What If I Told You The ‘Secret’ To Having a Successful Life?

10 May 2017

According to Susan David, PhD, renowned psychologist and author, the key to being the best version of yourself and leading the life you want is ‘Emotional Agility’.  Being emotionally agile – able to navigate and manage the emotions, thoughts and stories that we tell ourselves every day – is the single most important determinant of our success.

Emotional agility underpins our careers, our relationships, our happiness, even our health.

Over the next three weeks I’m going to unpack the three areas of emotional agility and share real insights into how to improve the way we manage our emotions, thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves.

This week, my focus is on the overall concept of emotional agility.

Agile… it’s a lovely word, isn’t it? The definition of ‘agile’ is: ‘To be able to move quickly and easily’.  I think we could all do with some more of that. I like the idea that emotional agility is something we can develop, just like physical agility.

And just like its physical cousin, emotional agility takes consistent practice. The important thing to remember about developing emotional agility is the ‘What’s In it For Me?’ factor. Improving anything about our emotions and thoughts is going to require hard work.  Hard work that’s easy to avoid.  We have to know why it’s worth it. I think it’s worth it because it gives us choices. It gives us the chance to re-work our beliefs and move on from past mistakes. It gives us the chance to re-invent ourselves – to choose, every day: who do I want to be now?

Who is the most ‘emotionally agile’ person you know?

There’s an old saying that we have to be able ‘see it, to be it’, which refers to having role models we can learn from. Who would your ‘emotional agility’ role model be?

I think of people who have overcome great adversity. Who could have become bitter or let circumstance break them, but who have instead gone on to thrive. By refusing to let their lives be dictated by circumstance they have made the choice to be emotionally agile.  People like Turia Pitt. While competing in an ultramarathon event Turia was caught in a bushfire and suffered extensive burns to her face and body.

It’s taken years and many operations, but Turia has gone on to compete in two ironman events, raised thousands of dollars for charity, become a motivational speaker and created a goal-setting initiative ‘School of Champions’.

I can’t begin to imagine the emotions, thoughts and stories Turia would have had to (and continues to) confront and manage. Turia says: “Of course I go through dark times. But everyone has bad days. You can let experiences destroy you or mould you. I choose to let them mould me.”

Emotional agility for leaders

In this short video you can watch Susan David explain the concept of emotional agility and how it helps leaders to reduce stress, make fewer errors, become more innovative and outperform.

Great leaders don’t deny their inner experience

One of the central ideas of emotional agility is that emotions are critical. We can’t just rationalise them away with ‘I shoulds’. ‘I’m lucky I have a job, I should be happy…’, ‘I’m lucky to be alive, I should be grateful’.  While some ‘shoulds’ are true, they negate the emotions and thoughts we are experiencing.

Emotions have evolved to help us adapt, but they can also hamper our efforts to learn and grow.  As James Detert and Ethan Burris noted in their article Don’t let your defence mechanisms thwart effective feedback: “The human brain is highly protective, leading us to sense and respond to danger automatically. This is quite useful when the threat is real, be it a hungry bear or a livid boss. But often we perceive more danger than there really is, and that can be debilitating.”

We need to learn to dig deeper into our emotions and thoughts to understand where they are coming from. As Susan David notes: “So often underneath our difficult emotions — even though they are difficult — are signals to things that we care about. Issues of equity and fairness and justice.”

Emotional equality

It’s also important that we allow all emotions – if we only have positive emotions at work we lose the power that comes from exploring the negative and what this can reveal about our values and needs. It also makes us more likely to make decisions that are not inline with our values.  As David says: “When we are dominated by our thoughts or anxieties — what are people going to think, what are they going to say — we often act in ways that are incongruent with our intentions or our values.”

While a focus on positive psychology at work is great, as leaders, we need to recognise that all emotions are critical. We can’t ignore any of them. It’s widely recognised that everyone at work undertakes physical and mental labour, but we rarely acknowledge that there is also ‘emotional labour’ – working hard on managing our responses within the workplace, for example, having to be polite and having to focus in times of change.

When we only allow some emotions, we are creating more emotional labour for our teams.

Emotions we sometimes brand as ‘negative’ can also have positive effects. One study, discussed by Eyal Winte, PhD, in Why emotions are more rational than we think, showed that in situations where we are moderately angry our ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant claims in disputed issues is heightened.

If we can develop the ability to pause (and manage our own reactions in our interactions with others – I never said being a leader was easy!) we can choose to stay curious.  We can be more objective about what their emotions are telling us, about who they are as people, what they value strongly and how we can best support them.  For example, if someone is upset that their idea was stolen, it’s an indicator that ‘fairness’ is a key value for them and you, as a leader, can use this insight in the way you communicate with them.

Next week I’ll be exploring our thoughts – specifically, how to understand and manage them for success. 

In the meantime, take five minutes each day to be curious about your reactions to particular people and situations, write down what you react to and note how that links to your values.

Observe others too. Try to decipher what their feelings may be signalling to you about their values, and consider how your response might be different with this new insight.