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What Is Emotional Agility & Its Importance to Leadership

By Paul Goyette on December 26, 2017

Have you heard of emotional agility? Coined by the Harvard Business Review, the term closely aligns with a more widely used term, emotional intelligence—but the two concepts are not interchangeable.

Emotional intelligence refers to being aware of and in control of one’s own emotions. Emotional agility, meanwhile, refers to approaching one’s inner experiences mindfully and productively.

The differences between emotional intelligence and emotional agility can have a profound impact on how leaders perform and how they treat others in the workplace. Just like emotional intelligence, emotional agility requires one to be in tune with their own emotions, but it doesn’t place emphasis on suppressing or controlling them. You can be emotionally intelligent but still lack emotional agility (though the reverse is not true). Becoming more emotionally agile will make you a better leader—while remaining emotionally rigid can compromise your ability to lead effectively and make the best decisions for your team. Here’s how:

How A Lack of Emotional Agility Affects Leadership

Leaders are always expected to be “in control”—so they tend to suppress negative emotions or push them away when in the corporate realm. In reality, though, they get hooked on these emotions, creating unhealthy and unsustainable habits to try to control them, as Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, explained in HBR. When leaders become hooked on their negative emotions, their thinking becomes rigid and repetitive. They become stuck in old patterns. That’s bad news for leaders, since world-class leadership requires a high level of agility. Moreover, a lack of emotional agility in a leadership team can stifle innovation and stall personal development.

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Lacking emotional agility can also impact a leader’s decision-making abilities. Leaders may try to avoid new situations or challenges that may trigger their negative thoughts, passing on opportunities that would actually be good for them and the company. Or they may take the opposite route, intentionally trying to push back their negative thoughts by taking on situations they’re not equipped to handle or that go against their values. Either way, they let their negative emotions—not rational business decisions—rule them.

Finally, a leader must always be thinking of how his or her actions influence those around them. Emotional inflexibility sets a bad example for employees. Employees take behavioral cues from their leaders, so employees will pick up on and adopt the negative emotional styles of leaders who aren’t emotionally agile. That can result in a toxic workplace culture, one where stilting emotions and not speaking freely or emotional outbursts become the norm.

How Leaders Can Become More Emotionally Agile

The cost of remaining emotionally rigid is clear, while becoming more emotionally agile can help you become a world-class leader known for sparking change and embracing a vibrant organizational culture. Here are two ways you can become a more emotionally agile leader in the workplace:

1. Practice acceptance.

Instead of fighting or hiding from negative emotions, leaders should first accept them, allowing themselves to fully feel them. Unfortunately, this is especially tough for leaders to do because of the clichés associated with projecting leadership. For example, a survey recently revealed that the number one most important trait for a leader is positivity—expectations like this, of an always sunny and encouraging disposition, make it hard for leaders to accept their negative emotions. Doing so, however, gives leaders a chance to model healthy ways to deal with emotions to their employees while avoiding making important decisions based on said emotions.

2. Take actions based on your values, not just your emotions.

Of course, there’s a difference between acceptance and action. Just because you accept your negative emotions doesn’t mean you have to act on them. In fact, Susan David recommends that before responding from an emotional place, leaders should examine whether that reaction will further serve their own values or help others in the company. Making values-based, not emotion-based, decisions can also help leaders shape a workplace culture into one built on values. Leaders can use the stated values of their organization to guide their actions, instead of relying on their emotions.   

How leaders deal with their emotions in the workplace has a profound effect on culture and organizational initiatives—not to mention the well-being of leaders themselves. Emotional agility equips leaders to deal with negative emotions in healthy, productive ways, though it takes practice and support for emotional agility to develop. Does your workplace support the development of emotionally agile leaders? If not, what do you think is missing?

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As Executive Vice President Global Performance, Paul has extensive experience in consultation, design, and delivery of programs over his 20 year career with Eagle’s Flight. Through his genuine personable approach, Paul is not only a trusted advisor but also a valued partner to his clients; he works seamlessly to ensure that Eagle’s Flight solutions are aligned to their needs and desired outcomes. As a result, Paul is the account executive for Eagle’s Flight largest account. Many of his clients are multi-year accounts from multinational, Fortune 500 companies.

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