Emotional Agility: A Key Skill in Leadership (and life)

  • 20.08.2021


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. Its an ability that can be developed through a process. We will discuss this process and the qualities of agile leaders.

Do you remember the narrative that emotions have no place in the office?

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.

Then how can we adapt this proven theory into our daily business lives? At this point, Susan David’s, “Emotional Agility” concept steps in, which is acknowledged by Harvard Business Review as the Management Idea of the Year (2013).

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.

Over the last few years, countless books about happiness and positive emotions were published. Their 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. However, thinking of emotions such as sadness and anger as negative, creates additional hardship and discomfort when, inevitably, these challenging emotions arise.

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. The most critical aspect of this process is to be able to accept the discomfort of our internal experience.

Emotional agility can be learned and developed through the following steps:

1. Showing up: Instead of avoiding or losing ourselves 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 our inner world, letting ourselves experience whatever we’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 our inner experiences means we recognize them for the temporary experiences that they are. We’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. Stepping out is really about understanding that we’re not your thoughts and emotions, we have thoughts and emotions.

3. Returning to our why: Our core values are the compass steering us 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.

Leaders should 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.

Emotionally agile leaders;

  • understand they set the tone for what is appropriate in terms of emotional expression in their organizations.
  • express a broad range of emotions in appropriate ways and in doing so, allow their workers to do the same.
  • 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.
  • are empathic, which enables them to understand that relentless positivity is not the only way to get positive, and constructive results.
  • are curious and compassionate towards their workers' personal experiences because they’re own narratives and kind and compassionate.
  • 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.