February 22, 2022

Add emotional agility to your leadership toolkit

It’s not in your head — the fatigue is real. We’re entering year three of a global pandemic that seems to shapeshift constantly and leaves us feeling helpless and a general sense of failure. There are many reasons to feel worn out, including parenting, caretaking, over-working, or finding joy and purpose while isolated. All of these things together make up your “allostatic load.” 

Allostatic load is defined as: “the cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful.” In other words, it’s that constant state of stress we’ve been feeling since March 2020 (and maybe even before). It’s clear that the circumstances aren’t changing anytime soon, so how do we focus our attention on mitigating stress over time? 

We’ve written before about resilience. Add its partner, emotional agility, to your list of tools to cultivate. It’s not a quick fix, but a mindset shift that could aid us in long-term stress management. 

What does it mean to be emotionally agile? 

Emotional agility, introduced by Susan David in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, is “an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts and emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them in negative ways, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves.” In her 2016 book by the same name, Susan David writes: “One of the greatest human triumphs is choosing to make room for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” To be emotionally agile is not to deny our feelings but rather to take our emotions and reactions as a single data point and to be able to pivot to positive action. 

The barriers between work and life have remained hard to define, especially as people continue to work more hours and center their lives at home around work. As we spend more time with our colleagues and less time with our friends, family, and communities, we’re more likely to play out our frustrations, anxieties, and insecurities within the context of our work. The key is not to get “hooked” by these emotions and bring them into our interactions- especially at work. 

Don’t get hooked! 

Susan David goes on to say, “All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.”

Leaders have traditionally been told that they must align to a specific and restrictive “leadership style,” when in reality, leaders are just people capable of feeling the full spectrum of emotion, just like anybody else. Data has shown that effective leaders can and should be vulnerable, sharing their real feelings in order to build trust, compassion, and a culture of empathy and resilience. 

Frank Bond of University of London says that, in the work environment, “psychological flexibility means people with the capacity to focus on the present moment to being open and curious and, depending on what the situation affords, behaving in line with one’s chosen goals and values at work.” This psychological flexibility is another way to talk about emotional agility. Both ideas come down to holding your emotions lightly, understanding your values, and choosing to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. 

The four steps to building emotional agility

The description of each step comes from Susan David’s Emotional Agility.

  1. Recognize your patterns: “Notice when you’re getting hooked on thoughts and feelings.”
  2. Label your thoughts and emotions: “Labeling allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.”
  3. Accept them: “The opposite of control is acceptance—not acting on every thought or resigning yourself to negativity but responding to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude.”
  4. Act on your values: “When you unhook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices. You can decide to act in a way that aligns with your values.”

Define and live your values.

Align more of what you do, minute by minute, with your deepest values, to then confidently act from a place of integrity. This will undoubtedly lower your anxiety and increase your emotional agility, or your ability to hold things lightly, to be psychologically limber. “Even when the outward focus is on metrics and analytics, spreadsheets and coldly rational decisions, the office is actually a stage on which all these emotional issues play out– whether we’re conscious of them or not. At work, especially when things get intense, we too often fall back on our old stories about who we believe ourselves to be.” David writes, “to advance in our careers, we need to update these narratives the same way we update our resumes.”

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