How you can still end up hooked when you avoid emotions at work

Emotional Agility

Are you one of those leaders who, when things get tough, you put a smile on your face and keep it plastered there no matter what gets thrown at you? 

You think you’re doing the right thing by keeping it together in front of your team. You push down those feelings into a little compartment inside to get through today and onto what’s next. 

However, it’s not in your interest to avoid those uncomfortable feelings that come up so that you can keep going. 

You might be thinking, ‘What would Susanne know? I don’t have time to give in to my feelings. I need to keep it together.’ 

Well, I know a lot about it because I was that person. 

Emotional Agility

The last few years of my public service career were particularly challenging. The number and expertise of people available to do the work kept reducing, the workload kept increasing, stakeholder expectations about delivery timeframes were unreasonable, and the media kept reporting that yet another crisis had to be fixed and the powers above wanted results – quickly. There were not enough hours in the day. 

And if you’re one of those people who assume public servants are lazy, you probably don’t know many of the public servants I’ve known. 

Times had been hard before, but this felt different. People kept saying things that made it feel like everyone would be let down if I stopped long enough to give those emotions I’d pushed deep down any air. 

The problem was that each time the many negative things were pushed down, and that smile was plastered on my face, I was unknowingly tending to a fire-filled pit of lava deep inside. 

After eighteen months of trying to keep those feelings locked down, they did what any typical volcano would do. The internal pressure pushed those feelings out in a physical way. 

I was sitting in an executive meeting, and one of my colleagues asked if I was okay. I assured them I was. Then they pointed out that I had tears running down my face. I hadn’t even noticed, and I couldn’t control them. The best way to describe it was that my eyes kept leaking. I wasn’t crying, I was overflowing. 

It was a classic case of reaping the rewards of emotional avoidance. 

Early in my executive career, a 360-assessment process led me to believe that expressing emotions in the workplace was a bad thing, something to be avoided. 

The reality is that emotions are part of being human. We all have them. It’s part of our biology. So, denying our emotions is like denying that we are human. 

Using terms like ‘emotional regulation’ with people with controlling tendencies makes them feel like their emotions are one more thing that needs to be controlled. 

‘Emotional agility’ is a better term and approach. 

Dr Susan David, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, has researched and written extensively about the concept of Emotional Agility.

In the HBR article, she wrote with Christina Congleton, they explain that “we see leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings—that’s inevitable—but because they get hookedby them, like fish caught on a line. This happens in one of two ways. They buy into the thoughts, treating them like facts … and avoid situations that evoke them … Or, usually at the behest of their supporters, they challenge the existence of the thoughts and try to rationalize them away… and perhaps force themselves into similar situations, even when those go against their core values and goals.” 

Emotional Agility

If this resonates with you, reading the article is a great place to start. The digital version also includes a short explainer video. 

If you notice that you’re getting hooked on, compartmentalising or explaining away valid feelings, they offer some great advice adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): 

  1. Recognize your patterns 
  2. Label your thoughts and emotions 
  3. Accept them and  
  4. Act on your values. 

Remember, ignoring them won’t make them go away. They’ll find a way to come out eventually and often when they’re least welcome, just like that lava in a volcano. 

Creating the space to experience the feelings that are coming up is what will get you through and help you thrive through struggle.  

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