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Susan David Freemium Livestream

GREAT IDEAS: Emotional Agilty by Susan David {interview}

How emotional agility affects the workplace: Harvard Medical School professor

Susan David Freemium Livestream

Are you in control of your emotions?

Gaining control over emotions is what fuels the work of Susan David, Harvard Medical School professor, TED Talk sensation, and author of Emotional Agility.

“People will have a thought like, “My boss is an idiot,” and they get stuck in their thought. They get hooked by it. So they start to treat the thought or the emotion as fact. And they start to act on it.” 

The more important questions

In her book summary interview with The Growth Faculty, Susan says such behaviour takes us away from asking more important questions:

  • What are my values in the situation?
  • I might be right, but is my response serving me?
  • Who do I want to be in this situation?

Susan says no- one goes to work each day saying, “Today I don’t want to be inclusive,” or “Today I want to treat my customer really, really, really badly.”

But, she says, instead what happens, is when they go into a meeting, they feel undermined. And so they shut down into their story, and act as if the story is factual.

2 critical responses from leaders

To counter this, she suggests two critical responses from leaders:

  • Creating a workplace with psychological safety, in which staff can voice their opinions.
  • Leaders talking about their WHY.

She suggests leaders don’t try to have all the answers, but instead say things like:

  • I know we don’t have the answers, but who do we want to be as a team?
  • How do we want to come to one another?
  • What are our core principles of how we want to interact with each other?”

"When people feel that they are able to bring their emotional truth to the workplace with leaders who are compassionate and curious rather than leaders who want the answers, that is a first building block of emotional agility," she says. 


(8 getting to know you questions we ask all our authors)

Book you’d recommend:Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

How did you get your first job? My first job was working as a cashier in a supermarket. My dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My family was struggling financially and I learned some really incredible lessons about leadership, [what I] wanted to be and didn’t want to be. 

What’s something that frustrates you about leadership?  I’m going to make up the word complexifying. Often what happens is a complexifying of what, at a fundamental level, is really simple. And that is that every single human being.. wants to be seen. Every person wants to develop their skills. Every person wants to have a sense of value and purpose and have that supported. And if we can connect with those, then we can develop greater levels of being and well-being in the workplace.

How do you cope with stressful events? Instead of saying I’m stressed, I often try to define exactly what that stress is. It might be I’m stressed because I really feel overwhelmed or I’m stressed because I’m disappointed. What I found in my research is labeling emotions in a very accurate way is actually critical to our well-being. And then, I love walking. I find when I walk I’m getting a different perspective, I’m relaxed, and it often just expands my sense of what’s possible.

What has been one of your lowest moments and how did you recover from that? I talk about this in my TED Talk on emotional courage, [it] was when my father died. We live in a world that values relentless positivity, this idea that I’m okay no matter what. And, we see this in organizations as well. You get on the bus or off the bus. Just get on with it. Just let’s move forward. And so when you experience such a profound loss and yet everyone around you is saying, “Just be positive. Everything happens for a reason.” And so, and it can be incredibly alienating. And what helped me in that situation, was actually a teacher who handed out these notebooks to the class. She said, “Write. Tell the truth. Write like no one’s reading.” And I started to write this journal. A simple act, but it was a revolution for me, because it was about showing up to my own emotional experience.

What’s one of the best decisions you’ve ever made to improve your career? To drop out of university. At first, when I was around 18 years old, I went to university. Within about 8 weeks or so, just knew it was the wrong place. And everyone around me was telling me, “Just grit it, just stick with it. It’ll be fine.” And I think this is just so important. When do we grit, which again is a social message, and when do we quit? So I dropped out of university, I did a secretarial course, I became a receptionist. I went backpacking for two years. And then I went back and studied, did a bachelor’s and an honors and masters and PhD and so on. And, it was really this idea of paying attention to the heartbeat of my own "WHY." 

What do you think is the next trend in leadership? Skills like empathy and emotions and connectedness are not soft skills, they are core, fundamental, essential skills. And we’re going to see more and more of this. There’s a reason that the World Economic Forum is saying that emotional skills and emotional agility are the skills of the coming times. Because as we move more towards automation, so the things that differentiate us that are the human essence are going to become more and more important. And I think that this is long overdue, but it’s going to become far more urgent in the coming age.

What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you? I backpacked for two years. I lived in India for six months, in Greece for six months. At heart, I am a backpacker. 

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