We rarely pause to reflect on how emotions drive our thoughts and behaviours. A large proportion of our waking hours are spent on autopilot, where our mind wanders and we’re not actively attuned to the present moment. All this has consequences for the waking hours we spend the majority of our time at – in the workplace. When we live life in 'autopilot,' this tends to also lower our levels of happiness . Think about your last month at work and how you reacted to events occurring in the workplace. Perhaps you could recall an instance in which you felt anxious the moment you saw an email sent by a difficult client. Maybe you then displaced this anxiety by responding to an uncooperative team member in a contemptuous, snarky tone of voice. Or perhaps you were left fuming with some criticism from your immediate supervisor which you felt to be an unfair accusation of your performance, leading you to displace your frustration towards your spouse. Such experiences take a toll on our emotional lives – within, and outside of the office.
It is impossible to stop ourselves from feeling at work. Yet, the alternative – to suppress and inhibit emotions in its entirety, leads to deleterious consequences as well. Suppressing emotions over an extended period of time lowers job satisfaction and heightens intentions to quit one’s job . An effective alternative then, as suggested by psychologist Susan David, is to develop a skill called emotional agility. Named one of Harvard Business Review’s Management Idea of Year, emotional agility is an approach to one’s emotions in a “mindful, values-driven, and productive way .” Emotional agility is not suppressing emotions and neither is it about psyching oneself up, forcing oneself to feel pleasant emotions in the face of difficult situations. Rather, it is about developing capabilities that allow one to be flexible, adaptive, and responsive to different situations. To this effect, developing emotional agility involves making full use of all of our emotions, and recognizing that unpleasant emotions have as much benefit and advantages as our more favoured, pleasant emotions. Recall your work experiences again – was there a time in which anger helped spur action and intention to act against unfairness or injustice? Or perhaps the time in which sadness and disappointment stemming from a failed project resulted in your team regrouping and reflecting on what you could do better? Being emotionally agile means that we see our emotions as they are – useful and informative responses to our circumstances. Doing so allows provides that crucial first step for being more mindful of how they are influencing our thoughts and behaviours. We can then make use of the emotions as and when a given situation calls for it.
You can start by identifying some of the things that you do on impulse at work. David calls these automatic, but unhelpful thoughts and behaviours as “hooks”, which arise from merely calling into attention certain individuals or events. These mental shortcuts help simplify the world and the people around us, but they rarely paint the full, accurate picture of what our environments and others are really like. The next suggestion might need a little more practice – observing these hooks, and responding to them mindfully and in a spirit of self-compassion. Try giving a label to your experienced emotions, and recognize that it okay to be feeling this way. Observe, with interest, why you are feeling that way. Doing so encourages a mindful appraisal and understanding of one’s emotions, and has been shown to be beneficial in countering the effects of emotional exhaustion at work . Labelling emotions also encourages us to be responsive, rather than reactive, towards the situation. In one study, researchers examined how nurses made use of a variety of emotion regulation strategies – modifying and adapting their emotions to suit the demands of each patient. They found that nurses used these strategies to vary between building connections with, or distance themselves from patients. In doing so, the nurses were able to anticipate their patients’ emotions and ultimately, respond to them professionally . The nurses’ ability to use a wide range of emotions allowed them to perform effectively at work. By using a wide range of emotion-driven responses, the nurses were more adaptable, and capable of responding to a wider range of patient-related situations.
Our worklives tend to emotional ones, but we can develop skills that help us orient our emotions as and when the situation demands it. Emotional agility can help us accept, adapt, and accomplish what is demanded of us in our professional lives. We need not be continually hooked, or reactive towards our emotions. We just need to start by paying a bit more attention to our emotions at work, and recognize that all emotions – pleasant and unpleasant, are the essential undercurrents of our worklives.