Developing Organizational Emotional Agility

The reality is that in business and in life, crisis is always at hand. The better workers are prepared to respond with emotional agility, the better equipped an organization will be to meet the challenges and perform under pressure.

By Melissa Anderson September 8, 2021
Developing Organizational Emotional Agility

​The impact of the global pandemic has been felt at all levels. Virtually overnight businesses were forced to upend operations to accommodate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state, and local guidelines. That often led to reduced revenue and/or capacity, which triggered economic strife on a global scale. With the prioritization of public safety, businesses had to essentially operate with one hand tied behind its back. The devastating impact of this transition was not limited to the workplace as the workforce found itself victims of collateral damage.

At home the personal impact was just as significant. For many, career life invaded home life in an instant. On top of their full-time careers, parents became full-time teachers, cooks and caretakers. For others, job or income loss led to tremendous financial pressure. Additionally, access to recreational activities were limited; depriving people of much-needed stress relief outlets. Ongoing social upheaval and inflamed political discord has added another layer of anxiety to combat.

With the added stress at home and work, coupled with fewer stress relief outlets, workers have become saddled by emotional trauma. They are finding it exponentially more difficult to check their personal problems at the door—especially when work and home are the same door. They are less able to focus on the work. In fact, 41 percent of employed Americans report feeling burned out from their work (SHRM COVID-19 Research: Mental Health survey report). With that, people are quitting or looking to quit at record rates. As burnout increases and retention nosedives business performance is bound to suffer.

Emotional Agility as a Soft Skill

While humans operate at rational and emotional levels, it is emotion that is key to accessing the full range of soft skills necessary to interact, innovate and collaborate at high levels. Soft skills like critical thinking, organizational skills, innovation, teamwork, leadership and interpersonal communication are vital to business operations. Trust, learning and positivity yield emotional agility, which unlocks our ability to manage crisis. This flexible outlook reframes negative circumstances to see the opportunities within. Often exhibited by the best leaders, emotional agility is a trait that some people acquire in the natural course of learning and growing in life. It enables them to better respond to crisis and catapults them to success and leadership positions. As a flexibility of perspective, emotional agility harnesses resilience, innovation and focus to attain the best possible outcome.

It takes an intentional effort to cultivate emotional agility on an organizational level. Leaders must consciously demonstrate an adaptable mindset that interprets mistakes as opportunities to cultivate resilience and optimism. While developed organically in some individuals, fostering this trait across an organization does not happen by accident. It is by design that the workplace supports the development of emotional agility.

Being able to practice and receive empathy is a key driver of emotional buoyancy. Empathy is the intention to understand and appreciate someone else's life experiences from their vantage point without seeking to fix their problem. It takes courage to set aside our personal perspectives and expectations and look at life through another's lens. It means stepping into their shoes to validate their feelings and create space for people to process their emotions. And while there aren't any short cuts to developing emotional endurance, being intentional about giving and receiving empathy in your personal and professional relationships will lead to greater emotional resiliency over time.

Personal Connections

One's ability to be emotionally resilient became readily apparent as COVID-19 provided a virtual window into one another's personal worlds. Surprise appearances from children and pets along with telling each other when we were speaking while muted in a virtual meeting became the new normal overnight. These shared experiences provided an opportunity for more human, vulnerable interactions. Unfortunately, they did little to compensate for the isolating experience of working alone and disconnected from their co-workers resulting in employees reporting higher levels of burnout, loneliness and depression with depression becoming the highest ranked diagnosis for employees on long-term disability.

Developing the skills needed to connect on a deeper, more personal level is not only important to building the trust, rapport and loyalty required for high-performing teams, it's critical to emotional well-being Companies can better support their employees by providing learning opportunities that develop empathy and emotional agility as life-long skills as well as designing more employee friendly experiences starting with their recruiting, onboarding, training and mentoring programs. All of which set the stage for improved organizational performance. Encouraging leaders to be transparent about how they move through difficult situations is also a powerful tool. Let employees see how you process and pivot. Feedback surveys help gauge an organization's level of empathy and emotional agility. One-on-one meetings give employees the opportunity to talk through any issues they may face and return to work with elevated clarity and focus. Encouraging the use of vacation time, offering reasonable schedule flexibility and hybrid work options help protect work/life integration and create a more supportive workplace.

As we recover from the pandemic, the benefits of emotional agility and empathy still apply. The reality is: In business and in life, crisis is always at hand. The better workers are prepared to respond, the better equipped an organization will be to meet the challenges and perform under pressure. Make empathy an organization-wide priority. It will cultivate a more a resilient and agile workforce.

Melissa Anderson, SHRM-CP, serves as Senior Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer for Albemarle Corporation and as Chair of the SHRM Board of Directors. 

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