Emotional agility* is…

This article is available in Bulgarian.

We want our employees to be happy and we work hard to make it so. Yes, defining and managing happiness is mostly a personal matter, but what role do we as organization leaders have? We believe that our role is to create an environment in which emotions are not labeled. It seems to us that the accepted definition of professionalism is the ability to always stay positive and to never feel negative emotions or at least manage and suppress them well. Let’s be honest – these are the rules that, more or less, define relations in teams. The problem is that people can’t feel happy, wholesome and capable of managing themselves and their stress for long in such environments. This happens because we falsely believe that we control our emotions, whereas as the truth is that they control us. 

I will give you an excellent example from the book of the famous Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman (you can see my copy in the photo).

“The Antidote – Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking”: try not to think of a polar bear. To the surprise of many, this challenge comes from Dostoevsky**. In 1863 he wrote: “Try to do the following: do not think about a polar bear and you will find that the damned thing comes back in your mind every minute.” The challenge was taken up by Professor Daniel Wegner from Harvard, who studied this behavior in the context of Suppression Thought Theory. Wegner explains why this happens: when you try not to think of a polar bear, you might be able to coerce your mind to have alternative thoughts, but at the same time a process known as metacognitive monitoring takes place, during which your brain uncontrollably tries to check whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where it gets difficult – the harder you try to give up a certain though, the more it comes back, because the system of control that checks whether you are succeeding at the task requires more and more energy, until you end up stressed from the pressure. At the end you will see that not only are you thinking about the polar bear, but that you are also incapable of thinking about how incapable you are of not thinking about the polar bear. Is it possible that our efforts to think positively lead to similar “opposite” results? I will share one more thing that I like from Wegner’s experiment: when subjects who were part of a study were told not to feel sad about an unpleasant event, they ended up feeling sadder than those who were not instructed, but simply told about the event. You understand.

These studies are connected to a common problem, immortalized by popular self-help and self-management strategies, which prescribe all kinds of techniques to help us solve our problems – prioritizing worries, rejection fears, distress and others, by using positive reinforcement (naturally practiced with meditative music J). All these techniques do not work, as proven by numerous studies – in fact, attempts to minimize or ignore our emotions only fuels them. People who have been on diets know how difficult it is to push aside thoughts of pizza… J

So, why am I writing all of this? Because the prevailing opinion states that difficult thoughts (usually connected to difficult emotions) have no place in the office. Leaders have to be especially friendly stoics who radiate and transmit confidence to their subordinates without succumbing to negative emotions. You might not believe it, but your back could be hurting from repressed emotions as much as from sitting too long. People have an inner stream of thoughts and emotions that include criticism, doubt and fear. Emotions need to be expressed and find their place. We can find balance when we express our emotions and give them space, which happens when we are able to communicate them in a wholesome way with others and connect with their emotions too. Instead of repressing my inner experiences I need to have a setting in which to meet them consciously and in accordance to my values – something that Suzan David calls emotional agility.     

Companies that want to take care of the wellbeing of their employees need to consider what kind of environment they are creating, so that their people can take care of themselves, maintain integrity with their principles and values and be connected with their emotional needs. Leaders have to be especially adept at showing vulnerability. In the office I share my moments of weakness, such as when I don’t feel like working, when I’m tired or when I’ve lost interest. When I share my feelings instead of repressing them, I feel relieved, understood and trusted and I regain my energy. This is the kind of work environment that I call sustainable – it allows my team to remain connected, true, calm and adaptive in a world of constant new knowledge and change, instead of thinking about polar bears. Needless to say, emotional agility is the foundation for creating an environment that allows us to be less stressed, make fewer mistakes, be more innovative, work more effectively and free from back pain. You can look up Professor Ford Bond, who confirms this.   

I would also add that companies who treasure the wellbeing of their employees as a form of capital create an environment in which people have the courage to express their emotions regardless of what they are. Under these conditions there are no calls to “man up” or “be positive”. The good and the bad in our lives always go hand in hand, do they not? Isn’t the beauty of life found in this fragile balance? It is like this everywhere – both in the office and at home. At work we are also human beings. Companies that manage to tweak their office culture to correspond to human nature, as opposed to forcing trendy ideals on their employees, unlock tremendous creative resources. Their employees are more engaged, present, creative and innovative. Aren’t these the modern descriptions that we all like to use on our websites, company policies and internal documents? It means these qualities are important. Flourishing teams contain a great diversity of emotions, which by the way, is more important than gender or race diversity. In these teams people have the capability of diving into their emotions and exploring what their message it. Teams that want to reach this state should find a leader who isn’t afraid to show vulnerability. People naturally feel more relaxed around leaders like this, which leads to lots of saved energy that might otherwise be expended on polar bears.     

“Предизвикателството с бялата мечка, казва Вегнер, в крайна сметка е метафора на това, което най-много се обърква в живота: често, резултатът, който искаме да избегнем на всяка цена изглежда привлечен по чудодеен начин“. Вегнер нарича този ефект ‘the precisely”***…

“The polar bear challenge”, says Wegner, “is a metaphor for those things in life that often go badly wrong – it is as if the worst results that we try to avoid at all costs are magically manifested.” Wegner calls this effect “precisely the wrong thing…”***

*Emotional Agility is Susan David’s phrase of the year

**Fyodor DostoevskyWinter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863

***I will leave this for everyone to translate as they see fit.

Published in “Informator” magazine (Bulgarian association for managing people)

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