There seems to be a prevailing wisdom that negative emotions should not be expressed in the workplace. This holds especially true for leaders, who are expected to project some combination of confidence, positivity, or enthusiasm at all times. If these attitudes don’t come easily or naturally, the leader should at least present a stoic demeanor that precludes any negative feelings; doubt, criticism, fear, and anger have no place at the office. The pressure to protect positivity can be extremely stressful for leaders considering that a recent study showed 47% of them cited “positivity” as the most important trait a leader can have.
But is this realistic? According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, this expectation is not only impractical, but also unhealthy. Instead of identifying “why” they’re experiencing certain emotions or understanding the underlying cause of those emotions, people often fixate upon the emotion itself. This can lead them to ignore how they’re feeling or even feel guilty about it, which results in tremendous stress. Even worse, if people are not able to recognize their emotions, it becomes more difficult to keep them from dictating their behavior.
David uses the term “emotional agility” to describe the process by which people can respond productively to their inner experiences and emotions with a clear head and open mind. In their efforts to avoid confronting negative emotions, leaders often try to suppress them or push them away. Unfortunately, this approach has the effect of “hooking” them on these emotions, locking them into unhealthy patterns that can lead to poor decisions made for the wrong reasons.
For example, employees could go out of their way to avoid situations that may result in familiar negative thoughts, which leads them to pass up opportunities that might benefit their career or their company (“I might not be good at that and I don’t want to be a failure”). In other cases, people may try to overcome negative feelings by taking on new tasks they’re not able to handle or that conflict with their basic values (“I might not be good at that, but if I don’t do it, I’ll be a failure”). In both cases, decisions aren’t being made rationally; they’re being made based on how the outcome will make the person feel.
Emotional agility helps people to identify how their emotions affect their thoughts, actions, and behaviors. It doesn’t invalidate or deny emotions, but rather treats them as data. By managing these thoughts and feelings, it becomes possible to learn from them without being dominated by them. Like all data points, some emotions are more helpful than others, while others are rooted in fundamental values. The goal of becoming emotional agile is to be able to sift through those emotions objectively, identify what’s causing them, and determine whether or not those causes should inform decisions.
As a relatively new concept, emotional agility has not been fully incorporated into many development programs. For organizations looking for a place to start, however, David identifies four “movements” that can help people become more emotionally agile.
1: Showing Up
The first step is to face thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with an open mind. Whether those feelings and actions are positive or negative, identifying them is the first step in understanding how they affect decision making. Labeling thoughts and emotions for what they are makes it easier to examine them.
For example, saying “I’m angry at my coworker” puts the emphasis on the target of the emotion, whereas “I feel angry about something my coworker did” shifts the focus to the emotion and helps to get to the bottom of why that particular emotion is related to the situation. Similarly, “My work isn’t good enough” doesn’t identify negative thought patterns in the same way as “I’m having the thought that my work isn’t good enough.”
2: Stepping Back
The next step is to detach from the situation, setting emotions and thoughts aside to gain an objective view of what’s actually happening. Stepping back to gain this view helps to identify what responses would be most appropriate in that context. In the absence of emotion, what would be the best decision based on the available information? Much like with conflict resolution, it’s important to remember that feelings are not being invalidated here, just temporarily set to the side after being acknowledged as legitimate.
This step is also useful for identifying things that may trigger emotional reactions or certain feeling and thought patterns, both in oneself and in others. Knowing what situations will provoke those responses can help people to anticipate how to best navigate them in the future.
3: Walking Your Why
In most cases, emotional responses are triggered because of a threat to a person’s core values. Emotions, however, have a way of clouding the issue, making it difficult for people to see what they really care about and causing them to react based on the emotion rather than the underlying value. Oftentimes, those reactions further compromise core values.
Knowing what values are important to them helps people to make decisions that will move them forward rather than keeping them stuck in the same old patterns. In the context of an organization, focusing on specific goals and values makes it possible to respond to thoughts and emotions in ways that will benefit the organization in both the short term and the long term.
4: Moving On
When people accept that they do not act on their every emotion or thought, they can begin the process of making small changes to their mindset and habits that incorporate their core values. They become mindful of their emotions, but not hooked on negative patterns that prevent them from taking actions that will drive success. Accepting feelings and thoughts is not always pleasant, but it’s a necessary step that allows people to move beyond their inner experience so they can respond to situations in ways that support the goals and values they care about.
Every emotional response presents a chance to learn something new. By denying thoughts or feelings, people often cut themselves off from valuable growth opportunities that could help them to perform better in the future. However, if they never learn how to accept those feelings and move on from them, it will be difficult to gain anything productive from the experience.
When promoted in organizations, emotional agility can help to reduce errors and stress as well as encourage innovation and better employee performance. While not the key to a “happier” workplace, it does provide a path to a more balanced and understanding one. Emotional agility helps employees and especially leaders to gain a better sense of what motivates them and how they react to situation. By putting these insights to use, they can create a workplace driven by values rather than one at the mercy of reactionary emotions.