Building Emotional Agility for Successful Change

If fourteen frogs are sitting on a log and three decide to hop off, how many are left on the log? Most people would answer eleven but according to Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change, the answer is far more likely to be … fourteen.

That’s because there is a wide gulf between our intention or willingness to take action and actually carrying the action out.

Kegan attributes this immunity to change to deeply entrenched patterns of thinking. Established neural pathways keep us firmly bound to old, habitual behaviours and ways of viewing ourselves and our world. These mental models keep us immune from the risk and anxiety that change represents.

We live in a world in which there is a huge amount of complexity, where there is change every which way we turn. We often struggle to make sense of it on a day-to-day basis and ask ourselves: Am I doing what I need to be doing in a way that is actually helpful to me?

What then does it take, internally, to deal with the thoughts, emotions and self-stories, that we all have, to ultimately help ourselves to be successful externally and thrive, particularly around change?

Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, suggests the answer lies in thinking about the opposite of agility, namely rigidity. Rigidity is when our thoughts, our emotions, our stories and our patterns start to dominate a situation. So, for example, we may have a difficult situation at work and we shut down. Or, we are in a meeting and we’re feeling undermined therefore we basically decide that we aren’t going to contribute further.

So the workplace is really interesting because the workplace is the stage on which all of the patterns and stories that we’ve developed throughout our lives, really, come to the fore. The workplace is a stage for collaboration or competition. “Am I good enough? Am I meeting my own expectations? Am I meeting other people’s expectations? Am I doing what I really want to be doing here?

What is notable today is that organisations are calling for people to be agile; yet, the organisation itself and the context of complexity rarely evoke transactional ways of thinking in the individual. That’s because the organisation is non-relational, driving individuals to make decisions very quickly as opposed to being deliberate. So there lies this paradox within organisations: The very essence of what we need and who we need to be as individuals in the workplace, i.e. agile, is actually undermined by the complexity of the organisation itself.

So how do we deal with that apparent contradiction? Here are my Eight Steps to Developing Emotional Agility and Making Change Stick:

1. Know who you are

Knowing what drives you, knowing your values and your authentic self is fundamental to emotional agility and responding to change. View yourself with curiosity and self-compassion, rather than judgment. By truly knowing yourself and your values, you can recognise when you are being constrained, either by your own narrative or by expectations that actually might not be serving you, your career, or the organisation.

2. Identify your goals

The first step towards growth and development is clearly articulating your goal(s). As you begin your journey towards fruitful change, you may not be able to articulate your goal precisely. You may know you want to improve your performance, achieve a promotion or feel less pressured but these are broad, over-arching aims. They need to be broken down into attainable steps. It can be really helpful to seek feedback from others. Ask superiors and direct reports about the one thing you could do better. Define your goals positively. For example, “Speak out more openly at meetings,” rather than, “Stop holding back at meetings.”

3. Be aware of the ‘space’ and don’t let emotions call the shots

We can experience as many as 16,000 thoughts and emotions every day. It’s important to recognise that thoughts and emotions are just that: thoughts and emotions. They can be useful, however treat them as data, rather than facts or directives.

So, as David points out, emotional agility is this critical skill-set that has never been more needed than in today’s workplace. It’s the ability to slow down our thinking and create the space whereby we can insert our values, our ‘why’, our sense of purpose and our intention to move to the space where we are able to operate as an individual who has a choice.

For example, going back to our earlier example – if you feel undermined in a meeting and that triggers the thought, “I’m going to shut down”, think of the power of the space, slow down your thought process and consider, for example, that, “One key value of mine is to be a contributor. So, my response will be that I’m going to choose, in this situation, to continue to contribute. I may make other choices later but I am not going to be dominated by my triggers, emotions and stories”.

4. Label your emotions

Recognise your emotional and thought patterns. There’s a large body of research showing that being able to recognise and label the different negative emotions we experience is a critical psychological skill. For example, these days we often label certain emotions under the word “stress”. However, stress is a very broad term. It’s important to recognise that there’s a difference between stressed vs angry, stressed vs disappointed, and stressed vs worried. Be specific.

Putting emotion and feelings into words actually diminishes the emotional arousal associated with increased activity in the amygdala (emotional part of the brain) and cortex (rational and cognitive side of the brain). Basically, what this means is that just naming or writing in a few words what we are feeling can help calm us down and allow us to make constructive and rational decisions for successful results.

5. Develop emotional self-efficacy

Acknowledge that your emotions are not bigger than you . You are big enough to contain all your emotions and exert values based decisions and choices around your emotions. It’s human nature to have negative thoughts and feelings, so face them courageously and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. A fundamental truth of human nature is that change only comes with acceptance.

6. Explore mindfulness

By creating a space between you and your thoughts, you can view those thoughts objectively. Mindfulness meditation is one way of creating that distance. Try to ask yourself what you are worried about. Kegan and Lahey suggest trying to find the “Big Time Bad” that is creating the threat response in the brain. These fears or worries need to be identified and articulated for change to happen.

7. Investigate behaviour change

Once you have identified the thoughts, beliefs and emotions that are holding you back you can test alternative patterns of thinking and behaviour. Think of it as research. Try out a new behaviour and see how it sits with you. Commit to tiny tweaks to behaviour over time rather than aiming towards lofty goals. Evaluate your feelings. Again, try and identify the fears or assumptions that may be underlying those responses. Use your values as a compass to guide behaviour and decision-making.

8. Modify your plan

Observe the results of your change. If your behavioural change isn’t lasting or sitting comfortably with you, revisit your feelings around the behaviour. Is it just unfamiliarity that is making you uncomfortable or is the behaviour not aligned with your values and long-term goals? A coach can help guide you through this process if you find it difficult to view yourself objectively and identify what’s holding you back. You can then modify the behaviour accordingly.

There are reasons why there is often such a wide gulf between our desire for change and our ability to make change happen. Deep-rooted patterns of thinking and beliefs are responsible for the thoughts, feelings and emotions that hold us back. Uncover those entrenched assumptions, make mindful changes to behaviour and you will increase the likelihood of making long-term sustainable change, ultimately allowing you to live the life you truly want to lead.

 

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