Why marketing leaders must cultivate emotional agility

Susan David, PhD. took to the stage at the 2019 edition of the World Business Forum Sydney

Marketing and associated technologies are changing so quickly, it's imperative leaders cultivate emotional agility to survive.

Susan David, PhD. took to the stage at the 2019 edition of the World Business Forum Sydney, run by World of Business Ideas (WOBI), this week, to talk emotional agility, and why it is the leadership skill to have as we adapt as a workforce.

David, an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist, said historically the way humans have dealt with emotions is they are either good or bad, or positive or negative. In the workplace, this translates to leaders encouraging logical thinking skills, but emotions being OK only if they are positive.

In organisations facing huge amount of complexity, people need to be agile. In marketing, this means being innovative, collaborative, and relational, with a focus on consumer experience, David told CMO.

“But what we know is, due to the speed of change happening in this industry, saying you want people to be agile is not the same as enabling them to be,” she explained. “When people experience stress, they do the opposite of agility - they start becoming rigid, and instead of relational, they become transactional. Then, they don’t have a broadened perspective and can’t connect with each other, let alone the consumer.

“The paradox is: The skills needed to survive and thrive in complex times, are also undermined by that same complexity. It’s almost like technology is outpacing human evolution at this point.”

Enter emotional agility – a means by which humans can cope with rapid change.

“Emotional agility is really about the ability to be with our full range of emotions, in ways that are courageous, curious, and compassionate, which allows us to take value-connected next steps,” David said. “This allows us and enables us to be centred and value-connected as humans, and not be swept away in stress, fear, and anxiety. Because the fact is, as a leader of a marketing team, you don’t get innovation without the potential for failure, and the emotions that go along with failure; you don’t get collaboration without the potential for conflict, and the emotions that go along with this.

“What’s happening when an organisation says it will only allow positive emotions, is it is bypassing the ability to generate the outcomes it wants.”

David recommended marketing leaders lead in a way that makes space for the fullness of human experience, because it is those leaders who are being more effective in the current world. She said different emotions are signposts of what teams care about. So instead of stonewalling emotion, a person’s concern is signposting what that person cares about.

“Difficult emotions allow us to calibrate and be agile to the circumstances at hand,” she said.

“Emotional agility is the ability to be courageous in these contexts. It’s recognising, yes there’s change and discomfort, but you don’t get to have a meaningful career without stress and discomfort. We should all stop pushing difficult emotions aside, and instead say: What is this emotion trying to teach me, who do I want to be in this situation, what choice am I making that feels values connected? Doing this it will become a lot more centred. Instead of being reactive, it is about being responsive.”

David goes on to explain, when people are fearful of reporting what’s going wrong in an organisation, there is then no opportunity to correct it, so creating a space of psychological safety can bring emotional truth into the workplace, which enables the achievement of set goals.

David outlined four steps to achieving emotional agility:

  • Show up and accept emotion with compassion
  • Step out of emotion
  • Enable emotions
  • Don’t get stuck on being right

“Show up and accept emotions. When you are experiencing change and stress, people deal with it in one or two ways: Brood on it and dwell, or push it aside. Neither is effective," she said.

"This leads to lower levels of well being and ineffective problem solving. Acceptance is one of the most important parts of emotional agility. The acceptance is not passive, but the recognition you are feeling what you are feeling, and you’re doing the best you can. Instead of pushing it aside, come to it with a level of acceptance and compassion. When you are kind to yourself, it creates a sense of calm and psychological safety that allows you to take more risks and be more effective."

Stepping out is about putting emotions in the right context. "Our emotions contain data, but they are not directives. Just because you are angry doesn’t mean you have it out for the person; it’s really important to know emotions are not facts," David continued.

"You aren’t an emotion, so make space for other parts of you. If you start noticing your thoughts, emotions and stories for what they are, you allow yourself some space to be flexible, agile and appropriate to the situation you’re facing."

In this vein, it's noticing when you're feeling sad, instead of saying ‘I am sad’, David said. "It’s a subtle shift, but it creates space. This is a core skillset in psychological perspective taking. It provides a space between the stimulus and the response, so you are able to respond and not react," she said. 

“Third, when leaders label emotions more accurately, it allows for better understanding. Sadness is different to grief, which is different to anger, which is different to frustration. This enables you to understand the cause of the emotion and then better understand what to do next.

“Finally, remember, a lot of leaders get stuck on being right. Say to yourself: I might be right, but is this response serving me?”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu

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