resilience life leadership

Resilience: Now More Than Ever

A lot more attention is being given to the concept and practice of resilience these days.  The impact of COVID-19 has been responsible for this surge in interest. Small business shutdowns, the number of overworked people in healthcare, increases in unemployment, housing and food insecurity, students of all ages being required to study remotely, and the worry of contracting COVID-19 have all combined to create stress in people and organizations at levels we have not experienced in recent history. 

Research shows nearly 67% of adults report higher stress levels since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  The overriding concern is how to effectively deal with this stress, hence the focus on resilience as a way to respond to and lower the effect of COVID-19-related stress.

The root meaning of resilience is to “bounce back.” Psychologists define it as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.  Demonstrating resilience during challenging times allows one to “bounce back” from that difficult experience, not only surviving but stronger and in better condition to deal with the next challenge.  Actually, it is more than bouncing back.  It is bouncing forward with greater grit and determination—like throwing a tennis ball down the sidewalk instead of against a wall.    

Resilience in organizations manifests as the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper. Researchers have found that those employees with higher levels of resilience (compared to those with lower levels) report the following benefits:

  • Experience less stress.
  • Are less likely to be absent from work.
  • Are less likely to quit their current job.
  • Are more satisfied with their current job.
  • Are healthier and less likely to require a hospital stay in the previous year.

As a result, organizations with higher levels of resilience have employees who experience less stress and are more engaged, and this leads to an increase in production and positive financial outcomes. The good news is that resilience can be a learned ability and can be developed both individually and in an organization.  So, what can we do to foster the growth of this important practice?

First, having a positive mindset is foundational to developing resilience.  My dear friend, Frances Hesselbein, was once asked what made her such an effective servant leader.  She responded, “My blood type: B-positive.”  Having a positive, “the glass is half-full” perspective goes a long way in navigating life’s life challenges, personally and professionally. Here are some suggestions of how to develop a more positive outlook: 

  • Deal with negative emotions. Don’t let them build up. Find ways of relieving those negative vibes by taking a walk, riding a bike, going to the gym, or hitting a punching bag—whatever works for you, do it.
  • Find and spend time with positive people. Once you identify who they are, learn from them and examine how they think. Their influence will have a positive effect on you. As for the negative nay-sayers, avoid them if you can. Don’t let them drag you down.
  • Adopt a “there’s something good here” in everyday situations, no matter how bad they may seem. Stop for a minute and see how you can “turn lemons into lemonade,” as the saying goes. Few days are without their challenges or barriers that stand in the way of what you want to accomplish. You’ll be surprised what a difference this approach can make when your frame challenges in this way.
  • Focus on strengths. What are you good at and what do you really like to do? Too often, we tend to put too much emphasis and spend unnecessary energy trying to correct our weaknesses—thinking about how they hold us back and finding ways to overcome them. Instead, find ways of bolstering your strengths—the knowledge, skills, and abilities you have and want to get better at expressing and utilizing. That is a more positive approach.
  • Be grateful for what you have. Say thanks to those who have been helpful. Expressing gratitude on a regular basis is what some believe to be the most important attitude and action in developing a happy, positive mindset—and keep in mind, the ultimate goal is resilience.  And don’t forget to be forgiving.
  • Begin and end the day with a positive statement to yourself. Frances Hesselbein once told me when she awakens, she commits herself to having a positive effect on someone during the day. And then before going to sleep that night, she reflects on who she served in that way. I believe that is an important practice we should all emulate. It sets a tone for the day and then prepares the next one.
  • Recognize and eliminate negative self-talk. You know what that is: the inner voice that tells you, “You’re not good at this. This is going to turn out badly.” We all have a negative inner voice. We need to “call it out” and intentionally replace those thoughts with positive ones. “Yes, this did not turn out well, but I learned from it and the next time I will make it work.” That is how to replace negative with positive self-talk. One of my colleagues calls it “hand-to-hand combat” because each thought must be confronted and replaced, and this can take time and much effort. You didn’t develop negative self-talk overnight and it won’t go away quickly, but it will go away with time if you pay attention and devote effort to it. 

Second, author Rich Fernandez (2016) recommends five ways to increase resilience among individuals and organizations. These include: 

  1. Practice mindfulness—be aware of events and experiences as they occur. 
  2. Compartmentalize work during the day—focus on one particular task or assignment at a time, as opposed to multitasking. 
  3. Take short breaks every hour and a half to two hours—step away from the task at hand to mentally refresh.
  4. Develop the ability to respond rather than react to difficult situations or people—pause, step back, reflect, shift perspectives, create options, and choose wisely.
  5. Cultivate compassion—this includes both self-compassion and compassion for others.

Third, here are a few more thoughts that may help–three to be exact. I refer to them as them the”3-Ts.” Each one helps to create the context in which resilience can live and grow:  trust, truth, and transparency.  All three are connected and support the effectiveness and impact of each other.

  1. Trust. Warren Bennis once referred to trust as “the emotional glue that binds leaders and followers together.” If leaders and co-workers are to emerge from the fires of crisis, stronger and more prepared for the next set of challenges, they must trust one another.  Building the capacity for and practice of resilience requires leaders and co-workers to believe in and support each other (as well as their organization’s vision and mission) in times of trial.  
  2. Truth.  Trust flows from telling and living the truth. It’s the belief that what leaders are telling team members about a crisis–the causes, the necessary responses, and how they can get through it—is real and genuine. Then leaders must seek and accept honest and transparent feedback from co-workers an important practice. Without truth-telling, trust is broken and made even more difficult to repair during times of crisis.
  3. Transparency. It’s one thing to know the truth but quite another thing to share it.  Leaders must be willing to share the truth with co-workers about what is happening and what needs to be done in order not only to survive but also to be better equipped to take on the next crisis. When leaders are transparent, co-workers can be much more objective in evaluating the pros and cons of their leader. If leaders are transparent, especially during the worst of times, they actually strengthen their leadership as teammates begin to trust them as people and thus will respect them even more as leaders.

I have witnessed examples of leaders doing a great job of using the “3-Ts” during recent times—and some not-so-good examples. You may have, too. The difference I have seen is evident in their co-workers. The good examples have organizations in which the people are positive, optimistic about the future, and productive.  As you evaluate your own resilience level, don’t forget the importance of the “3-Ts.”

Throughout this process, take time to reflect on what is happening to you.  What are you feeling? Are your assumptions changing about how you deal with the challenges you face or the nature of your business?  Are you beginning to own these new behaviors and activities as your default style? Be sure to find those with whom you can talk regarding what you are doing to develop resilience. Consider what can you do with their feedback. Then, repeat this cycle of reflection and feedback, reflection, and feedback, etc.

One additional point. All this mindset and resilience talk may seem like laundry lists of things to work on that resemble a formula or algorithm. Just walk out the action items in the points I have mentioned, and boom—you will automatically see things come together. I hope you are not thinking like that. The practice of developing resilience is quite personal. Tough times are just that—tough. They are tough to take, tough to endure, and tough to get through—and sometimes it is beyond your control to change or save certain things. We can get bruised and hurt, and sometimes those events change and even scar us in the process. 

Resilience is not just “toughing it out,” or learning to “grin and bear it” or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Neither is it just “going it alone.” Those kinds of attitudes and behaviors speak of survival as you hang on by your fingernails. They are not consistent with the practice of “bouncing back.” They involve denial and are destructive. Doing it the right way—embodying the characteristics and behavior of resilience—is challenging and takes time, but you can do it. I know this from my own experience. If I can do it, I am confident we all can do it and, what’s more, we must do it, given the times in which we live.

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