisions and effectively solve problems, keep cool under pressure, resolve conflict, demonstrate empathy towards the workforce, motivate personnel, and effectively respond to constructive criticism and challenges encountered by employees and the organization.

The tribal gaming industry, like many other businesses, is confronting challenges today unlike any encountered in modern U.S. history. Proactive strategies like emotional intelligence integrated into business trauma management can help minimize stress and anxiety, restore confidence, and keep our employees and casino patrons physically and mentally safe and healthy.  

David Vialpando is Executive Director of the Pokagon Band Gaming Commission and Vice-Chairman of Tribal Gaming Protection Network. He can be reached by calling (269) 926-5485 or email [email protected].