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Emotional agility: David and Congleton

Considering the ideas of psychological flexibility and applying it to working with others

How might you take the ideas of psychological flexibility and apply them to our potential (or actual) work with others?

In the article for the Harvard Business Review, ‘Emotional agility’, David and Congleton (2013) reframe psychological flexibility as ‘emotional agility’ and demonstrate how vital it is to examine where we get stuck in our role as leaders and colleagues. They speak of their experience in consulting with companies around the world about these issues.

They state:

‘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 … 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.’
(David and Congleton 2013)
So, being caught on the line of our emotions serves us poorly in our dealings with others and the impact of this in the workplace can be devastating.

Case studies: Cynthia and Jeffrey

In their article, David and Congleton offer two case studies to demonstrate this, which we have taken for educational purposes:
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.
Jeffrey, a rising-star executive at a leading consumer goods company, had a different problem. Intelligent, talented, and ambitious, he was often angry—at bosses who disregarded his views, subordinates who didn’t follow orders, or colleagues who didn’t pull their weight. He had lost his temper several times at work and been warned to get it under control. But when he tried, he felt that he was shutting off a core part of his personality, and he became even angrier and more upset.
These smart, successful leaders were hooked by their negative thoughts and emotions. Cynthia was absorbed by guilt; Jeffrey was exploding with anger. Cynthia told the voices to go away; Jeffrey bottled his frustration. Both were trying to avoid the discomfort they felt. They were being controlled by their inner experience, attempting to control it, or switching between the two.
Fortunately, both Cynthia and Jeffrey realized that they couldn’t go on—at least not successfully and happily—without more effective inner strategies.’
(David and Congleton 2013)
We can consider what the result of such behaviours would be in interactions with others and so how important it might be for both Cynthia and Jeffrey to become unhooked from their current thoughts and behaviour.

Your task

Bearing in mind what you have learned about psychological flexibility, how might you advise Cynthia and Jeffrey?


David, S., and Congleton, C. (2013) ‘Emotional Agility’. Harvard Business Review [online] November. available from [3 August 2018]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Emotional Intelligence at Work

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