Smiley face ball in the mud

Embracing False Positivity

Embracing False Positivity by Stephanie Hull, Management and Program Analyst, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Office of Investigations & Key Executive MPA Alum

Most everyone has some form of morning routine, whether you favor the snooze button or rise before the alarm, and like many, I awake each morning in search of three things: a large, steaming mug of my favorite coffee, a comfy spot to quietly enjoy the caffeine, and a little slice of inspiration to give me hope in spite of COVID-19 and our nation’s turbulent political arena.

This is exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago when I stumbled across a LinkedIn post by Susan David, PhD., a Harvard psychologist, author, and co-founder of the Institute of Coaching. The words “Emotional Agility” first captured my interest, along with the message, “When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

As a federal supervisor, I was startled by the relevancy of Dr. David’s words to the message we, as leaders, have been sending to our workforce. Be resilient, stay focused on the mission, stay positive, adjust to the “new normal”. Our words are meant to be motivational and provide support, but are we embracing false positivity by encouraging employees to push aside negative emotions and keep their chins up despite the chaos? After reading Dr. David’s work, I believe we are skewing the message through a failed delivery. Despite our intent to encourage resilience, which is a powerful skill everyone should embrace, sprinkling our messages with optimism might be counterproductive. So, if sending positive affirmations is the wrong approach, what is the right approach?

Brown eggs in a case with drawings on them to illustrate various emotions, including sadness, surprise, joy and melancholy.

Emotional agility. According to Dr. David, “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.” She asserts that experiencing emotions is not the root of the issue. Our troubles begin when we get “hooked” by recurring narratives and we tie them to our emotions. She describes emotional agility as the process of recognizing our emotions, facing them “courageously and compassionately”, and then moving forward in a way that supports our values. Emotional agility allows individuals to withstand stress and recover from setbacks, while focusing on goals and remaining openminded. In essence, emotional agility is the foundation to building resilience. But, like a flower, creating the right environment is the key to growth.

Rather than focusing on words of wisdom and motivational messages, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, how do we create a work environment that supports emotional agility by allowing employees to confront difficult emotions while remaining productive and meeting the mission?

I believe it starts with values-based leadership. Focusing on values like transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability, allows us to demonstrate that we are not immune to emotions like fear and sadness, and conveys that we are willing to have difficult conversations. Employees can feel certain that it is not only safe to voice concerns but encouraged. I’m not in any way suggesting leaders should act as mental health counselors, but certainly sharing and relating to employees helps to develop trust, which is vital in collaborative, high-performing teams. Even in our virtual circumstances, we can promote emotional agility through information sharing, employee engagement, and practicing kindness. Best of all, through values-based leadership, we can connect as individuals and build resilience together.

Please note: All opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer


David, S. (2020, September). When we pressure ourselves or others to suppress negative emotions, we’re perpetuating harmful patterns of unproductive coping mechanisms [image attached]. [Post]. LinkedIn.


David, S., & Congleton, C. (2013). Emotional Agility. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from

About the Author


Stephanie Hull Photo10

Stephanie M. Hull has over 14 years of experience in the federal sector. Currently, Stephanie is a Management and Program Analyst for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Office of Investigations where she leads the Case Management section. In this role, she is responsible for maintaining the data integrity and case lifecycle of employee misconduct investigations, as well as the statistical and analytical functions of the program. Prior to joining USCIS, Stephanie worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for 12 years and held positions in areas of aviation screening, behavior detection, insider threat, and agency wide performance management. She is experienced in developing analytical tools that identify traveler risk groups to assist airports in developing risk mitigation strategies and support TSA leadership in making agency-wide strategic change. Her background also includes developing and teaching course curriculum for TSA’s Insider Threat and Vulnerability Mitigation workshops, supporting Federal Security Directors in determining risk-based resource deployments. Prior to her federal career, she worked in property management for 12 years. Stephanie’s passion for collective purpose and developing others drives her aspirations to lead a diverse team of public servants who work together toward mutual learning and shared vision. She also plans to pursue a doctoral degree in Organizational Development and Adult Learning in hopes of building professional development programs that expand employee learning and leadership capacities, prepare organizations for change, and reshape workplace culture. Currently, Stephanie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration and a Master of Public Administration degree from American University’s Key Executive Leadership program.


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