Boost your resilience

05 December, 2016

Resilience is the secret to weathering the storm and coming out on the other side

The last few weeks have been tumultuous for all of us in India as we have been in the midst of the most radical financial experiment in recent times. The withdrawal, practically overnight, of 86 per cent of the currency notes in circulation has disrupted lives. While many people have been facing tremendous hardships, what has shined though is the fortitude of her citizens. Indians are rolling with the punches, patiently standing in serpentine queues, helping each other out and adapting to the changing circumstances – with a strong belief that demonetisation will usher in a stronger economy, more financial inclusion and a more tax compliant, above-board way of doing things.

Last week, I also spent a few days in Nigeria. Our business there continues to deliver a strong performance in spite of a very turbulent environment. The team is demonstrating great agility and executing well. The country has been in recession over the last three quarters with soaring prices, a plummeting currency and a destructive campaign by rebels to sabotage oil, the country’s main export.  Despite this turmoil, Nigerians continue to persevere, united in the words of the great Nigerian poet Ben Okri, “Our future is greater than our past”.

These instances highlight acceptance, ownership, ingenuity and persistence-all key elements of resilience.

Think about it. Why do some individuals bounce back from the worst circumstances, while others go into a downward spiral from which they cannot recover? Why do some organisations manage to get through a period of turbulence, while others collapse entirely? Resilience is the enviable, enigmatic quality that makes all the difference between success and failure.

Whether it’s a personal tragedy, a financial downturn, or the everyday stress of work, resilience is what keeps going. It helps us cope with loss and failure—and learn from it. It is what enables us to adapt and to recover. So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how to build resilience.

Today, resilience is more important than ever. Noted author and professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it best: “When surprises are the new normal, resilience is the new skill”.

However, resilience is hard. It requires the courage to face difficult realities, the self-belief that one can get through a painful situation and the grit and tenacity to keep on persisting to bounce back.

Fortunately, resilience can be learned. Here are six tips to build greater resilience:

1. Face it to change it

Denial and rose-tinted glasses are not your friends in adversity. Instead, it is crucial to take a cool and composed look at things as they actually are. A certain amount of optimism can be good—but not if it fogs your realism. Excessive optimism can actually impair your chances of survival, as your unrealistic expectations that “everything will be all right” are repeatedly disappointed.

In his book about sustainability, Good to Great, management researcher James Collins recounts a conversation with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who survived eight years of imprisonment and torture by the Vietcong. When James asked the Admiral who didn’t make it out of the camps, the Admiral replied that it was the optimists, the ones who were constantly convinced they’d be out by Easter, then by the Fourth of July, then by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas and so on. “I think they all died of broken hearts,” said the Admiral, attributing his own survival to the fact that he took a less hopeful view and anticipated a long imprisonment.

2. Prepare for the future

Only when you face today’s harsh reality can you prepare to survive the hardships of tomorrow. In her Harvard Business Review article, How Resilience Works, Diane L. Coutu describes how Morgan Stanley’s past realism equipped them to tackle future adversity. After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Morgan Stanley launched an intensive crisis-response program, drilling all employees on exactly what to do in case of a crisis. This preparedness, combined with some luck, stood them in excellent stead. Coultu outlines their timely and precise response on 9/11: “On that horrible day, the first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 AM, and Morgan Stanley started evacuating just one minute later, at 8:47 AM. When the second plane crashed into the south tower 15 minutes after that, Morgan Stanley’s offices were largely empty. All told, the company lost only seven employees despite receiving an almost direct hit.”

In addition, the company had three recovery sites where people could gather and work—a contingency plan for a situation in which their main offices faced disruption. Morgan Stanley had visualised and prepared for the toughest reality. They recognised their own vulnerability to modern-day terrorism and took steps to ensure their survival.

3. Stop being a victim

Asking “Why me?” gets you nowhere, sending you into a downward spiral of victimisation and helplessness. It doesn’t matter if the misfortune is, in fact, not your fault at all—dwelling on how we’ve been wronged is still an ineffective coping strategy. Instead, you must ask yourself, “Which aspects of this situation can I influence? How can I create the maximum positive impact?” This is particularly important for leaders. If the leadership falls apart in a crisis, or starts playing the blame game, the team is doomed to fail. But if leaders are able to clear-headedly analyse the situation and take control, then the organisation is likely to make it through the crisis—and perhaps even emerge stronger.

4. Create a narrative

Once you reject the idea of seeing yourself as a victim, you can craft a story that gives meaning to your troubles. It helps you see today’s troubles as part of a broader narrative, thus making the present more manageable and less all-consuming. Creating meaning is also the backbone of most resilience training programs.

It was Holocaust survivor, Dr. Victor E. Frankl, who pioneered “meaning therapy”—the ability to find meaning even amidst extreme suffering. Dr. Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in pre-World War II Austria, but under Nazi rule he lost his wealth, job, status, family (including his pregnant wife) and finally his freedom. He was liberated in 1945, after spending three years in concentration camps. What did this man—who once had it all—take away from this experience? Dr. Frankl explained that he was able to preserve his sanity by creating a sense of purpose. At his lowest point, when the suffering became almost too great to bear, he imagined that the war was over and he was giving a lecture to help others understand what the camp prisoners had gone through. By weaving this narrative, Dr. Frankl was able to assign significance to his present pain—there were lessons for him to learn, in order to achieve his future goal.

5. Get ingenious

When times are tough, resilient people and companies are able to make the best use of their resources through inventiveness. Imagine the possibilities, scope out the opportunities, use whatever is at hand—this is crucial to finding your way out.

Resilient organisations assign immense value to improvisation. When disaster strikes, this quality is what makes employees agile, flexible and able to work with any and all available resources. Highly formalised groups, on the other hand, where out-of-the-box thinking is discouraged, flounder. Their employees are unwilling to go beyond their clearly demarcated roles and to do anything that is not part of existing process. Inventiveness doesn’t mean doing away with standard operating procedures—which, in themselves, create a strong foundation for companies to withstand shocks. It simply means encouraging improvisation to boost innovation and problem-solving. Ingenuity, too, needs practice and experience. The more comfortable people are with this core survival skill, the better they’ll do if and when drastic change occurs.

6. Recharge your batteries

Resilience is sometimes seen purely as endurance—the ability to power through the worst and come out on the other side. Research, however, tells us that recovery is central to resilience. Only when we take the time to recover do we have enough energy to complete the race. Life is no 100-metre sprint—it’s a marathon. And as any marathon runner will tell you, it’s crucial for you to conserve your resources and pace yourself. Otherwise you’ll have to drop out before you’re even halfway through.

In Resilience Requires Recharging, stress resilience expert, Paula Davis-Laack highlights the organisational cost of stress-related problems like insomnia (over $60 billion in the US alone) and explains that regular recovery time is crucial for continued well-being and high performance, “Optimal recovery is a combination of both internal recovery – the short breaks you take while you’re at work and external recovery – how you spend your time after work, on the weekends, and on vacation.”

Simply “not working” doesn’t count as recovery. How many times do you come home still talking about office or fall asleep thinking about work? How often do you swap work for another stressful pursuit, like a high-intensity political discussion on Facebook or worrying about family issues? This kind of activity does not allow your diminished mental resources to be replenished. Instead, create meaningful internal and external recovery periods, be it meditating, catching up with a friend, going for a walk, enjoying a cup of tea, playing a sport, spending quality time with your kids, exploring nature, pursuing a hobby…the possibilities are endless. That which leaves you feeling refreshed and energised is the best way to boost your stress resilience.

In the words of Dean Becker, the CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company that develops and delivers resilience training programmes: “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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