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Emotional Agility

Emotional agility is a term coined by the Harvard Business Review. It’s a term similar to emotional intelligence, but not the same. Emotional intelligence is being aware of and in control of one’s own emotions. Emotional agility is defined as “approaching one’s inner experiences mindfully and productively, a feat that has become increasingly challenging during this Covid season,” says Paul Goyette. “Becoming more emotionally agile will make you a better leader—while remaining emotionally rigid can compromise your ability to lead effectively and make the best decisions for your team.” World-class leadership requires a high level of agility.


The signs/effects of a lack of emotional agility are numerous. Because leaders are always expected to be “in control,” they tend to suppress negative emotions or push them away when in the corporate realm. They actually get hooked on these emotions, creating unhealthy and unsustainable habits to try to control them, Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, explains. Their thinking becomes rigid and repetitive and stuck in old patterns.


Lacking emotional agility can also impact a leader’s decision-making abilities. They let their negative emotions—not rational decisions—rule them.


Finally, a leader must always be thinking of how his or her actions influence those around them. Emotional inflexibility sets a bad example for the rest of the team. Employees take behavioral cues from their leaders, so employees will pick up on and adopt the negative emotional styles of leaders who aren’t emotionally agile. That can result in a toxic workplace culture.


So how can you defeat this and become more emotionally agile?


1. Practice vulnerability, authenticity, and acceptance, starting with yourself. Instead of fighting or hiding from negative emotions, leaders should allow themselves to fully feel them. This is especially tough for leaders to do because leaders are expected to display positivity. However, doing so gives leaders a chance to model healthy ways to deal with emotions and avoid making important decisions emotionally.


2. Act on values over emotion. Of course, there’s a difference between acceptance and action. Just because you accept your negative emotions doesn’t mean you have to act on them. In fact, Susan David recommends that before responding from an emotional place, leaders should examine whether that reaction will further serve their own values or help others in the company. Making values-based, not emotion-based decisions can also help leaders shape a workplace culture into a stable one, built on values. If you believe in your organizational values (if you don’t, why are you there?) you can use these values to inform your actions, instead of relying on your emotions.


3. Be tolerant while you are exercising emotional agility. You must have patience when attempting to instill these lessons in others. Becoming emotionally agile isn’t something that will simply happen, nor is it something that all people will inherently understand. It will take time, and for many will be quite difficult. They will be confronting their own issues and emotions, and it is the leader’s responsibility to create an inclusive, safe space in which others can discover and progress along this journey for themselves.


4. Recognize your patterns. You must notice when you’ve been hooked by your thoughts and feelings. You have to realize that you’re stuck before you can initiate change. Label your thoughts and emotions. Call them what they are. If you are angry, note it. Own it. Watch what triggers it in you and what you do with it.


5. Regularly evaluate and monitor your emotional agility. It’s impossible to block out difficult thoughts and emotions. Effective leaders are mindful of their inner thoughts and experiences but don’t get stuck there. They draw on their internal resources and commit to actions that align with their values. They own when they are getting off track and deal with themselves and become skilled and agile. They thrive and help others do so.


6. Write it out. University of Texas professor James Pennebaker did studies with two groups of people. He asked one group to write about emotionally significant experiences, and the others to write about common things: their shoes or maybe the cars passing on the street. Both groups wrote about 20 minutes a day, three days in a row.


Some participants wrote about sexual abuse by once-trusted family members; some about catastrophic failures; others about the devastating losses of their deepest relationships through breakups, betrayal, illness, and death. Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work. At first glance, it would seem unusual that thinking about those things would actually help them, but they were dealing and processing, and that always is a step forward. They discovered they were resilient and strong, able to face and deal with even the parts of life they weren’t thrilled about. I have discovered it in my own life. Writing about experiences can not only help you process, but it can also help you step out of inertia, despondency, and depression into meaningful and purposeful action.


For people who don’t like to write, you can record your thoughts verbally. We can say with confidence that putting words to your emotions and values is a tremendously helpful way to deal with stress, anxiety, and loss. It will help you unhook from the past and move forward. It will keep you from being a brooder or a bottler, who stuffs it until you explode in bitterness or a venting rant that helps no one.


Developing emotional agility will transform your life. It helps you put appropriate distance between what happened to you and who you really are. You will no longer react impulsively, but you will act intentionally and productively, from a solid foundation of values.


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