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Emotional Agility Makes You a Better Leader, Here’s Why.

Emotional Agility Makes You a Better Leader, Here’s Why.

What do you do when you feel a strong emotional response to a situation, decision, or encounter in the workplace? Do you bottle it up? Wish it away? Brood over it late into the night? If you do, you’ve likely noted the consequences of doing so.

What if you didn’t respond this way, though? What if, instead, you developed emotional agility? According to one of the world’s leading thought leaders on the topic, Susan David, this means “loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention. It means choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system.” Sounds like a better way to live and lead, doesn’t it?

In the following article, we’ll review the definition of emotional agility, its importance, the difference between it and emotional intelligence, and finally, review how to develop it in order to become a better leader. Let’s get started.


What Is Emotional Agility in Leadership?

Emotional agility is defined as the ability to acknowledge and accept your emotions so that you can respond to everyday situations in ways that are congruent with your values. The concept was popularized in the best-selling and award-winning book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. The book was written by Susan David, who is a highly-regarded Harvard Medical School psychologist, speaker, and thought leader on management and leadership.


Emotional Agility vs. Emotional Intelligence

To understand the difference between emotional agility and emotional intelligence, let’s review the definition of emotional intelligence, courtesy of Mental Health America:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage both your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you.”

Based on this, the difference between emotional agility vs. emotional intelligence is that emotional intelligence is about “managing emotions,” while emotional agility is about understanding emotions on a deeper level. By acknowledging and understanding emotions on a deeper level, you are able to act on those emotions (or not!) in a more conscious, self-aware way.

According to Susan David in her book, editors from Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fast Company have previously described emotional agility as the “next emotional intelligence.” What this tells you, as a leader, is that emotional agility is a step beyond emotional intelligence and should be what you strive to achieve going forward.


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The Importance of Emotional Agility in Leadership

It is not uncommon for leaders to fight to control, downplay, or ignore the emotions that naturally come up in any workplace, such as stress, disappointment, or frustration. After all, for decades, the narrative was that there’s no room for feelings and emotions in business.

Today, mental health professionals and thought leaders like Susan David are trying to change the narrative and advocate for a more emotionally aware workplace. In fact, in her TED Talk, which has now been watched over a million times, Susan David says, “Emotional rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic.” In other words, in a complex and tumultuous world such as ours, emotionally rigid leaders who bottle up and brood over their emotions may not only face negative consequences such as heightened anxiety and depression but negatively harm their relationship with their employees.

Emotional agility is non-negotiable to avoid such consequences and become a better leader. In fact, here are several key reasons why emotional agility is important, especially for those in people leadership positions:

  • Builds stronger manager-employee relationships
  • Improves communication
  • Supports resilience
  • Creates psychological safety
  • Assists in conflict resolution


Builds Stronger Manager-Employee Relationships

Emotionally agile leaders are genuinely empathetic and supportive of their employees, which is key to building stronger relationships with them. The importance of this is highlighted In a 2023 Workday study. It found that 80% of employees with a supportive manager were happy in their jobs. Meanwhile, of the employees with non-supportive managers, just 20% said they were happy in their jobs with no plans to quit. Moreover, a supportive manager improves the chance of an employee staying at a company by 300%!


Improves Communication

Emotionally agile leaders foster open and honest communication between themselves and their employees. In doing so, you are able to reduce misunderstandings, build strong relationships built on trust, and address conflicts before they negatively impact team culture or productivity.


Supports Resilience

Resilience and emotional agility go hand-in-hand. An emotionally agile leader will have a greater capacity to cope with and quickly recover from setbacks and the emotions that accompany said setbacks. This is important given that resilient leaders have an 87% leadership effectiveness score vs. non-resilient leaders, who score an abysmal 12%.


Creates Psychological Safety

Emotional agility is one way leaders can create an atmosphere of psychological safety where their employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns without fear of negative repercussions. This is important given that psychological safety has been found to increase engagement, lower turnover, reduce burnout, and support collaboration among employees.


Assists in Conflict Resolution

As a leader, you are bound to deal with your fair share of conflict that either directly involves you or one or more of your employees. In these situations, emotional agility makes you a better leader as it allows you to understand the conflict more fully and take a mindful approach as you facilitate conversations that lead all parties involved toward a solution.


Next Steps: How To Develop Emotional Agility as a Leader

Are you determined to become a better leader? One you can be proud to be and one your employees are proud to work for? If so, emotional agility is key.

Granted, emotional agility isn’t something you learn overnight. It takes time, practice, and experience to get comfortable with it. Fortunately, one-on-one coaching is an ideal way to develop emotional agility as a leader. A qualified, professional coach is an invaluable source of not only guidance and support but can also act as a sounding board, teach you how to apply new techniques/tools in your everyday life, and offer actionable advice on specific situations.

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