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In a recent blogpost, we discussed how resistance is our body’s way of trying to avoid disruption to our current state. It can happen in response to changes in our personal or professional lives. But did you know that how we overcome resistance has a lot to do with another “R,” resilience? You bet it does.

Dictionary.com defines resilience in two ways. One is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or toughness. The other is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape, or elasticity. In whatever form it takes, we think we’d all agree that resilience in business is imperative.

Why resilience matters

Resilience helps us adapt to changes in business. According to a Harvard Business Review article, resilience can support individual employees and organizations in overcoming daily and collective business challenges. Organic changes like a co-worker leaving the organization for a better opportunity. Or forced changes such as a company takeover that results in people losing their jobs. The article points out that resilience helps organizations confronting historic challenges and individuals confronting “the thousand small cuts we may be inflicting on one another every day.”

In fact, the same article points to a research study that showed a whopping 75 percent of participants said that the biggest drain on their resilience reserves was managing difficult people or office politics. That was followed closely by stress brought on by overwork and by having to withstand personal criticism.

Helping employees build resilience can help you retain employees, reduce absenteeism and improve employee productivity, all while lower healthcare costs and other business risks such as workplace threats. What does all this mean? Happier employees and customers, and higher profits.

Employers’ role in building resilience

Director of the Positive Psychology Center and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Martin Seligman says businesses can take steps to help employees become more resilient. And we’d go so far as to say businesses should! Through the Penn Resiliency Program, Seligman draws on insights from a U.S. Army program to help soldiers bounce back after trauma. The Resiliency Program focuses on teaching participants how to think positively about setbacks, so they don’t learn helplessness. More on this later.

The post-traumatic module of the Resiliency Program teaches soldiers about five elements known to help overcome trauma. Seligman contends there are similarities between service men and women returning from active duty and business executives facing failure. Of course, they’re not the same. But executives facing enormous stress and potential failure can learn from Seligman’s research.

Seligman’s five

Here are Seligman’s five elements:

  • Understanding the response to trauma: This includes shattered beliefs about the self, others and the future. This is a normal response, not a symptom of PTSD or a character defect.
  • Reducing anxiety: This is accomplished through techniques for controlling intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Engaging in constructive self-disclosure: Bottling up trauma can lead to a worsening of physical and psychological symptoms, so soldiers are encouraged to tell their stories.
  • Creating a narrative: The trauma is seen as a fork in the road that enhances the appreciation of paradox (loss and gain, grief and gratitude, vulnerability and strength). In business, a manager might compare this to what the leadership studies pioneer Warren Bennis called “crucibles of leadership.” The narrative specifies what personal strengths were called upon, how some relationships improved, how spiritual life strengthened, how life itself was better appreciated, or what new doors opened.
  • Articulating life principles: These encompass new ways to be altruistic, crafting a new identity, and taking seriously the idea of the Greek hero who returns from Hades to tell the world an important truth about how to live.

Following up on #4, crucible experiences can be thought of as a kind of super-concentrated form of leadership development, as this article explains. The article gives several examples. One that jumped out to us was a top executive who, decades after the event, still remembers the panic he experienced when he was left alone in the middle of a forest on a pitch-black night as part of a hazing ritual. That experience—both the panic and the calm that followed—stayed with him through many years. Today, he’s a corporate turnaround leader. Someone who now deliberately walks into unfamiliar companies and leads them out of the forest!

For anyone wanting to learn more about leadership and professional (or personal) growth, Seligman’s research and books are worth the read. He’s not called the father of psychology for nothing.

Resilience is a mindset

When you think of resiliency, you might think of someone who has a thick skin. We think a better analogy or visual, however, is a tree that can comfortably move with the wind without breaking. Picture a Bradford pear tree. These trees move easily with the wind, but their branches and trunk can break during storms (learned that one the hard way!). Bradford pears have a lifespan of about 20 years. On the other hand, an oak tree that you’ve cared for over the years can have an average life of 300 years. And some of the oldest oaks in the United States are between 800 and 1,500 years old.

