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Emotional Agility: Creating Authentic Workplaces

Emotional Agility

Rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic.

Dr. Susan David, PhD

Bringing ones 'whole self' to work is a notion born of recent times. It's true that historically, organisations have actively discouraged bringing elements of our 'personal lives' into the office, as if they were components of a separate identity. So we fell into line, and sadly some of us still do, since it's what our organisational culture expects. The unfortunate thing is that this type of culture leads to a lack of trust, authenticity and engagement. A culture that stifles emotions, particularly the negative kind, which correspondingly denies our 'whole selves' and adversely impacts our performance.

When you're having a bad day do you share it? Do you tell your colleagues when you're frustrated with them or admit that you're angry when fairness does not prevail? It's human nature to lock down negative emotions and when we are propped up by a culture that supports this tendency, we become accustomed to doing so. This behaviour is often rewarded and mistaken for resilience and/or emotional intelligence, and all the while it continues to erode our humanity. Don't get me wrong, there isn't a need to have all of our emotions out on display for the world to see. Self-regulation is a desirable trait, but by the same token, so is the ability to recognise and acknowledge emotions when we experience them . In fact, when people in the workplace are encouraged to feel all emotions, engagement, creativity and innovation flourish [1].

It's also about having the right balance, high performing teams have a ratio of positive to negative emotions of 5.6 to 1 [2]. Meaning that it pays to be positive, but nevertheless vitally important to acknowledge the negative.

According to Dr. Susan David, 1/3 of us judge ourselves when we experience negative emotions, or push them aside in an attempt to get on with things. The thing is, when emotions get pushed aside or ignored, they actually become stronger - something psychologists call amplification.

It doesn't take an expert to predict how this may play out: people who are keeping their emotions bottled up or ignoring them end up lashing out, if not in the workplace, then at home. Alternatively they may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms including alcohol, drugs and other unhealthy behaviours. Worse yet, the bottled emotions may lead to a disorder or chronic illness.

So what can we do?

Emotions are data, they are not directives.

Dr. Susan David

Cue emotional agility ~ the concept of being with your emotions and applying curiosity and compassion followed by the courage to take values based action. Get curious about your emotions, relinquish judgement and sit with them. If you value authenticity in the workplace, it's important that you acknowledge all emotions and support others in doing so, your relationships will thrive. If you value diversity take a stand when it is challenged, your courage will speak volumes and build your influence.

So how can you further encourage and cultivate emotional agility in the workplace? Create psychological safety within your teams so that others feel empowered to share, take risks and challenge the status quo. Encourage positive deviance and see what transpires. Ask how people are genuinely feeling during times of uncertainty, complexity and change and offer support.

You've likely heard the saying 'get comfortable with discomfort'..... well Dr. David says it best:

Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

If we want to create mentally healthy workplaces and an environment for thriving, we must encourage open and honest communication (and truly mean it) and be comfortable with the discomfort.

All emotions are valid, it's what we do with them that matters most.

To complete the emotional agility quiz and get your free report go to:


[1] David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. Penguin.

[2] Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765.

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