In organizational life, pressure, change and adversity are almost inevitable daily aspects of our work. To cope, we need a proactive rather than a reactive approach: we need to develop resilience.
People describe resilience in many different ways: as ‘mental toughness’, ‘emotional stability’, ‘grit’ or ‘perseverance’. Perhaps more helpfully, we can think of resilience as the capacity to respond effectively to pressure and ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations - our levels of resilience determine how quickly we return to a state of equilibrium and become functional again. The way we behave in our response to certain events - whether we bounce back or spiral downwards - will depend on how we perceive and interpret the situation. When we’re positive and confident, we feel in control. But if our positivity and confidence are damaged, the situation we’re facing can suddenly seem insurmountable, creating feelings of helplessness, anger or anxiety.
What influences our resilience?
As human beings, we all have a level of resilience. But it can fluctuate at different times as our outlook is influenced by a range of factors, such as:
- Our health, well-being and lifestyle. Issues such as our diet, exercise patterns, how much we drink, whether we smoke and how well we sleep all have an impact. If you’re tired or unwell, your ability to bounce back will be impaired.
- Our psychological make-up. Your self-esteem, confidence, values, the beliefs you hold about yourself, your thinking patterns, your attitude to your work and your general level of positivity can all impact on whether you ‘pick yourself up’ or ‘beat yourself up’ after adverse events.
- Life events. Divorce, bereavement, illness, moving house, relocating and many other life events can make us more vulnerable to workplace pressures that we might otherwise take in our stride.
- Our relationships at work. How you get on with your boss and your colleagues - and your level of engagement at work - can all play a part in how you respond in difficult times. The cultural norms in the organization can also play a part. If there’s a macho or ‘stiff-upper-lip’ culture in the workplace, people can perceive an added pressure to be seen as someone who can ‘cope’. In this case, many people suffer in silence.
- Our support network. Having supportive family or friends around you is important, so you can ‘let off steam’ about your work challenges or find a ‘sounding board’ or a ‘critical friend’ to discuss adverse events. We are more resilient when there are people in our networks who can offer us fresh perspectives on what we’re experiencing.
- Our sense of proportion. If your work means everything to you, any setbacks in your job can have a devastating impact. However, if you have a work-life balance or you feel your life has a wider meaning or purpose beyond your career, you’re more likely to see a negative situation in a more contained and actionable context. Interests outside of work, whatever they may be - e.g. singing in a choir, bee-keeping or five-a-side football - can help to give you a greater sense of perspective.
When we have resilience, our brain and body are able to respond effectively to pressure and tolerate ambiguity. When we don’t have it, our thinking may become more negative, our ability to perform may be impaired and we’re likely to feel stressed by the pressure of new challenges, deadlines or workplace problems. That can take its toll on our minds and bodies and show up in our behavior.
An important consideration for leaders and managers is that your response to adversity will have a knock-on effect on others in your team. As a role model, others will take their cue from you. If you’re perceived as being stressed out or withdrawn, you may risk others mirroring your emotions, creating an unhelpful ripple effect. If you respond openly, calmly and positively to difficult situations, without denying your true feelings, others will follow your lead and be more likely to bounce back too.
Can we become more resilient?
It’s certainly possible to develop more beneficial routines that include relaxation, adequate sleep and time for social, non-work interests. This is, of course, in the domain of individual lifestyle choices and of course what works for others may not work for you. A more difficult aspect is challenging any deeply-held negative beliefs we hold about ourselves. Raising your own awareness of these issues is helpful but you can’t change your personality patterns overnight - and who says you should?
There are, however, new habits that we can create. Martin Seligman*, who has written extensively on the benefits of Positive Psychology, believes we can all learn to become more optimistic. His research shows that successful, resilient people have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable e.g. “It’ll go away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.” This positive attitude can shield us from anxiety and help us to recover quicker from setbacks or perceived failures.
Some people seem better able to manage their emotions than others and key to this is learning to change and develop our thinking. It’s important to understand that when we react to adversity, we’re not really reacting to an event itself but to how we feel about that event. We might not be able to control what happens to us but we can control where we focus our attention and we all have a choice to make, if we pause long enough, in how we respond to any situation. In difficult times, how we think and what we believe will determine how we feel and what we do.
It’s also important to recognize the ‘triggers’ that might have led to us becoming derailed in the past. If you’re aware of them, you can try to react differently if they come round again, so they don’t throw you off-kilter in the same way. There’s a school of thought that says if “you’ve named it, you can tame it”. But the key point is ‘what are you going to do differently?’ Discussing this with your boss, your peers or others in your support network can help you develop an appropriate strategy to manage your own personal triggers.
The language we use - what we say in the workplace and how we talk about the groups and organizations to which we belong - provides an interesting insight into our outlook. Over time we can learn techniques to use more appreciative language, helping us focus on the positives in any situation and encouraging others to stay attuned to possibilities rather than constraints or limitations.
Other essential skills that can underpin our resilience include the ability to manage our time, work assertively and engage in constructive conflict without taking things personally. We can improve the way we give and receive feedback. We can even develop our sense of perspective by considering worst-case, best-case and most likely scenarios. Each of us should be able to recognize when we’re feeling overwhelmed at work and know what to do if that happens. It’s critical that internal processes, leadership styles and organizational cultures coincide in a way that means people feel free to ask for help when they need it.
By combining these aspects of self-awareness, self-management, healthy routines, new habits and new thinking, we can all develop our own resilience and respond more effectively to the challenges of the workplace. But that’s not all. Given that pressure, change and adversity are facts of life in today’s organizations, those who demonstrate resilience are the ones most likely to succeed.
"Each of us should be able to recognize when we’re feeling overwhelmed at work and know what to do if that happens"
*Seligman, M.E.P. (2006): Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books USA.