Emotional Rescue: Leadership Tips from a Former Intern

Advice from a twentysomething on embracing emotional intelligence at work

Former ASG intern Natalie Givan is now a law student at Depaul University

Never underestimate the power of listening. I’m in law school now, but before that I had seven jobs and three internships, and I’ve made sure to take something away from each one. The theme so far seems to be “learn what to do by recognizing what not to do,” which isn’t fun for present me, but will benefit future me. And hopefully you, too.

I want to share this message with leaders because I think they could benefit from my perspective, but really, anyone could. Because we’re all leaders of ourselves, and that’s what emotional intelligence is about. It’s using what you know about yourself and your emotions to make better decisions. It’s learning how to manage your own triggers and recognize others’ and using this knowledge to manage relationships in work and in life.

Here are four things to keep in mind when leading yourself and your team.

1. Remember who you’re dealing with.

Remember when you were in your first job? You were likely nervous and maybe a little intimidated by all the experienced staff and their new work environment. That’s how interns and junior employees feel. Dealing with an adults-only world and a new job can be overwhelming. That’s how I felt in my internships, no matter how poised I may have seemed. Over time, I’ve gained the confidence to ask questions, but in my first few internships, I tried to make up for my younger age and lack of experience by avoiding asking questions. I didn’t want to be a burden to people that already had a lot on their plates with having to train me. Irrational as it might seem, my fear of asking questions was real!

Your junior employees are probably feeling the same way. They’re likely fresh out of college or graduate school, and no matter how smart they seem, everything they’re doing is new territory. They probably have little to no understanding of office dynamics and politics. So if you’re feeling tension with a colleague, your intern probably is, too, though they won’t understand the context.

Sorting things out with your colleagues behind the scenes can help relieve interns of unnecessary stress and worry. They’ll feel more comfortable in their roles, which will boost productivity and office morale.

My advice: Interns and junior employees are likely feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by their new work environment. Sort things out with your colleagues behind the scenes to create an atmosphere where they feel more comfortable and confident.

2. Lead with gentleness, not fear.

Believe it or not, there are still leaders in the workplace who use intimidation to motivate their employees. I know this because I’ve worked for one.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize my boss’s* preferred leadership style. One time, I missed a step when documenting a new client inquiry — I forgot to put it at the top of the call list. Luckily, I caught the mistake before too much time passed. I messaged my boss, asking her to return the client’s call.

At a one-on-one with my boss, she scolded me. Instead of mentoring me and giving me a chance to correct my mistake, she took away my responsibility. From then on, someone else at the office took calls and organized leads. She made it clear to the team that I’d failed and couldn’t handle the task. This type of thing happened often.

This type of leadership hindered my productivity and creativity. I didn’t speak up when I had questions or concerns because my boss often reprimanded me for asking. I became so worried about avoiding failure, I couldn’t own my role and succeed. As Michael Hyatt says in his blog about gentle leadership, “Fear may produce behavioral compliance, but it degrades self-motivation.” That’s exactly what happened; I complied, but I didn’t feel motivated to go above and beyond. Not long after that, I quit the job.

Not to excuse her behavior, but I feel like my ex-boss didn’t realize what she was doing. One redeeming aspect of her personality was her love for her business. She cared so much about performance and operations, she forgot to care about the people. What she didn’t see was that showing compassion for her people could have made her business stronger. It also could have helped her hold on to at least one employee she’d already trained.

Retaining strong employees is vital to any successful business, and the cost of losing an employee can be staggering. Some studies predict that replacing a salaried employee can sometimes cost up to nine months’ salary. A Center for American Progress study found that, for example, replacing an employee in a midrange position earning around $40,000 a year would cost about 20 percent of their annual salary, about $8,000.

Emotionally intelligent leaders, gentle leaders, motivate with courtesy, understanding and honesty. They’re both cognitively and emotionally empathetic toward employees. They meet people where they are and tailor leadership methods to individuals. This seems especially important when you’re training entry-level staffers still trying to gain a footing in the workplace. Getting to know your team members and giving them a chance to learn from their mistakes could be worth the investment.

My advice: When you get to know your team on a personal level and give them room to learn from failures, they’ll pay you back in productivity. Using fear tactics to force employees to perform is a one-way ticket to Turnover Town.

3. When change happens, take time to empathize.

Internship programs are a great way to help junior employees learn the ropes of a position in their selected field. Small companies in particular can give junior employees a chance to dive in and gain experience with hands-on work.

But if an intern or junior employee joins a company or department that’s going through restructuring or organizational change, the junior employee’s experience can become a swirl of confusion.

Here’s my example. When I was a senior in college, a consultancy firm hired me as a social media specialist. One month into the job and two weeks before the Covid-19 shutdown, the person who hired me left abruptly.

The departure left a gap that gave the company’s leaders new responsibilities. I can see now that it took some time for them to regain their footing.

It would be hard for any company to adjust to those kinds of changes. But that wasn’t my perspective at the time. I was a senior in college, just getting used to the working world. And I was right in the middle of the conflict and change, which caused confusion about my role and responsibilities.

Once I shared my feelings and the tension got cleared up, things got better for me, and I was able to own my role. I realized that my supervisors had the same end goal, but different avenues for how to get there. That’s okay — both were important in achieving that goal.  As things came together and I got a better understanding of the various perspectives on our mission, I was able to integrate them into a strategy. I successfully held my position at the company for over a year and a half.

My advice to leaders dealing with organizational change? Even if you’re not sure what to do, try to do something. You can ask the junior employee how they’re feeling, how you can help or how you can make their job easier. Sometimes conflict is hard to cover up, and that’s okay. You can make the intern aware of internal struggles without making them feel burdened by them.

My advice: Internal struggles and conflicts in the workplace can make an intern or junior employee feel caught in the middle. Try your best to avoid involving them in the conflict and check in on them periodically to make sure they’re not feeling confused or conflicted. You just need to ask: “How do you feel?”

4. Take time to get centered.

As a leader you’re thinking about the big picture, but sometimes the little things make a big difference. Your interns and staff are watching you. You set the tone that helps create the culture at your workplace.

When things go awry and you’re left with a challenging situation at work, it’s easy to react on instinct. This could look a number of ways. It could be an outburst at your desk, saying something hurtful to a colleague or employee or shutting yourself off and not communicating well. But you can respond rather than react.

If you’re experiencing strong emotions, take time to address them. Wait until you calm down before dealing with your staff. You need to take care of yourself as a leader before you can take care of your people.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of their impact on others. They recognize that their emotions and choices are highly influential on their team’s performance and decision-making. When you’re aware of your emotions, you can control them and use them strategically to help achieve your goals.

According to Forbes magazine, emotionally intelligent leaders understand that emotions contain valuable data, and they utilize this information to facilitate problem solving and creativity. “They welcome a full spectrum of emotions, redirect and prioritize their thinking based on these feelings and strategically guide their state to best suit what’s required for optimum performance in a given task.”

This is a vital part of learning how to be emotionally intelligent. We’re human, so emotions are inevitable. What matters is what you do with them. Use what you know about yourself and others to make decisions in emotionally charged situations.

My advice: Take time to respond rather than react in emotionally charged situations. Use your emotions; don’t let your emotions use you.

Final words

There’s really only one prerequisite for emotionally intelligent leadership: caring. Most people care deeply about the work they do. They care about their colleagues, their business and how they lead. That’s half the battle. The rest is all about taking time to listen to yourself and your team.

*Details have been changed.