Sixteen thousand—that’s how many words we speak, on average, each day. So imagine how many unspoken ones course through our minds.
by Susan David and Christina Congleton
Sixteen thousand—that’s how many words we speak, on average, each day. So imagine how many unspoken ones course through our minds. Most of them are not facts but evaluations and judgments entwined with emotions—some positive and helpful (I’ve worked hard and I can ace this presentation; This issue is worth speaking up about; The new VP seems approachable), others negative and less so (He’s purposely ignoring me; I’m going to make a fool of myself; I’m a fake).
The prevailing wisdom says that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place at the office: Executives, and particularly leaders, should be either stoic or cheerful; they must project confidence and damp down any negativity bubbling up inside them. But that goes against basic biology. All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.
In our people-strategy consulting practice advising companies around the world, we see leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings—that’s inevitable—but because they get hooked by them, like fish caught on a line. This happens in one of two ways. They buy into the thoughts, treating them like facts (It was the same in my last job...I’ve been a failure my whole career), and avoid situations that evoke them (I’m not going to take on that new challenge). Or, usually at the behest of their supporters, they challenge the existence of the thoughts and try to rationalize them away (I shouldn’t have thoughts like this...I know I’m not a total failure), and perhaps force themselves into similar situations, even when those go against their core values and goals (Take on that new assignment—you’ve got to get over this). In either case, they are paying too much attention to their internal chatter and allowing it to sap important cognitive resources that could be put to better use.
This is a common problem, often perpetuated by popular self-management strategies. We regularly see executives with recurring emotional challenges at work—anxiety about priorities, jealousy of others’ success, fear of rejection, distress over perceived slights—who have devised techniques to “fix” them: positive affirmations, prioritized to-do lists, immersion in certain tasks. But when we ask how long the challenges have persisted, the answer might be 10 years, 20 years, or since childhood.
Clearly, those techniques don’t work—in fact, ample research shows that attempting to minimize or ignore thoughts and emotions serves only to amplify them. In a famous study led by the late Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor, participants who were told to avoid thinking about white bears had trouble doing so; later, when the ban was lifted, they thought about white bears much more than the control group did. Anyone who has dreamed of chocolate cake and french fries while following a strict diet understands this phenomenon.
Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to business success. Numerous studies, from the University of London professor Frank Bond and others, show that emotional agility can help people alleviate stress, reduce errors, become more innovative, and improve job performance.
We’ve worked with leaders in various industries to build this critical skill, and here we offer four practices—adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), originally developed by the University of Nevada psychologist Steven C. Hayes—that are designed to help you do the same: Recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.Fish on a Line
Let’s start with two case studies. Cynthia is a senior corporate lawyer with two young children. She used to feel intense guilt about missed opportunities—both at the office, where her peers worked 80 hours a week while she worked 50, and at home, where she was often too distracted or tired to fully engage with her husband and children. One nagging voice in her head told her she’d have to be a better employee or risk career failure; another told her to be a better mother or risk neglecting her family. Cynthia wished that at least one of the voices would shut up. But neither would, and in response she failed to put up her hand for exciting new prospects at the office and compulsively checked messages on her phone during family dinners.
Susan David is the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a cofounder of the Institute of Coaching, and an instructor in psychology at Harvard University. Christina Congleton, who was formerly a researcher on mindfulness and the brain at Massachusetts General Hospital, is an associate at Evidence Based Psychology and a certified coach.
Harvard Business Review