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Building Emotional Agility & Resilience to Navigate Disruptive Change


Life as we knew it pre-pandemic has been completely flipped over its head. Our routines and structures have been dismantled. The pace of change and disruption that our communities, organizations and we as individuals have experienced over the past decade is unprecedented. And the thing about change is that even when it is positive, it involves loss. This is more so the case when the change is disruptive, unexpected, or worse unwanted.


When we let change overwhelm us, its stunts us in our paths. We think less clearly, and we may see threats where they don’t exist. Our perception gets narrower, and we can’t see possibilities. We become more self-protective and tribal, versus open and collaborative. And we may be tempted to focus on transactional tasks versus taking a step back and being more strategic.


Take the example of a client of ours who is a senior vice president in a media company. She recently expressed to us how overwhelmed she has been feeling in the recent months due to a myriad of large and small organizational changes that she and her team are going through. She realizes that she needs to be more strategic but finds herself constantly focused on the day to day and hour to hour demands. She also shared how he has noticed herself, as well as others around her, act in ways that are not their standard behaviors. They have been short-tempered, and less patient with each other. All this can eventually lead to more unwanted consequences and change: disengaged employees, lapse in quality of work, and high turnover. Unfortunately, they have already started experiencing many of these effects.


Resilience and Emotional Agility (a term introduced by Harvard psychologist Susan David) represent two skills that can help us shift our thinking to a more effective way of dealing with disruptive change. Both represent two sides of the same coin, which has been referred to as our “adaptive capacity.” Adaptive capacity relates to how much energy and strength, we need, to effectively address challenging, changing, and adverse situations.


There are three key steps to building emotional agility and resilience in the face of overwhelming, distressing, and disruptive change:


Step # 1 - Face Your Emotions


Emotional agility emphasizes self-compassion and self-regulation, which is really a radical acceptance of all our emotions - the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is especially true in times of crisis. It is about objectively recognizing and observing your emotions and not letting yourself get hooked by a particular emotion, or to be driven in negative ways by an emotion.


To face and master your emotions, so that you are not operating under a constant state of threat and fear during this difficult period, it is important to first and foremost get curious about the emotions that you are feeling. Self-reflect and name the emotions that might be below the surface that are trapping you. Step away from the emotions, observe without judgement, and notice how they show up physiologically. Often our body send us signals about the emotions that we are experiencing or are about to experience before we can mentally recognize those.


It is also important to pay attention to the narrative that is guiding your emotion. What are the stories that you are telling yourself in the moment? Many of us, when we are under stress, have a hard time objectively examining the narrative that is going on inside our heads to assess whether that narrative is truly a fact. If you go into a meeting dreading a conversation, the narrative that is guiding your behavior in that meeting might be about protecting yourself, which might lead you to show up closed off rather than open and collaborative.


Step # 2 - Lean Into Your Values


Next step in the formula is leaning and living into our values. Very often what triggers an emotional hijacking is when we feel our core values are getting challenged. Our values shape our experience of the world. During highly disruptive times, values play a critical role in being our compass, how we choose to respond, what decisions we make, how we navigate the tough challenges. In fact, our values are what make us resilient.


Therefore, it is important to be very clear about our values. Naming them and knowing them. Same applies for teams and organizations. We do a lot of culture work with organizations and the basis for all organizational culture are the values they speak of, and more than that the values that they role model and demonstrate daily.


Step # 3 - Take Control


When you are going through change, it can feel very vulnerable or worse you might feel stuck. To take back control, it is important to focus on actions that you can take to propel yourself forward. These include:

  • Asking questions and getting as much information as you can about the change and what you need

  • Being transparent about what is confusing and what does not make sense

  • Being open to hearing a variety of perspectives and ideas

  • Identifying what you need to adjust or let go of to adapt to the change; and giving yourself the permission to do so

  • Finding a support network

  • Taking care of your emotional and physical health


Our normal biological response to change is to fight it. We seek balance and routine, and feel that the more we can keep our lives stable, the better we will feel. Unfortunately, if we keep holding on to the hope that things will go back to the way they were, we are setting ourselves up not just for disappointment but also failure. As we have seen, change is happening at a more rapid pace now than ever before, and there is still a great deal of uncertainty ahead. Strengthening your emotional agility and resilience to navigate the disruptive changes is critical to both business and personal success.


“On the other side of a storm is the STRENGTH that comes from having navigated through it. RAISE YOUR SAIL AND BEGIN.” - Gregory Williams


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