The Emotion of Business Agility

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I shake my head in frustration when I see business leaders try to get employees to accept a change initiative by convincing them of the business case. Although this is the classic way to overcome employee resistance, it’s trying to quell fear with logic, and that’s really difficult to do. Employees don’t like change because it introduces fear of the unknown, and employees accept change more readily when their fearful emotions are dealt with directly. Employees can be trained to self-manage their emotions, which increases their natural confidence and leads to dramatic increases in resilience and agility. A leader can’t always convince employees that a change is good, and they certainly can’t make guarantees for a positive future, but they can help employees manage their fears.

There’s been a lot of research in this arena. One notable study was of a state agency that was going through a major technology upgrade requiring employees to learn new skills. This change challenged employees’ sense of mastery and security, and at the same time changes in leadership added uncertainty to the organization’s direction and future. As is typical in these sorts of situations, employees felt angry, resentful and anxious, and they resisted the changes.

In response, the leaders sponsored training in emotional self-management for employees. The technique taught employees to actively engage a positive emotional state by genuinely re-experiencing a positive feeling. The participants learned to apply these techniques in the moment, as they felt fear and stress while at work. This helped them connect with and strengthen their innate sense of well being, which gave them confidence that they could handle whatever came their way.

The training was delivered to 54 volunteers in the agency. They completed a survey prior to the training and again a couple weeks after the final training session. A group of 64 volunteers who were waiting for the training also completed the survey at the same points and served as a comparison group. After the training, the study group reported significantly less anxiety and a higher sense of well being than the comparison group, which increased their capacity to adapt to the changes with less resistance and friction.

I’ve seen similar studies performed on large groups of health care workers, pastors, and employees of global information technology companies. In these studies, the participants completed before and after surveys that were compared to results from a control group. In all cases, participants reported significantly greater adaptability and resilience as compared to the control group. These studies validate that emotional self-management techniques are an effective means to enhance employees’ capacity to adapt efficiently and harmoniously to the uncertainties inherent in organizational life. They can be of particular value in facilitating major change initiatives in organizations.

Resilience and agility are increasingly valuable as our business environments continue to change more rapidly and in uncertain ways. Without emotional resilience and agility, people operate in an internal environment of uncertainty, anxiety, frustration and tension. When people know how to connect with their internal source of strength through their emotions, their fear is quelled. These methods are emerging as effective and efficient ways of building resilience and agility in organizations. Yes, change initiatives still need a strong business case, but true organizational agility requires a solid emotional foundation.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Lisa McCarthy  October 24, 2012

    Hi Jackie,
    I agree wholeheartedly. As a previous sales coach I found it frustrating that standard corporate approaches to sales coaching have an extensive focus on the skill and activity, as opposed to what stops people from applying what they know eg It’s all very well to teach someone how to ask for the sale, observe them in the process and help them reflect – but if they have a fear of rejection – that’s a different kettle of fish, which isn’t catered to very well and creates exceptional stress for the team member.

  2. Dorcas Nepple  November 9, 2012

    Great post. I believe this is the primary cause for many system implementation failures. Certainly, other contributory factors are part of the mix. I’ve witnessed employees resort to emotional outbursts because they wanted to hold on to the way things have “always” been done in the past. Change management can be enhanced if employees are coached to be more reflective on what it is they fear before taking a knee-jerk position.


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