4 Steps To Enhance Your Emotional Agility

What do you do with all the ‘unpleasant’ emotions you feel while in the workplace? Bottle them up so they come seeping out later? Are you someone who just gets on with it despite your feelings?

By sidelining ‘unpleasant’ emotions we are hindering our success. We cannot truly be agile without developing strong emotional agility, which doesn't include squashing some of our emotions.

According to Susan David, Ph.D., Harvard psychologist, all emotions have the capacity to enhance to our ability to be dynamic, flexible, and capable of dealing with complexity, stress and setbacks. So organisations who treat the ‘unpleasant’ emotions that arise in their teams as key information are on their way to a truly agile team. 

What is emotional agility?

“The skills of emotional agility allow you to recognise what you’re feeling, understand what it is, not be driven by it, be more intentional and, ultimately, close the gap between the things you’re trying to do and the outcomes.”–Susan David

Having fixed beliefs about ‘good and bad’ emotions can lead us to be judgemental, and reduce our compassion for ourselves and others, thus making us less resilient in the face of life’s challenges. Whereas having emotional agility allows us to navigate through our emotions with curiosity and compassion without holding onto judgement, and beliefs of our past. 

Emotional agility can help prevent us from becoming 'hooked' by an emotion, instead we are able to flourish despite our emotions. Rather than being compelled in negative ways by an emotion, we make decisions with clarity, support inclusivity, enhance collaboration, and strengthen innovation. 

Emotional Agility In The Workplace

"When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity, and innovation flourish in an organisation.”– Susan David

Since the practice of emotional agility is largely internal, how can we support it within the workplace? We can do so by acknowledging that the full range of emotions are key contributors to our success and by creating psychological safety within the workplace. 

Working in an environment of increasing complexity and change can be a pressure cooker. Add in an increased workload, the need to coordinate with strong personalities, and a sense that your work-life balance is off and it’s no wonder that people shut down. When things get intense, our performance is more likely to suffer. We become transactional, feel stressed, make rash decisions, hold fixed beliefs, and communicate poorly. The very opposite to what agility drives within us.

“Negativity is normal. It is simply part of the human condition.”–Susan David

In these circumstances our emotional rigidity leaves us more likely to respond from place of damaging, unchecked thought patterns and behaviours. Growth is not possible without consciously reviewing our inner narratives, without letting go of what no longer serves us. In order to be flexible, in order to be dynamic, tolerant of stress and overcome setbacks we need emotional agility. 

“Organisations have a long history of sidelining messy emotions.”–Susan David

To deepen our emotional agility we need to acknowledge that all of our emotions have value, and leave behind the labels of 'good' and 'bad', instead embracing a full range of emotions, each which can contribute to an enriched work environment. 

How do all emotions contribute to the workplace? Because they give us vital information. In an organisation, strong emotions indicate the things people care about. For example, someone’s opposition to a project timeline may indicate that they’re someone who is concerned that quality will be compromised. Someone who is feeling detached may be signalling that their value of growth and development is not being met. When leaders tune into the information being relayed by peoples' emotions rather than steering clear of so called 'difficult' emotions, we have an opportunity to grow and strengthen our workplace. 

By creating a greater level of openness towards the range of emotions that people experience we support psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is “the idea that people feel safe to bring their emotional truth to the workplace without feeling that they are going to be fired, scapegoated, or branded negative”–Susan David.

A psychologically safe environment fosters honesty, it improves our well-being, our relationships and it motivates us to make improvements. We grow as individuals and as an organisation, because we feel we can do our best work. We are more open to failure, which in turn allows us to achieve the great goals that are often accompanied by failure and disappointment. 

“It’s really important for organisations to recognise that there can be no agility or adaptability without emotional agility.”–Susan David

How can you build emotional agility for yourself and your team? 

Practise this 4-step process, from Susan David, that helps us to use our emotions to support outcomes, not dictate them. 

1. Showing Up: 

Face your thoughts or feelings with curiosity and acceptance. Even though you may be tempted to ignore the uncomfortable ones, face them anyway, this clears the way for positive change. As a leader, try to listen to people’s concerns without labelling them as a negative person. This acknowledges the reality of our emotional range and can help you to focus on positive change more effectively.

2. Stepping Out:

Detach from your emotions. This detachment will enable you to feel far more autonomous over your actions and decisions. See them for what they are, simply emotions, not who you are. In doing so, label them as accurately as possible, this will help you to better understand their causes and what to do about them.

3. Walking Your Why:

Use your core values to drive you forward. When deciding on what action to take, ask yourself whether this decision reflects your core values and long term goals. For example, if you value fairness, you may choose to have a difficult conversation, rather than avoiding it because doing so reflects fairness to the individual, yourself and your team. 

4. Moving On: 

In moving forward, make small, purposeful adjustments to align your mindset, motivation and habits with your core values. Make sure that these tweaks are connected to who you want to be in your life, and as a leader in the workplace. These value centred tweaks can add up to a significant difference in your life. 

The next time you’re facing a moment of stress or complexity, ask yourself this:

What is my objective? What am I truly trying to do?

What action here is most aligned with my values?

"How to close the gap between our intentions and our reality.” –Susan David

For organisations to be truly agile, they need emotionally agile people. Dive deeper into how you and your organisation can practice emotional agility with us at The Leadership Kitchen.

Susan David is a PhD, Harvard psychologist, cofounder and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, and New York Times best selling author.