Every year, thousands of individual contributors make the leap to frontline leader. An estimated 75% of employers provide some form of new manager training,[i] yet much of a new supervisor’s fledging months is spent figuring things out in real-time on the front lines. One of the biggest surprises to people new to the ranks of management is the complex emotional dynamics at play when dealing with their former peers. In addition to learning the mechanics of management—time and attendance tracking, performance reviews, and completing company paperwork, for example—they discover the importance of human-centered skills to help them navigate their new leadership world. Mastering these important people skills matters because doing so helps new leaders diffuse the stress and burnout employees experience in their demanding frontline roles. And in doing so, leaders pave the way for a cohesive and high-performing team.
Leadership and the pressures of the front line
First-time frontline managers who lead customer-facing service workers encounter different pressures than their counterparts who lead knowledge workers. Why? Because the people these managers are responsible for often face low paying jobs with long hours, demanding customers, emotionally charged interactions, and competing demands from different parts of the organization. From a human relations standpoint, this can be a daunting experience to manage each day, and the same can’t always be said for “knowledge work” managers.
Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology at Penn State, studies the challenges customer-facing service workers encounter. She cites the emotional toll of working on the front lines, noting that many workers must resort to “surface acting”—putting on a pleasant demeanor when confronted with rudeness or unreasonable requests. This continual subordination of a person’s natural response to difficult interpersonal interactions has consequences. Says Grandey:
“Our research has shown that this ‘surface acting’ depletes us emotionally, cognitively, and physically, and many studies have found that this form of emotional labor is linked to job burnout and turnover.”
Even more concerning are studies that Grandey cites indicating that overtaxed service workers often bring their stress home: the more employees had to fake positive emotions, the more likely they were to drink heavily once leaving work.[ii]
The role of social and emotional intelligence in leadership
Daily, frontline leaders are called on to help their employees manage a myriad of emotions. Whether it’s frustration with an outdated company policy or blowing off steam after a difficult customer interaction, it is the leader’s job to help coach employees through their most intense feelings associated with customer-facing work. And this is best accomplished through people skills such as listening, empathy, and managing one’s own emotional reactions.
We often categorize these “intelligences” into two groups: emotional and social. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and appropriately react to our own and others’ emotional state. Social intelligence is learning from and adapting to social situations, with skills such as “reading the room” and exercising tact. Both sets of skills can be improved upon with practice,[iii] which is good news for leaders who are on a steep learning curve the first few months of their new role.
Building upon the earlier works of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking research on emotional intelligence,[iv] experts in the field now see a clear link between people skills and effective workplace leadership. In an article on how to create high-performing teams, researchers Zorana Ivcevic, Robin Stern, and Andrew Faas describe the key role that human-centered skills play:[v]
“Supervisors who act in emotionally intelligent ways will create a more positive work climate, have employees who are able to grow in their jobs, and be more effective.”
Moreover, leaders who are skilled at managing interpersonal interactions achieve two important goals: they create an environment that supports employee well-being, and they build greater team cohesion and focus, allowing for a team that delivers results aligned with company objectives.[vi]
Put social and emotional skills to work as a leader
Researchers have studied the tactics used by frontline leaders to parse out which emotionally intelligent practices offer optimum results. Here are several that have proven effective across a variety of industries.
1. Acknowledge stressors unique to this work and help employees protect their mental health.
Christine Porath, who has researched incivility in the workplace for over two decades, has noticed an upward trend in instances of rudeness in customer interactions. Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, finds in her most recent research that 78% of employees report that customers treating employees poorly is more common than it was five years ago.[vii]
To help team members navigate stressful customer interactions, leaders can demonstrate a templated response for how to set appropriate boundaries. Porath cites an example from a hospital that encouraged staff to use the following framework with difficult visitors: “Either you stop [the problematic behavior], or [the result of this behavior].”
To help their team member envision how this would look, a leader could model the template by saying, “Either you stop yelling at me, or it’s going to make it harder for me to give your mother her meds.” Having a basic response framework helps employees in two ways: it shows that their manager understands the stress they experience, and in the heat of the moment when emotions are running high, it gives them a set of words that is professional, yet sets a boundary that protects their mental health.
2. Coach employees through their blind spots.
According to research, one important factor in building high-performing teams is the ability of emotionally intelligent supervisors to help employees work through their interpersonal blind spots.[viii] Because customer facing jobs require the aforementioned surface acting, some employees may resort to taking their frustrations out on co-workers, without realizing the impact of their actions.
For example, an airline gate agent may make harsh comments to a colleague to release the pressure felt after interacting with a hostile customer. To address this situation, a leader with strong social and emotional skills can talk with the gate agent in private and recommend a moment of reflection: what was the trigger point for the comment? How might we better manage the situation next time? If the leader frames this conversation as an opportunity to maintain the employee’s mental health, it demonstrates concern for the employee and minimizes blame or finger-pointing, which can lead to defensiveness on the employee’s part.
3. Emphasize the power of empathy.
Granted, it can be a tall order to ask customer-facing employees to exhibit empathy to people behaving badly. For some situations, customers are simply rude, and the aforementioned “templated response” is the best course of action. But in other instances, empathy may prove useful. For example, when people are grieving, in pain, or experiencing some other form of duress, it’s helpful for employees providing service to remember this. Leaders can reinforce the need for empathy during team huddles at the beginning of a shift, or during team training.
And, when managers observe uncaring responses from employees, it’s a perfect opportunity to have a private conversation to help team members reframe their thoughts. Incivility researcher Porath suggests that leaders can coach individuals to consider, What’s the most generous interpretation of this person’s actions? as a way to help employees reframe their thinking and find a way to see the humanity in their customers.
Stepping into a leadership role for the first time is both exciting and overwhelming, and many leaders underestimate the level of emotional navigation their new job entails. Supervisors who understand why emotional and social intelligence matters—and work to boost those critical skills in themselves and others—will be more effective in managing their frontline teams.
To learn more about what frontline leaders can do to be successful in their roles—especially those new to the position—download the full paper: Surviving the Trial by Fire: Five Crucial Capabilities for Today’s Frontline Leaders.
[i] Association for Talent Development, “Developing New Managers: Key Elements for Success,” March 2019. https://www.td.org/research-reports/developing-new-managers
[ii] Wieckowski, Ania G., “The Emotional Toll of Frontline Labor,” HBR.org, November 9, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/11/the-emotional-toll-of-frontline-labor.
[iii] Riggio, Ronald E., “The Truth About Emotional Intelligence,” psychologytoday.com, September 22, 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/202109/the-truth-about-emotional-intelligence.
[v] Zorana Ivcevic, Robin Stern, and Andrew Faas, “Research: What Do People Need to Perform at a High Level?” HBR.org, May 17, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/05/research-what-do-people-need-to-perform-at-a-high-level.
[vi] Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, “Surviving the Trial by Fire: Five Crucial Capabilities for Today’s New Frontline Leaders,” 2022.
[vii] Porath, Christine, “Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry,” HBR.org, November 9, 2022. https://hbr.org/2022/11/frontline-work-when-everyone-is-angry.
[viii] Zorana Ivcevic, Robin Stern, and Andrew Faas, “Research: What Do People Need to Perform at a High Level?” HBR.org, May 17, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/05/research-what-do-people-need-to-perform-at-a-high-level