In discussions of the future of work, much has been made of the importance of organizational agility—a company’s ability to swiftly respond to industry changes.
Far less examined, however, is the cascading impact that rapid organizational change can have on individual workers and their performance. According to Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, the complexity, speed and scope of workplace transformation today has produced a paradox.
“The same complexity that drives all of these needs also undermines our human ability to deliver on them,” she says. “When people are experiencing information overload and they have multiple distractions, they feel a huge amount of overwhelming stress.”
“The same complexity that drives all of these needs also undermines our human ability to deliver on them. When people are experiencing information overload and they have multiple distractions, they feel a huge amount of overwhelming stress.”
The result is less relational and more transactional. “Instead of being innovative, people become very narrow in their focus,” she says. “And they tend to do the opposite of what’s being asked of them.”
For organizational agility to produce results, David argues in her work—which includes the bestselling book Emotional Agility and a 2017 TED Talk—it must be paired with individuals’ emotional agility.
Know the goal: emotional agility, internal alignment
To get to emotional agility, you need to start from within. Individual workers must first feel internally aligned, which David describes as “a sense of clarity and connection with the different parts of ourselves—with our emotions, with our thoughts, with our values and with our actions.” There’s a sense, she says, “of these things just meshing together. They’re not in conflict with one another.”
Internal alignment, she says, produces emotional agility, which in turn creates a prime environment for organizational success.
Internal alignment produces emotional agility, which in turn creates a prime environment for organizational success.
“When people develop a set of skills around emotional agility, what they’re doing is bringing their thoughts, their emotions, their values, and their behaviors into a sense of alignment in a way that’s very freeing, and is also associated with better outcomes,” she says.
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Follow the flashing arrows
To achieve emotional agility, people must engage with tough emotions, like frustration and anger, to interpret what those feelings signify.
“When we push aside difficult emotions, we’re actually pushing away our ability to learn a little bit about what our values are,” David says. “Those difficult experiences often end up being flashing arrows that point to our values.”
“When we think about what was worthwhile, often it’ll be activities that have taken us to the edge of our ability.”
In Emotional Agility, she recommends asking, “What is the function of this emotion? What is it trying to tell me are important values to me?” Along those same lines, she recommends looking back at recent work that felt worthwhile.
“When we think about what was worthwhile, often it’ll be activities that have taken us to the edge of our ability,” she says. “They’re not too easy and they’re not too challenging. They’re often activities that expand us in some way.”
Building more of these activities into daily work can pay big dividends in workplace satisfaction.
Label emotions accurately
It’s also important to pause and articulate emotions as specifically as possible, David says. Rather than simply saying, “I feel stressed,” she urges people to go further. Do they mean “unsupported” or “underqualified” instead? By homing in on exact feelings, you can more easily find solutions.
“When you label your emotion more accurately, it activates the readiness potential in your brain, she says. “You start connecting with what you need to do, whether that’s developing a skill set or connecting more with people so that you have a greater sense of belonging.”
Understand have-to versus want-to goals
Of course, this begets the question: What if the stuff I don’t like doing is the stuff I have to do? David breaks work down into “have-to” and “want-to” goals.
A “have-to” goal is one you do out of a sense of obligation, shame or even fear—and when you feel you have to do it, it undermines your ability to do it well and, she says, “emboldens your sense of resentment.”
“When people are allowed to bring their emotional truth to work, that is when innovation, creativity, engagement and culture thrive in the organization.”
Take, for instance, giving feedback. “When someone says, ‘I have to give someone feedback,’ they’re more likely to give feedback poorly,” David says. “If you see something as a chore, you’re less likely to be effective in it.”
The opposite is a “want-to” goal: a goal or task that is driven by your values, who you are and what’s important to you.
If fairness is one of your values, you might ask yourself: Is it fair to this person if I don’t give helpful feedback? “Now you’re coming to that same conversation with a sense of connection and alignment, of who you want to be and how you want to [execute] your values in that context,” David says.
And that individual alignment makes all the difference. “When people are allowed to bring their emotional truth to work,” she says, “that is when innovation, creativity, engagement and culture thrive in the organization.”