Use this simple 4-step process by a Harvard psychologist when dealing with a difficult situation at work to become a more resilient leader

Susan David

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Harvard psychologist and author Susan David believes resilience is the key attribute leaders need to manage the continuing uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. And a major component of resilience, David told Insider, is learning to deal with the big and unpleasant emotions that arise in difficult situations — and make space for workers to do so as well. 

David, who details a four-step process for developing what she calls “emotional agility” in her book of the same name, said COVID-19 is uncovering inefficient workplace structures and making room for growth.  

“I think what the pandemic is doing in a really profound way is starting to shine a light on the organizational deficiencies that have existed in the area of dealing with negative change,” she said.

The benefits of applying emotional agility to the workplace are more than just mental.

“When you feel better, there’s a positive impact on revenue, on brand, and discretionary effort in the workplace,” she said. 

Current conditions vary wildly. While the US is reporting its largest single-day death tolls and places in California are in tight lockdowns due to the lack of hospital beds, Colorado — despite being the place where the first UK strand of the virus was discovered in the country — is now easing restrictions. In other places, the vaccine is raising hopes for an end to the pandemic among recipients, although the rollout has been slow and riddled with hangups

These disparate facts showcase an environment that’s fraught with division and uncertainty — an atmosphere that transfers over into the workplace, where employees continue to flex between working from home and coming into the office, revenues are shaky and further government assistance remains uncertain, and a winter surge after the holidays may be on the way.

“Uncertainty is part of life and the tough emotions that come with that are part of life — and yet, in our organizations, what do we do when someone feels a tough emotion? We say, ‘Oh, they’re negative,” David said. “We say people have just got to be positive all the time. We’ve just got to get on with it. So the whole way that organizations are structured is antithetical to resilience.”

Show up

The first step in David’s plan is to face up to the thoughts or emotions you or your team are facing, regardless of their negative content. Allowing room for the expression of uncomfortable emotions is unfamiliar in most workplaces, David said, but absolutely necessary for the growth of the business.

“In an organization you say we want to innovate, well, the flip side of that is that some innovations don’t work out, and that brings with it frustration and disappointment,” David said. “If you’re saying we only do positive emotions here, you aren’t actually allowing space for the reality of what the experience of innovation is. If we say we want to collaborate, there are going to be people who disagree with us, so true collaboration is about being open to those more difficult emotions — sometimes when we collaborate, people won’t agree with us.”

David said that the importance of business leaders permitting this kind of open expression in the workplace is especially important given the stress of COVID-19. 

“What we are seeing here is compounded experience, where people are experiencing huge levels of burnout because of day-to-day stress,” David said. “And then there’s the reality that this has actually been a collective trauma — their sense of predictability has been shattered. An organization cannot sustain itself and grow and innovate without talking about how these kinds of emotional skills.”

Step out

After giving these emotions space, David said to detach from them by “stepping out” of your own worldview to examine them with a detached perspective. If you’re frustrated by how a recent project turned out, examining that frustration as simply a thought or an emotion provides the kind of space for reflection that may turn up new possibilities — but also de-escalates the tone of the situation for both you and your employees. 

“In a crisis, you can very easily find yourself being critical, when you have to remember, you did the best you could with the resources you had at the time,” David said. “As a leader, you need to be kind to yourself, but it also means being kind to your staff members — realizing that they all also did the best they could at the time.”

Walk your why

At this point, with some distance from the situation, David said leaders can make clear decisions that are informed by their core principles as opposed to snap judgements motivated by panic, anger, or fear. This is also the point in the journey that enables effective modeling in the workplace, since when employees see their leader handling situations in this manner, they’re more likely to react similarly, David said.

Connecting with your team through this phase, as you realign with your core values, is critically important. 

“For a lot of leaders who are going through difficult situations right now, physical distancing is not the same as emotional distancing,” David said. “It’s important to be attentive to things like the amount of meaningful connection that’s happening with your team — are people feeling connected or are people so frazzled and so focused on tasks that they’re getting burned out. Ask your team what their hopes are, challenge them on who do we want to be as a team.”

Working remotely during the pandemic, for example, may have given you as a leader the opportunity to rediscover just how important that sense of connection to your team really is. This may be something that you’d taken for granted pre-pandemic, with traveling and constant in-person interruptions, but now, without the ability to tap back in on demand, you’re reminded of its importance. Be sure to reintegrate opportunities for increased communication into your plan for 2021 and consider flattening your organization so that there are more natural touchpoints.   

Move on

Finally, it’s time to move on from the crisis with a united, refreshed team connected to new ideas on how to move forward in place. While it may sound simple, the difficult part is integrating the emotional upheaval of the crisis into the business environment rather than pretending everything’s fine, David said. 

In her book, David discusses choosing “courage over comfort,” and post-pandemic, leaders can integrate this behavior — which we have had to exercise on a micro level every day, from wearing masks to staying away from loved ones — into business choices. That can mean making a difficult decision to press forward with a product launch or an acquisition, or it can mean being honest about the uncertain climate and your feelings about it with your employees. 

“Tough emotions are part of life,” she said. “When we have an openness about emotions and when we practice emotions in our everyday world, we don’t get stuck in feeling victimized by external conditions and we can handle what we’re dealing with.”

SEE ALSO: Business owners share the routines they’re following to manage their own stress during the pandemic as they keep their teams from panicking

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