Sunday 29 September 2013

Resilience at work :: Keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs!

I was involved in some office gossip (at the proverbial ‘water-cooler’) regarding the shuffling of an executive (as a reaction to changes in market, strategy and ‘faith’ in the executive) when a colleague made an observation that the executive would re-emerge in another solid role as he was ‘mentally strong’ to work through this adverse circumstance.

I realised that the ability to work ones way through adversity and taking an appropriate response is evidence of a sound and stable mind. I am not suggesting that those who cannot work their way through adversity are unstable or not sound of mind but the concept of being able to handle adversity due to some inner strength did appeal to me as I am aware that I still have a lot of work to do to become more resilient (“recovering easily and quickly from shock, illness, hardship, etc. irrepressible”). Resilience in simple terms is “the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it.”

I have seen resilience in the work-place displayed in how co-workers experienced a traumatic event in their personal life but handled it very well and/or recovered sufficiently well from it; co-workers that have the same job or role but how some seem to seem to achieve outcomes that are noticeably better (not just different) from their peers; and finally, co-workers who seem to maintain their mental faculties and focus despite work-stress or a traumatic event that would have ‘felled’ another colleague! 

If your co-worker shows more resilience in how he or she responds to adversity then what can you and I learn from the same? I am not going to get into the psychological aspects of resilience but do believe that being aware of it and taking specific actions to achieve or improve on resilience can lead to a positive outcome that would be different from the typical negative response that may have come up in the past to an adverse situation.

I used to consider mental strength or resilience as something that someone is born with. My own experience of resilience has been different. At work my mental conditioning was impacted by the events around me and I also underwent experiential learning by watching other executives in action. I felt that resilience may have its genesis in the psche or building blocks of an individual but there seemed to be 'tactics' that had been adopted by the executives who I considered ‘mentally strong’ or resilient. Just knowing about this and watching them gave me a life-long learning that has helped me in understanding my own response mechanisms to adversity. 

I recommend that you review ‘10 ways to build resilience’ from the American Psychological Association (APA) and guidance from Mayo Clinic but to give more context I offer some ideas distilled from my corporate experience for you to leverage:

  • Don’t get mad; get even – Anger is the one emotion that has really hurt me by clouding my judgement and therefore, the outcome. If the adversity is such that it gives you a feeling of being the ‘sacrificial lamb’ or mutter “why me” or ruminate “how could they do this to me?” then your reaction of feeling anger and potentially sadness to your circumstance is dangerous. If you feel that you are angry then be aware that your first reaction or response will be problematic! Payback is sweet and you will grow if you channel your energy in getting even;
  • Have a healthy sense of paranoia - Maintain a healthy sense of paranoia so that the impact of adversity does not have an element of surprise or ‘coming out of the blue’. Humans usually react to the suddenness of adversity rather than the adversity itself. Be more ready for adversity and you will realise that you will have more maturity at your disposal to moderate your reaction;
  • See the big picture - What is happening to you is happening at a level that is personal to you. Step back and understand the context. Most adverse situations are not targeted at individuals. You may be impacted due to a situation or circumstance far beyond your reach or understanding. Sometimes we confuse the ball being played with ourselves being played! Develop the ability to understand the overall context of any situation. How do you fit into the larger picture? How do the incidents happening (that are testing or taxing your resilience) placed in the larger context? Develop the strength and ability to always know your place in the bigger picture and the contour of the land!;
  • Be solution focused - How much time do you spend on talking about the diversity and challenge vs. how much time you spend on a response or solution to the same? Every time I sit down with a mentee or a coachee at work I am surprised to find people opening up and telling me about their problem or challenge in various different levels of detail and will carry on giving finer detail to the same. At some point I feel like shouting “STOP IT” (If you have six minutes then please do have a look at this Bob Newhart skit hence my reference to “STOP IT”. Highly recommended!). Spend more time on the solution. This mindset will re-energise you and enable forward looking and positive thinking;

  • Use mentors as sounding boards - Don’t engage in mindless self-dialog. Seek out mentors and take good advice from them. The value of a mentor for me has been immeasurable and I recommend that you find a reliable sounding board to assess your options and response to the adverse situation. [A very critical way that I also worked on my own mental strength was to work on my ability to help others and guide others. As I heard other people’s challenges as a manager-as-coach I realised how to become a better human being and better manager];

  • Criticism is not adversity - I have seen co-workers consider criticism as a sign of adversity. Such perceived 'adversity' can be criticism that deteriorates your mood and impacts your emotional well-being. How to handle the ‘critic is critical’ (play on words intended) and I must point out that criticism can be fair or unfair but both have to be handled maturely. My assessment is that fair criticism can lead to withdrawal or self-doubt or have a negative impact on self-esteem whereas unfair criticism can lead to anger and a sense of betrayal. The ability to bounce back from both types of criticism is critical. As William Ernest Henley wrote in Invictus “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Read this line again. Focus on it. You will realise that control is within your reach;
  • Seek professional guidance (if all else fails) - Do seek professional guidance and opinion if you are still struggling with adversity and are clear that your response to adversity has scope for improvement and that with effort you can potentially moderate the impact that adversity has on you mentally and also change the potential negative outcome of your response or even lack of response. There is no shame in seeking guidance from a coach or counselor. I had a colleague who also sought guidance and feedback from a psychologist. I am not competent on this front but offer this input and guidance as a last resort as I don’t want to trivialise the reality that many of us can be helped by professional advice.
Before you think that adversity is always a negative challenge then it is critical to note that most human development and growth arises from our response to adversity. Sometimes you have to step back to move forward!

In closing, I offer a poem from Rudyard Kipling titled “IF” that I had stuck on my desk when I was studying in college. At that time I leveraged it to remain focused on my academics but to my chagrin it has carried on providing solace in the working world as well. Life is really funny. I thought I needed motivation when studying but seems like many of us could do with motivation until our last moment on this planet!

IF by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!


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