Benefits of maintaining a flexible mindset

A flexible mindset helps you weather all kinds of storms and stand tall like an oak. Optimism also plays a key role in resilience. Optimism is the antidote to helplessness. But let’s be clear: optimism is not the same as positive thinking. Being optimistic means that you can accomplish things in the future. According to Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University, these future expectations are based on experience, which means that being optimistic takes energy. Oettingen points out that optimism is different from positive thinking, which she describes as simply daydreaming about the future and fantasizing.

Liz Mascolo, business unit director at General Mills, says embracing an optimistic view means making a concerted effort and continually looking forward to your goals. She goes on to say in this article that you have to reimagine the possibilities. She says this takes extra energy because it’s easier just to focus on the problem at hand, fix it and move on. Instead, she says, fix it and design for the future at the same time. For us, this brings to mind an entirely different topic: design thinking. But perhaps we’ll write about that another time!

It also reminds us of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. If you’ve not read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, you may want to consider picking up a copy. First published in 1946, the book chronicles Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II. It also describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersing yourself in imagining that outcome. Sound familiar?

Resilience and change

As we’ve discussed before, even when a change promises to solve big business problems, it’s still hard and employees often resist. To do things differently requires our brains to work harder. And who wants to do that? Building resiliency—or elasticity—can help. Here are some practical tips to build resilience, going beyond Seligman’s five tips. These are adapted from this great article on LinkedIn.

Take your time

Deadlines are deadly. Your brain is an idea machine. But most ideas are generated in your unconscious mind and never make it to your awareness because they’re “filtered out” by the “executive” part of your brain. To suppress those filters, you need to relax the brain’s executive structures. Time constraints make that difficult. It also helps to eliminate excess sensory inputs, such as bright lights and distractions like cell phones. These sensory inputs stimulate the executive in you, making it more difficult for your most original ideas to surface.

Related, smartphones and other technology make it too easy to stay connected at all times. But we must unplug. It’s especially important—even mandatory—to unplug over vacation. According to recent research, the ideal vacation length is eight days. We blow a day or two just unwinding from work before we can fully enjoy a vacation. Complicate that with checking email while you’re away, and your brain and body never fully realize the benefits of that well-earned time off.

Embrace the possibility of being wrong and tolerate failure

To open your mind to original ideas, you must open it to ideas, period. Some will be good, some will be bad. And it won’t always be easy to distinguish the former from the latter. But don’t be afraid to pursue what may not be promising. The best ideas are often those that at first appear “crazy.”

A good exercise to broaden your thinking is to, on occasion, try to convince yourself of an idea or opinion that you don’t necessarily believe. If you’re anti-gun control, sincerely try to understand the arguments of the other side, or vice versa. Imagine how someone you respect could feel differently from you. It’s also helpful to interact with people who think differently, whether because their politics differ, or because they come from a different culture. Research shows that exposure to different ideas, even if you don’t accept them, helps broaden the range of ideas that you come up with. Based on our work with clients, IronStrike wholeheartedly embraces this. Diversity of thought is a win-win for everyone!

Learn to reframe questions

The way we pose a question often dictates the way we answer it. When our answers don’t meet our needs, the remedy can be to look at the problem in a different way. Often, the solutions we seek are easy to see once we ask the questions in the right way.

From a communications standpoint, this concept is key. IronStrike often counsels company executives who have a frame of reference that simply doesn’t match where employees are. As a result, they often ask the wrong questions and then wonder why the information they get back doesn’t match their expectations. Or, worse yet, they act on the information and wonder why employees aren’t satisfied with the actions taken. Often, leaders need to get the input from other staff or outside counsel to frame the right questions.

Examine your assumptions

We often make hidden assumptions that produce barriers to finding the answers we seek. For example, suppose you are told “Margie and Judy were born on the same day of the same month of the same year, to the same mother and father, yet they aren’t twins.” How is this possible? If you have difficulty answering that question it’s because you picture Margie and Judy, and implicitly assume they’re the entire brood. If you’re able to recognize that you’re making that assumption, and that it may not be justified, the answer is easy: they’re triplets.

Summary

Resilience plays a key role in how we roll with the punches both personally and professionally. A lot of research points to the benefits of having a flexible and optimistic (not “positive thinking”) mindset. Questioning your assumptions and considering others’ viewpoints keeps your brain elastic, improving your odds of weathering challenging times especially during times of significant change. If you need support in helping your employees manage business transition and “bending with the wind without breaking,” contact us.