Blog Emotional Agility

Have you ever woken up in the morning feeling on top of the world? Then as you walked into the office, the boss was all doom and gloom. All of a sudden, the happy vibes you were feeling go flying out the window in an instant.

Well, what you experienced right there was emotional contagion. Yes – a fancy phrase, which quite simply means a person’s emotions and mood are contagious. That’s right, you caught the boss’s doom and gloom.

Over the last two decades, significant research has gone into this idea and found that humans unconsciously mimic other people’s expressions and catch their moods. Studies show that negative emotions are most contagious and that leaders spread their emotions more powerfully than the people who work for them.

Negative emotions in the workplace tend to breed a culture of toxicity and fear. Research shows fear-based cultures underperform on the balance sheet time and time again. Why? Because when people are nervous or anxious, they are far less likely to take calculated risks, present creative ideas, and are more likely to miss opportunities.

On the other hand, positive workplaces consistently outperform over the long term. When people are feeling confident and supported, they are more likely to display increased productivity, less absenteeism, higher levels of innovation and boosted creativity.

This places leaders in a position of power and responsibility when it comes to controlling the vibe and feel of a workplace as they have the greatest impact on turning the dial when it comes to positive and negative work culture.

As a result of this research, astute leaders can harness emotional agility as a new super-power. By being acutely aware of how their mood impacts the team, they can strategically use their emotions to create high performance.

For strong leaders, this means that instead of being controlled by their emotions, they must learn to read, recognise and manage emotions in a way that creates a positive, healthy and resilient workplace. By understanding how emotions impact performance, leaders can be selective in choosing which emotions they work with – and when – so they can be leveraged for strategic advantage.

What is emotional agility and why should leaders become more emotionally agile?

Emotional agility is the ability to manage emotions and thoughts in a way that will work to the benefit of you and those around you.

Dr. Susan David, a leading authority on the topic, says emotional agility allows people to ‘thrive in an uncertain world’ and is the ‘roadmap to real behavioural change’. Studies have also found that emotional agility can help people alleviate stress, reduce errors, become more innovative and improve job performance.

Leading with emotional agility allows leaders to make better decisions that are aligned to their values, rather than the momentary emotion they may feel.

There are three benefits to being an emotionally agile leader:

  1. It increases the ability to sincerely connect with employees – which will create a positive and higher wellbeing work environment.
  2. By role modelling effective emotional management to their team, they learn to adopt the process themselves – which means you will have a high functioning team that understands the importance of managing emotions and working through them to their advantage.
  3. Allows leaders to be more effective through periods of difficulty and distress.

To become emotionally agile, leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence (EI) - i.e., their ability to recognise and control their emotions and be aware of the emotions of those around them. Different people have varying degrees of EI, but those with a high degree know exactly what they are feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people.

While the study of EI has been around for decades, emotional agility is the speed at which a leader can become aware of their own emotions, perceive emotions in others and manage their emotions, so they can be appropriately positive and drive a high performing culture.

To become emotionally agile, you first need to understand the impact of your emotions

It is well documented that a happy, supportive and optimistic boss creates the best environment for workers to feel safe, valued and at their best. A positive working environment allows people to work in their natural state which promotes trust, healthy levels of risk taking, problem solving, creativity, innovation and high levels of productivity.

A grumpy, impulsive or detached boss can create a negative environment in which people feel anxious, nervous and unable to perform at their best. While tense and nervous employees can be very productive in the short term, these good results are not long lasting. Long term, this type of leadership breeds toxicity filled with negative under-achievers who ignore or miss opportunities that may otherwise have been taken.

So, it makes sense that leaders should do everything in their power to be upbeat and positive right? Not always. If a leader is particularly high flying and upbeat at a time when that mood would seem irrelevant and inappropriate, then they will be perceived as disconnected, fake and out of touch. Instead, leaders need to demonstrate empathy at these times and remain authentic, genuine and sincere.

For this reason, it is critical that emotionally agile leaders understand the emotions of their team so they can choose their emotions wisely depending on the situation.

To become emotionally agile, you need to be able to perceive emotions in others

Leaders are often the last ones to be told that their team members are unhappy, struggling or stressed which can make it difficult to respond strategically. In a workplace, people tend to mask their emotions at work to ensure they appear poised, professional, and in-control at all times. However, emotionally intelligent leaders tend to pick up on non-verbal cues as a sign of how people are really feeling.

When discussing topics pay close attention to facial expressions, body language, posture, tone of voice and abrupt changes in behaviour. Closed body language can indicate someone feels uncomfortable, nail biting or habitual grooming can be a sign someone is stressed or anxious, speaking clearly and upbeat can be a sign of optimism, speaking quickly can be a sign of nervousness or excitement.

By studying and understanding emotions, leaders can choose how they react to their employees to help guide them to high performance.

To become emotionally agile, you need to manage your emotions

Being a leader can trigger a whole range of emotions as you not only hold responsibility for the team but for the outcomes they must deliver.

While leaders may be fuelled by a cohesive, collaborative team who create incredible outcomes, it isn’t unusual for these same leaders to experience times where they feel frustrated, irritated, betrayed, and disrespected. Being a leader means being faced with daily decisions that may make some people happy and others displeased.

The key to success is how these emotions are managed. Emotionally agile leaders have high levels of self-awareness of what their emotions are telling them and high levels of self-regulation. Instead of impulsively reacting, attacking others, making rushed decisions or compromising their own or other’s values in the heat of the moment, emotionally agile leaders can take a step back, view emotions as data and accurately label their emotions in order to choose what actions they take.

For example, a leader who can identify they feel frustrated won’t simply lash out. They will recognise that frustration means they are being blocked from achieving what they want to achieve and look to resolve the source of that blockage. 

Emotionally agile leaders can manage their emotions, choose their reactions and mood to be used strategically to fuel high performance.

To be emotionally agile you need to know how you can use your emotions

For the most part, a strong leader will use their emotions to create a ripple into the workplace and create a positive environment conducive to driving outcomes.

Research shows these moods do not have to be high-pitched and non-stop; instead, optimistic, sincere and realistic is best. But there is no escaping that leaders must first attend to the impact of their mood and behaviours before attending to other responsibilities of their role.

So how can leaders attend to their own moods? Aside from the obvious factors of nutritional diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep which are all essential mood-boosters, there are many tools’ leaders can use to ensure they stay on top of their mood.

Reading situations early by observing facial expressions or body language may ensure leaders are on the front foot when it comes to heading off negativity. Building trusted relationships with your team is more likely to give leaders an accurate read on the mood or vibe of the organisation allowing them to be more in touch and connected. Having a plan for times where leaders are ambushed or blind sighted with negativity can help buy them time to gather their thoughts and practice self-regulation.


  • Leaders sit in the greatest position of power when it comes to impacting the mood and morale of their teams and workplace.
  • While negative emotions are most contagious in the workplace, leaders have the power to overcome this through positive emotional contagion by spreading positive emotions, which promotes the ideal work environment for employees, leaders and companies to grow and thrive.
  • A positive workplace is one that works as a team, raises the morale of employees, increases productivity and efficiency and creates an environment that reduces stress. It is an environment where employees feel safe, welcome, accepted and cared about.
  • Using your emotional intelligence to become an emotionally agile leader, you can spread the positive vibe throughout your workplace to foster growth, innovation and overall wellbeing.
  • By understanding how emotions impact performance, you can be selective in choosing which emotions you work with – and when – so you can leverage them to your advantage.

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