Leading and coaching in times of Covid-19

Attunement coaching

The current Covid-19 pandemic is impacting everyone around the world. It poses a huge challenge for many companies, leaders, coaches and employees. This article argues that in times of crisis emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger need to be addressed in order to coach and lead successfully.

9 Min.

Coaching-Magazin Online, 27.04.2020

The start of the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Europe in early 2020 turned the world upside down. In times of a pandemic, the inherent human desire for knowledge and control is threatened, evoking feelings of discomfort and lots of questions concerning how to proceed in the near future. Now that we are working virtually and facing a big unknown, leaders and coaches are challenged to find ways of staying connected and supporting their employees and clients.

This article explores why applying a coaching approach is the best decision leaders and coaches can make in the current situation and how they can implement working with negative emotions in their coaching practices. The article also presents a coaching framework that supports emotional grounding and maintaining full cognitive capacity during challenging moments.

How has Covid-19 changed primary coaching goals?

An online poll conducted on March 23, 2020 by Integrity Solutions (including 450 coaches and leaders from around the world) revealed that a primary coaching goal is to maintain high activity levels and is, in fact, becoming increasingly important compared to three month ago (32% in March 2020 compared to 16% in December 2019). Although building focus, confidence and self-belief have slightly faded into the background in the past few weeks, it is still a relevant coaching goal for 43% of individuals who are currently receiving coaching (compared to 57% in December 2019).

Science has consistently shown that emotions drive human behavior and are significant when it comes to making decisions (Damasio, 2010; Ekman, 2003; Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2011) . Gottman and Silver ( Gottman, 2011; Gottman & Silver, 2000) argue that stages of “emotional flooding” increase the heart rate, which hijacks humans’ nervous system, resulting in the impairment of cognitive capacities. In situations that are emotionally challenging (i.e. states of “emotional flooding”), a person loses pre-frontal cortex capacities (e.g. rational thinking, empathy, strategic thinking or the capacity to conduct a cost/ration analysis). Unless emotional soothing is practiced, pre-frontal cortex capacities are lost. However, they are needed to maintain goal oriented and intentional high activity levels.

Now that for most of us face-to-face interaction during work has been substituted by virtual communication and images of co-workers wearing face masks, people are facing plenty of unmanageable experiences und uncertainty. These experiences often trigger three emotions: fear, sadness and anger, all of which are difficult to process and result in heart rate acceleration.

The reason behind these emotions 

According to Ekman (2003), fear is one of the seven universal emotions. Studies by Ekman have shown that fear arises with the threat of harm (emotional, physical, psychological) and has also been associated with experiencing uncertainty (Tiedens & Linton, 2001). The feeling of fear is a response to the perception of danger and aims to alert a person to potential risks and keep him/her safe and ready to cope with potential danger. Given the threat evoked by Covid19 – ranging from health issues, a dramatic change in people’s financial situations to psychological consequences of e.g. social isolation – it can be concluded that fear is a natural response to this pandemic. As an emotion it helps to cope with potential risks and channel an individual’s energy towards maintaining a sense of safety and processing uncertainty.

Sadness, on the other hand, arises when humans are confronted with loss (e.g. of resources, friends, status, partners). The function of sadness is to warn people that something is wrong, and that they should stop and slow down to reassess the situation at hand. The loss of personal connections, control over various situations and a sense of safety have all snowballed into a loss of what we commonly refer to as “normal life”, resulting in a general collective feeling of sadness. Yet, despite the fact that not everyone would describe that they are in a state of “sadness”, it is in fact what many are now experiencing. And because sadness is an emotion that serves people to remind them of what matters, it refocuses people on the question of life`s meaning and challenges beliefs and mental models that are suppressed in the day-to-day routine.

Anger is a natural response to pain. Yet, pain alone is not enough to cause anger. Anger occurs when pain is combined with anger-triggering thought. The function of anger is to mobilize individuals to fight for survival and protect their boundaries. The feeling of helplessness and the racing mind, which concerns itself with methods of managing a crisis, leads to anger.

The constant changes encountered during the current crisis force people to constantly ride rough emotional currents. This emotional work is not only exhausting, but because it impacts the nervous system, it also impairs creative problem solving and performance. Consequently, the capacity to act and perform on a high level is at risk.

What does this mean for leaders and coaches?

Since emotions are the GPS for human thinking and their subsequent actions, it is worth exploring what people think in times of the current crisis. An online survey conducted by Integrity Solutions in March 2020 has summarized the prevalent thoughts that currently occupy people’s minds: “What if one of us gets sick?” “How can I work virtually with my kids at home?”  “Is this country heading for a depression?” “What if I lose my clients, my job?”

Given the new reality, one could question whether there is a connection between one’s thoughts and maintaining a high activity level. The simple answer is: yes.

