Organisations need to get more comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, says psychologist Susan David, author of the best-selling book Emotional Agility.
Just think positive.
How often have you heard this, either from a colleague or from your own worried mind? It’s a piece of advice that reflects our belief that the power of positivity can overcome any obstacle – whether that’s a career setback or a cancer diagnosis.
“We live in a world that values relentless positivity – almost forced positivity in many ways,” says Susan David, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who is set to speak at the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in September.
According to David, the “tyranny of positivity” denies the reality of human experience. Instead of adopting the rigid view that divides emotions into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, David wants us to embrace our full range of emotions – what she calls emotional agility.
Hear more from Susan David at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition this September in Brisbane. Registration closes today, so book your ticket now!
“Negativity is normal,” she writes in her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, published in 2016. “It’s simply part of the human condition.”
David grew up in the white suburbs of apartheid South Africa, a society she says was built on denial. “It’s denial that makes 50 years of racist legislation possible while people convince themselves that they’re doing nothing wrong,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Boston.
When David was 15, her father died from cancer. Although just a teenager, she put on a brave face and carried on as if nothing was wrong, continuing to achieve high grades at school and telling the world she was fine.
“I became the master of being okay,” she recalls, three decades later.
The reality was far different. David’s mother was raising three children alone, and the family was also struggling financially. David’s repressed grief manifested in an unhealthy relationship with food, and she began binging and purging. Psychologically, she says, she was “not doing well”.
Fortunately, a lifeline came from an unexpected source. One day in English class, her teacher handed out notebooks, instructing the students to keep a journal. The teacher told them to write down their feelings truthfully – “to write like no one’s reading”.
It was a revolutionary moment for David, who vividly recounts the experience in a viral TED Talk she delivered in 2017.
“Just like that, I was invited to show up authentically to my grief and pain,” she says in the video, which has now been watched by almost 5 million people. Her silent correspondence with her teacher allowed her to finally start processing her grief and move forward.
It was a formative experience that kindled within David a lifelong fascination with the way we handle emotion. She came to recognise that positivity had become “a new form of moral correctness”. It’s a narrative that denies the reality of who we are as human beings, she says.
“Just like that, I was invited to show up authentically to my grief and pain.”
The four steps of emotional agility
At its most basic, emotional agility is the ability to manage your thoughts and feelings. It’s about identifying and accepting your emotions – both good and bad – and moving past them.
Four key concepts, outlined in depth in Emotional Agility, underpin David’s framework. First is showing up, where you recognise your emotions and confront them with curiosity and kindness.
Then there is stepping out, a process of detachment and observation. Walking your why involves identifying your core values, and moving on is the implementation of changes, or tweaks, that are in line with your values.
Where emotional rigidity sees us fall into damaging thought patterns and behaviours, David argues that emotionally agile people have the skills and resources they need to thrive in our fast-changing world. They are dynamic, demonstrate flexibility in dealing with complexity, can tolerate stress and overcome setbacks.
Emotional agility at work
Organisations have a long history of sidelining messy emotions. The standard view is that employees and leaders alike can be either optimistic or stoic – but never outwardly angry, sad or disappointed.
In the face of change in the workplace, there’s pressure to “just get on with it,” says David. Employees are often told “you’re either with us or against us – you’re either on the bus or off the bus,” with no middle ground.
The relationship between individuals and organisations is often adversarial, she says. “There’s this idea that what is good for the organisation is not good for the person or vice versa.
“Organisations have a long history of sidelining messy emotions.”
However, David argues that embracing the full range of the human emotional experience results in better outcomes for all parties. Her work focuses on principles that are mutually advantageous to both the individual, who benefits from improved wellbeing and opportunities to grow, and the organisation, which benefits because its employees are engaged and “feel they can do their best work”.
A prerequisite of emotional agility is psychological safety – “the idea that people feel safe to bring their emotional truth to the workplace without feeling that they are going to be fired, scapegoated, or branded negative.”
David believes that so-called negative emotions play “profoundly important roles” in the workplace. Innovation and collaboration are often accompanied by failure, disappointment, and conflict. Commonly held goals like agility and inclusiveness, she says, “are simply not possible unless the organisation has a greater level of openness towards the more difficult emotions that people are experiencing.”
These emotions serve a purpose, holding within them valuable data that we can learn from, says David. If you feel guilty as a parent because you have been travelling a lot for work, “that guilt might be a signpost for you that presence and connectedness… with your children are really important,” she says. If you disregard that guilt because it is negative, rather than listening to it, you miss the chance to reaffirm your values and shift your behaviour.
In an organisation, difficult emotions signpost the things people care about. Dissenters are often labelled as troublemakers, but David says dismissing their concerns is a mistake. If someone in your team is frustrated because they are bored at work, it’s usually a sign that they value growth and development and need a new challenge.
A staff member who voices misgivings about a new strategy could be highlighting a clash with the organisation’s values, while grumbling about a project’s timeline is a red flag that an employee is worried that quality will be compromised.
When HR or a leader push that feedback aside, they lose the opportunity to explore whether it can help the organisation “to develop a better product, a better outcome, or a better strategy,” says David.
Organisations must move away from the narrative that there are good and bad ways of feeling and recognise that they are dealing with humans who experience the full range of emotions, says David. After all, human beings aren’t machines. “We are complex, and we have our own values.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of HRM magazine.