Leadership: 5 ways to boost resilience

by Sofie Varrewaere

Source: http://www.projecteve.com, September 2, 2014

Yesterday I saw my eight-year old daughter being dragged through the sand by her pony. It ran wild and she got stuck in the rains. Fortunately without consequences. But it made me realize again how resilient children are. While every adult in that paddock was still trembling, she got up, shook the sand of her clothes and mounted her pony to continue the ride. During the rest of that horse-riding lesson, I thought about this and how we adults handle it, knowing there are many times we need to get back in that saddle ourselves.

Described by Wikipedia as one’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity, literature mentions different visions on resilience. It can be seen as a personality trait, as a process or as an outcome (Olsson et al, 2003). In the first scenario, there’s not much you can do to change it. People with a more resilient personality will simply perform better under stress and recover more quickly from setbacks. Those are the ones getting back on their horse without hesitating. And when looking at resilience as an outcome, it is seen as a competence people “might” develop when experiencing misfortune and setback. Let’s say you need to be dragged through that sand more than once in order to develop some resiliency. And no guarantees 😉

Most research now shows that resilience is the result of an individual being able to handle the process that promotes well-being and protects against the overwhelming influence of risk factors (Woodgate, 1991). And that’s good news. Understanding the underlying mechanism makes it possible to consciously enhance ones ability to recover quickly from difficulties. It can be learned and developed by anyone. Be honest, being a leader, you expect it, not only from yourself, but also from your direct reports. They need to perform under stress, recover quickly after being disillusioned (for example after not winning that big contract), stay motivated and expect good outcomes despite an over-challenging business plan, use the challenges you give them for growth, etc.

On top of, as we all know, those are not the only problems that need to be addressed. Setbacks and misfortune come in many shapes: family, relationship, health, finances, professional, etc. And personal problems interfere with professional performance. And the other way around. Whether you like it or not. Being one of the lucky executive Coaches working with top-management at the Coca-Cola Company, I love to rave about the speech of it’s former CEO, Bryan Dyson. Mister Dyson speaks of life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit. He refers to work as being the only rubber ball. The others are made of glass. I don’t need to tell you resilience will definitely be needed if you drop one of those. But let’s focus on that one rubber ball called Work.

Based on what’s written in literature and my experience as an executive Coach, I came up with five ideas for daily leadership. All of them increasing the mental toughness of your team:

  1. Promote self-esteem                                                                                                Express your trust for your team-member to cope successfully with the challenges given. Don’t solve the problem for them but support them in growing their own problem-solving skills. Give access to all possible resources in order to do so. Let them take full responsibility. Give them the ability to effect change and let them take decisive actions in adverse situations. Let them succeed on their own merits.
  2. Tolerate discomfort                                                                                                 Be accessible, listen and keep a long-term perspective. As a leader, place the stressful event in a broader context and avoid seeing setbacks as unbearable problems. Think productively. Coach them. Let them self-appraise strengths and weaknesses. Move towards the goals and oblige them to reflect on their own progress. Offer encouragement when needed and direct vulnerable individuals to more optimistic paths. Some things take time.
  3. Provide opportunities                                                                                             Embrace change. Personal development and training supports your people in developing their interaction skills with the environment. Make sure budgets are spend on those domains needed. Develop their communication and problem-solving skills. Let them learn how to manage strong feelings and impulses when times get rough. Let them be kind without pleasing. Learn them to say no. Develop self-reflection and let them learn from their mistakes.
  4. Build your team                                                                                                       Pay attention to building your team. Stimulate camaraderie and supportive relationships. Create a sense of personal and collective purpose. Let your team take responsibility for the greater good. Celebrate individual and collective successes without comparing or judging. Keep looking forward and let the past be the past. Create a platform for open communication. Always with respect and based on self-reflection.
  5.   What if one of the other balls falls?                                                                    There are five balls, remember? Unfortunately, people do bring their problems to work. Visible or not, it’s in their thoughts, their worries. Loss of concentration, creativity, customer service, etc. With big impact. Talk about the impact and possible temporary adjustment of the responsibilities. Strike a balance between empathy and expectations. Ask what the person needs. Encourage without giving advice.

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