In the face of a crisis of this magnitude, it is easy to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger are normal reactions to abnormal situations. As stated earlier, when negative emotions arise, people`s cognitive capacities are impaired and their beliefs are challenged. As a result, they switch to survival mode, which results in limited levels of thinking and an impairment of agency. A common helpful strategy when confronted with fear is to act: people start giving advice and resorting to problem solving, which does not actually address the problem, but it creates a sense of empowerment, a feeling of making a difference. Although this method may seem successful, it fails to truly address the feeling of helplessness. Thus, coaching focusing on fear or uncertainty needs to aim at establishing routines of achievement that mitigate the feeling of helplessness. This needs to be in juxtaposition to one's awareness of negative feelings.

How can leaders and coaches be of help here?

To answer this question, let us start by looking at leadership philosophies. On a very general level, leadership can be divided in two different approaches:

Leadership philosophies

Tabelle: Leadership philosophies according to Bass (1985).

A transformational coaching approach to leadership is in demand

As transactional leadership focuses on results by reward and punishment, it basically assumes full cognitive capacity. Its directive and pragmatic approach means that this style has limitations in emotionally charged times, which require adaptability and entertaining new ideas. Transformational leaders aim to unlock potential by building belief and confidence. To achieve this, belief systems and related feelings need to be challenged. In other words, leaders need to be able to listen with empathy, inspire a new way of thinking and work with emotions that go along with new thoughts and actions in times of crisis. Therefore, transformational leaders who want to spark change and a better performance in difficult times need to apply a coaching leadership style to help people creatively approach solving problems. Having said that, the coaching focus in people development needs to change from building skillsets and discussing tasks to working on emotions and belief systems and making sure these two are aligned.

What can this coaching approach look like?

In times of fear, sadness, and anger people switch to survival. To coach people successfully in dealing with emotionally charged situations, coaching leaders and coaches need to update their coaching skills.

Ekman & Davidson (1994) discovered that the heart rate increases in fear and anger. Findings by Gottman (2011) showed that while people have a tendency to dismiss sadness, they display it as anger as a means to cope with sad situations. Since both emotions lead to an increased heart rate and impaired cognitive capacities (which do not support performance and logical thinking), leaders and coaches who want to be effective need to practice what Gottman calls “emotion coaching” and practice “ATTUNEMENT” interviews. The word ATTUNE is an acronym for

  • Awareness of the emotion (=listening to the “emotional temperature” and checking on it)
  • Turning towards the emotion (=exploring the needs related to the emotion)
  • Tolerance of the emotional experience (=accepting the emotion versus subscribing to the belief that emotions have a purpose and logic)
  • Understanding the emotion (=postponing one’s own agenda in order to understand the partner’s viewpoint)
  • Non-defensive listening to the emotion (=down-regulating one’s own defensiveness and flooding when listening)
  • Empathy towards the emotion (=seeing the situation through the eyes of the other)

Practicing attunement was found to be soothing and as a result helps in processing fear and anger (Gottman & Levenson, 1988; Gottman, 2011). Thus, if a leader/coach wants to be supportive in finding answers to questions like “How does the crisis jeopardize my performance?”, “How does this virus impact my income” etc., attunement coaching may prove to be the perfect answer. It helps to downregulate emotions (i.e. by soothing them) and allows a new perspective and action to emerge, all of which require the coach’s attunement. Although attunement is an important skill in coaching, there are others of equal importance. A leader-coach who wants to be successful with his clients/employees needs to exhibit the following skills:

Attunement coaching


The current Covid-19 pandemic is impacting everyone around the world. Feelings of isolation, helplessness and hopelessness take over and lead to emotions such as fear, sadness, and anger. As sustenance and survival becomes more important in times of crisis, people need help to overcome emotional flooding in order to maintain creative problem solving and intentional high activity levels at work. Attunement coaching, the capacity to ask supportive questions, listening with focus and empathy, awareness of emotions, the appreciation and evaluation of existing beliefs, skills and attitudes all contribute to making a difference. If leaders and coaches manage to apply these skills and practices, they will succeed in restoring people`s hope that this crisis will bring the best out of them and transform them from hopeless victims into powerful agents of change.


  • Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon.
  • Ekman, Paul (2003). Emotions revealed. Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Ekman, Paul, & Davidson, Richard J. (1994). The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Goleman, Daniel (2003). The new leaders. Transforming the Art of Leadership. London: Sphere.
  • Gottman, John M. & Levenson, Robert W. (1988). The social psychophysiology of marriage. In Patricia Noller & Mary Anne Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on marital interaction (pp. 182–200). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Gottman, John M. (2011). The science of trust. Emotional attunement for couples. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Gottman, John M., & Silver, Nan (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work (1 edition). New York: Harmony.
  • Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen, & Damasio, Antonio (2011). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(1), 133–132.
  • Integrity Solutions (2020). Webinar "Coaching when the world turns upside down", March 26, 2020.
  • Tiedens, Larissa Z., & Linton, Susan (2001). Judgment under emotional certainty and uncertainty: The effects of specific emotions on information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 973–988.

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