Emotional Agility: A Key Skill in Leadership (and life)
8 Minutos de Leitura
“Thoughts and emotions contain information, not direction.”
- Susan David
Do you remember the narrative that emotions have no place in the office? That leaders and workers have to be cheerful or suck it up? Science has proven that narrative is counterproductive.
The most effective leaders recognize that the ability to work with and not against their thoughts, emotions, and feelings will significantly affect their success and level of influence.
Susan David is an award-winning Psychologist on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and author of the book “Emotional Agility” the concept acknowledged by Harvard Business Review a Management idea of the year.
What is emotional agility?
"Emotional Agility is a process that allows us to be in the moment, changing or maintaining our behaviors to live in ways that align with our intentions and values."
- Susan David
Over the last few years, countless books about happiness and positive emotions were published. Every day thousands of articles about the power of positivity are shared on social media. The message is very clear: positive, happy people are more successful and even healthier.
Even though it’s, most likely, not the author's intention it’s very common that readers take away yet another message from those articles: that negative emotions are bad and should be avoided.
Thinking of emotions such as sadness and anger as negative creates additional hardship and discomfort when, inevitably, these challenging emotions arise.
So, when Susan David published her article on Harvard Business Review about emotional agility, it’s no surprise that it quickly went viral. Because even though it’s interesting and even useful to understand the benefits of positive emotions, it is not as transformative as understanding how to accept and learn from our emotions, especially the challenging ones.
Emotional Agility is a process designed by David that allows us to embrace all emotions as important sources of information that we can use to learn about our internal processes and patterns without being overpowered by them. So that we can choose our behavior in a way that is coherent with our long-term values and intentions.
It allows us to flow between different emotional and psychological states with greater ease. When we’re not overpowered by our emotions and develop greater emotional flexibility, we introduce choice into the equation and, therefore, we can use our values and intentions to do the steering of our personal and professional lives.
Here’s a video of Susan David explaining Emotional Agility.
The opposite of agility
“Emotional rigidity is the tendency to get hooked by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t serve you.”
- Susan David
The opposite of agility is rigidity. Rigid behaviors are maladaptive responses that are insensitive to context and stem from old stories and narratives internally repeated over and over again.
For most people, their emotional reactions occur automatically, without much awareness or room for choice. Others might be aware of what’s causing them to react a certain way, but can’t seem to disengage from a self-defeating downward spiral. Others treat their challenging emotions as distant relatives they wish they never had to meet again and do everything they can to suppress them.
The common denominator is the feeling that these challenging emotions are holding them back from living a fulfilling life.
Rigidity causes people to react to new situations using outdated scripts. Instead of assessing the situation as a fresh experience to determine the appropriate behavior, old stories and rules created a long time ago drive the behavior.
Unfortunately, in most cases these stories and rules are self-defeating, leading people away from their goals. Even those who are aware of how these stories are holding them back, can’t seem to loosen their grip, they’re hooked.
Susan found people will tend to fall back into one of two different responses, bottling, pushing emotions aside (in general men tend to be bottlers and women tend to be brooders) or brooding, endlessly obsessing over them.
Both of these strategies can create experiences we later regret and cause havoc in our lives.
“One of the greatest triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
- Susan David
In a study with participants who were trying to quit smoking, a group of them were encouraged to allow their physical impulses, thoughts, and emotions about tobacco to exist without trying to change them.
Researchers offered a metaphor of a car journey, with the participant as the driver, driving towards the destination: a smoke-free life. The thoughts and challenging feelings are passengers in the backseat, allowed to be a part of the ride, while passengers continue to drive toward their destination. This group was in the willingness condition.
The other group was given the standard smoking cessation recommendations by the National Cancer Institute.
Participants in the willingness condition had a quit rate that was twice as high as the participants in the standard approach condition.
In the workplace context, research shows that even though the display of positive emotions gives workers a chance to feel accomplished, the suppression of emotions, particularly negative ones leads to emotional exhaustion.
