What is Psychological Agility and why is it so important in 2021?

Many of us would prefer to forget 2020, a year that has been rightly described as ‘annus horribilis’. But sitting on the precipice of 2021 does not instill a whole lot of certainty. While still rebounding from the cumulative stress of the past year, we are being asked to confront a whole new wave of change and complexity. Working from home with only technology mediated interaction certainly felt alien, but we adapted, and now we are grappling with the challenge of moving out of our bedrooms and loungerooms, onto public transport, into the city streets, and in front of our desks that have been sitting empty and collecting dust for the best part of a year. Yet, this is not a return to the old normal. We are going to need to adapt to whole new ways of working – some of us at the office sometimes, some of us at home, more Zoom meetings, more pressure, less travel, and less downtime. Coping with all of this will require a great deal of Psychological Agility!

So what is Psychological Agility?

Psychological Agility is grounded in the understanding that we are often not in control of the many challenges and difficulties we face at work and in life. It is built on the notion that sometimes the best way to manage the ups and downs in life is not to try to change them, or to change ourselves, but to change how we relate to these experiences. It involves a willingness to experience discomfort when it cannot be avoided and to stop struggling with the things we do not like. This does not mean to just give up, or to suck it up – it means using wisdom to know when to say to ourselves ‘it is what it is’ and understanding sometimes the most healthy approach is to lean into the discomfort. It is also about recognizing that our expectations of happiness, satisfaction, success, and good feelings are often over-inflated and set up us for failure. In this way, Psychological Agility is kind of like the antidote to ‘toxic positivity’ and gives us the skills and insights to recognize that sometimes it is okay not to be okay.

With this understanding in hand, it may not be surprising to learn that researchers found people with high levels of Psychological Agility (cf. psychological flexibility) were better at managing the stress associated with the pandemic. It is also no wonder that the psychological qualities of flexibility and agility are being touted as two of the top 5 leadership skills for 2021.

The importance of flexibility and acceptance as key strategies for dealing with stress were first highlighted by Professor Stephen Hayes in a psychological intervention he developed called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This has been referred to as the ‘third wave’ in cognitive therapy and was also the basis for the concept of Emotional Agility, popularised by Susan David.

Why we need Psychological Agility at work

Beyond an approach that has proven useful for dealing with mental illness, developing the skills necessary to increase acceptance and enable flexibility and agility has become a core managerial skill and a desirable quality within any workforce. These qualities enable people to respond to disruptions without feeling overwhelmed, allowing them to let go of control strategies, lean into challenges, and sit calmly with discomfort – we call this ‘getting discomfortable’. It also enables people to walk away from a black and white view of their emotional worlds and understand that their uncomfortable emotional experiences are informative, offer the opportunity for development and growth, and can even strengthen their relationships with others.

In this way, responding with Psychological Agility is not about trying to avoid challenging emotions, or always rushing to reduce stress; it involves a recognition that emotions are data points, not directives, and that knowing how to stand back and see our responses more objectively can lead to better decision-making.

Psychological Agility gives people the capacity to respond rather than react to difficult experiences, and this is critical for navigating conflict, maintaining positive interpersonal relationships, and building effective team and organizational cultures. It allows for individuals and teams to adapt quickly and effectively to a changing set of demands. Teams that operate in this way are more efficient and effective, are more innovative and creative, and enjoy a more open and honest culture.

Building the capacity for Psychological Agility also allows people to focus on what matters and to act on their values rather than their emotional impulses. It is not just about asking people to be ‘more resilient’, it’s about equipping people with the capabilities to self-navigate amid difficult and uncertain times.

If you are interested in understanding more about Psychological Agility and how it could help to support your organisation please contact david@psysafe.com.au or brock@psysafe.com.au (see www.psysafe.com.au for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian

RESEARCHER, AUTHOR, & SPEAKER

Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the psychology of ethical decision-making.

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