Dr. Susan David has written a book that everyone must read. The book, Emotional Agility, expertly describes how all of us get stuck in our own brains and become dragged down by our own internal false narratives. It is the rare person who takes time to examine his/her life and understand the impact that past events (particularly during our childhood and adolescent years) have had on his/her outlook on life and how we treat others. As neuroscience has taught us, emotions are processed at the subconscious level – meaning that we are not aware that they exist. Negative emotions create false internal narratives that, if left unchecked, result in nonproductive behaviors and potential mental and physical health issues down the road.

David defines emotional agility as “being aware and accepting of all of your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones. It also means getting beyond conditioned or preprogrammed cognitive and emotional responses (your hooks) to live in the moment with a clear reading of present circumstances, respond appropriately and then act in alignment with your deepest values.” This the key for you to get unstuck, understand and embrace your life history and get on with it.

The author brilliantly describes how a lack of emotional agility impacts the workplace. She writes, “The prevailing wisdom of today’s workplace is that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings have no place at the office, and that employees, particularly leaders, should be either stoic or eternally optimistic. They must project confidence and damp down any powerful emotions bubbling up inside them, especially the negative ones. But as we’ve seen, that goes up against basic biology. No matter how good they are at what they do, all human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt and fear. That’s just the human brain doing its job, trying to make sense of the world, anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.”

We show up at work with a plethora of false narratives that impact our perceptions of ourselves and our relationships with others. Without understanding these narratives and the impact on our behaviors, the scene is set for conflict. Without awareness of these true life stories that inhabit our emotional brains, we engage in self-protecting behaviors that are often destructive – resulting in an atmosphere of mistrust. David writes, “Work draws on and integrates our hidden beliefs, our self-concepts, our sense of competition and cooperation and all the experiences that preceded the first day on the job…At work, especially when things get tense, we too often fall back on our own stories about who we believe ourselves to be. These dusty old narratives can really hook us at critical moments.”

David realizes the impact that a lack of emotional agility has on teams. “Most of us work in teams, which means that our hooks aren’t limited to those derived from our personal narratives or preoccupations; they can very easily include narratives about our colleagues. Without even realizing it, we make judgments about their weaknesses and strengths and about how dedicated or talented they are – or are not.” David talks about “correspondence bias”, which means that “someone else’s behavior can be attributed to fixed personalty traits like phoniness or risk aversion. In contrast, we generally explain away our own bad behavior as a reaction to circumstances (“What could I do? I was under pressure!). Harvard psychologist attributes correspondence bias to four root causes:

  • We lack full awareness of the situation (we don’t know why our boss made the decision)
  • We have unrealistic expectations
  • We make exaggerated assessments of behavior
  • We fail to correct our initial assumptions

David writes, “It’s only when we practice emotional agility that we’re able to shift perspectives and move into continued investigation, discovery and an evolving understanding of the people and situations we encounter”.

David’s recommendation to counter a lack of emotional agility is for everyone to “show up” for work. “To truly show up at the office means making room for and labeling your thoughts and emotions and seeing them for what they are: information rather than facts or directives. This is what allows us to step out to create distance from and gain perspective on our mental processes, which then defangs their power over us.” Showing up for work involves being your authentic self and being aware of your internal narratives and the impact on your emotional state. Every job involves emotional work (called emotional labor) – “the energy that goes into maintaining the public face required in any job and in fact in most human interaction…At work, the more you fake your emotions, or surface act, the worse off you’re likely to be. Too great an incongruity between how you really feel and how you pretend to be becomes such a chore that it leads to burnout and all sorts of related negative consequences at work, both for you and for your organization, in part because it’s just so friggin’ exhausting.”

In the end, being true to yourself is the key to learning and practicing emotional agility. It means understanding the limitations that false narratives place on us, knowing who we really are and what matters to us and identifying and living our values. It’s not what you do at work or how you do it – it’s why you do it. David states, “It’s by walking your why at work – taking actions in line with what matters to you – that you become more engaged and are able to perform at the peak of your abilities…For many people, a big part of the “why” of work is the human connection.”

Emotional agility should be the number one competence required and taught in the workplace.