Dr. Olivia O’Neill of George Mason University studied how the stress of hiding or suppressing negative thoughts and feelings impacted firefighters. The data revealed that even though a playful culture as its benefits, a greater emphasis on positivity was related to higher probability of an accident en route to an emergency. In the firehouses where tolerance for discomfort was lower, the employees experienced poorer physical health.
It seems that organizations by forcing positivity can create cultures of low tolerance to pain, leading workers with no outlet for real feelings.
One of the issues around emotions starts when we label them as positive or negative. Labelling makes it more likely that we’ll avoid the negative ones and approach the positive emotions.
However, life is fluid, it's ever-evolving, and we all had positive experiences that led to adverse outcomes and negative experiences from which we learned and grew tremendously.
So reframing them as challenging can be a significant tweak when it comes to increasing our emotional agility. For most of us, the drive to avoid discomfort is greater than the drive to pursue goals. We want life to be painless. Life, however, has humbling ways of showing us how beauty and joy are intimately connected to life’s fragility. The willingness to accept and welcome in our inner experience discomfort, without trying to change it, instead simply allowing it to arise and breathe into it, is the foundation of emotional agility.
1. Showing up
Instead of avoiding or losing yourself in challenging emotions, the first step is to just allow the thoughts and emotions to exist, facing them with willingness, kindness, and curiosity.
It’s about tuning in and paying attention to your inner world, letting yourself experience whatever you’re experiencing with an open attitude. It’s taking 10 deep breaths to notice what’s really going on, without necessarily acting or resigning to those experiences. The keyword is acceptance.
2. Stepping out
Facing your inner experiences means you recognize them for the temporary experiences that they are. You’re no longer hooked by them.We have about sixty thousand thoughts per day, they can’t all be factual or particularly helpful, but they also don’t have to be taken so seriously.
They’re just thoughts and emotions. Stepping out is really about understanding that you’re not your thoughts and emotions, you have thoughts and emotions.
3. Returning to your why
Your core values are the compass steering you in the right direction. Emotions will provide information about what is important in a given situation, but it’s our values and intentions that provide us with direction and allow us to choose the appropriate response to a situation.
"We encourage leaders to focus on the concept of workability: Is your response going to serve you and your organization in the long term as well as in the near future? Will it help you steer others in a direction that furthers your collective purpose? Are you taking a step toward being the leader you most want to be and living the life you most want to live? The mind’s thought stream flows endlessly, and emotions change like the weather, but values can be called on at any time, in any situation."
- Susan David
Emotionally agile leaders
- Emotionally agile leaders understand they set the tone for what is appropriate in terms of emotional expression in their organizations.
- Emotionally agile leaders express a broad range of emotions in appropriate ways and in doing so, allow their workers to do the same.
- Emotionally agile leaders provide their workers' appropriate outlets for emotional expression and acknowledge the importance of venting out hard feelings, that will otherwise translate into gossiping, backstabbing and complaining.
- Emotionally agile leaders are empathic, which enables them to understand that relentless positivity is not the only way to get positive, and constructive results.
- Emotionally agile leaders are curious and compassionate towards their workers' personal experiences because they’re own narratives and kind and compassionate.
- Emotionally agile leaders ultimately realize that their success depends on their ability to choose the healthy and appropriate emotional response to a given situation.
Wrapping it up
Healthy, thriving organizations are made of people. And healthy people experience a wide array of emotions. To the extent that leaders allow their workers to express themselves in healthy and appropriate ways, they’re more likely to have a workforce of engaged and highly contributing individuals. It’s up to leaders to show how it’s done.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T., & Special (2014). Don’t hide your dark side: Why emotional agility is key to being a better boss. CNN. Retrieved here.
David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. United Kingdom: Penguin Life.
David, S. Congleton, C., (2013). Emotional agility. Retrieved here.
Harvard. (2016). Building emotional agility. Retrieved here.