Contributed by Kate Buller, Executive Coach, The Executive Coaching Consultancy (London)
Resilience, or the ability to flex and bounce back from setbacks, is a central characteristic of business leadership and living full and challenging lives. So what are some of the key psychological and physiological processes behind understanding and improving resilience?
Resilience in the face of significant challenge is an adaptive capacity. It is a process rather than a trait. As human beings we’ve evolved to heal ourselves. It’s not only about self-confidence, as outward confidence can be disguising inner worries and anxieties. It’s more about optimism, emotional intelligence, adaptability, and keeping one’s head when under pressure.
The pace of change in organisations continues to accelerate. Coupled with this, studies such as one published in June by ForbesWoman and TheBump.com have found that 92% of working mothers felt overwhelmed by work, home and parenting responsibilities. Only about 15% of working parents now have a stay-at-home partner.
The rise of the dual career couple is here to stay, adding to the pressure on work, family life and relationships. We all feel squeezed. In the UK, for example, at any time around 20% of the British workforce reports being affected by stress, with 77% of these also reporting problems with relationships at home caused by stress at work.
Biological Responses to Stress
We respond to stress biologically, in the same way we protect ourselves from physical threat, by a fight/flight reaction. This literally switches our blood supply in the brain away from our frontal cortex (which helps us analyse situations and make decisions) and channels it towards the amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain. This causes release of the highly corrosive cortisol, preparing us for fight or flight – neither of which is appropriate in most work situations. So we lose the very thing that we need for resilience and adaptive capacity, our ability to think and react appropriately.
We are born with two innate fears, falling and loud noises. Other fears, such as of failing, are learned and can therefore be unlearned. Martin Seligman (author of ‘Authentic Happiness’ and founding professor of the positive psychology movement) has helped US Army soldiers build their resilience through training. This has not only reduced the incidence of PTSD it has also shortened the recovery time for those who do suffer from it; with some regaining higher mental well-being scores than pre-action levels.
How we react under pressure is an important thing to learn early on in our careers. The more resilient we are, the more in control we’ll be in the face of challenges. Setbacks can make us leap to conclusions, lose perspective and quickly engage unhelpful feelings.
Albert Ellis’ ABCD model helps us interrupt the amygdala hijack and keep our frontal cortex engaged. We have an event (A) which starts to trigger familiar feelings (C) of dread, failure, anger. The feelings are caused by the thoughts (B) we have about the event. We need to look at the thoughts that are making us feel this way. Things like “I always say the wrong thing” or “I can’t manage under pressure, I always make mistakes”. Then we can ask if these thoughts have any foundation. Then we decide what action to take (D).
These are some of the characteristics of resilient people, based on research from the University of Pennsylvania:
- High level of self and political awareness.
- Comfortable with uncertainty, see things in perspective and avoid jumping in.
- Optimistic, but with feet on the ground.
- ‘Can do’ approach, improvise, use resources available, see problems from many angles, solution focused.
- Empathic, well connected, know how to ask for help, build strong relationships.
- Confident in own abilities – expertise well known and sought out.
- Seek out new and challenging experiences, see failure as natural part of life and actively learn from it.
As executive coaches we often talk to our coachees about the importance of holding all aspects of our lives in healthy alignment. Resilience is a delicate, personal equilibrium that needs regular attention, which consists of personal fitness, job fitness, and career fitness.
Personal fitness is about getting enough sleep, our diet/exercise regime, how we take care of our family and friends, nurturing ourselves and our relationships. Women in general, and working mothers in particular, take a lot of responsibility for the caring for others, sometimes at personal cost. We’re not great at asking for help and guilt can cause us to run ourselves ragged trying to achieve the ‘perfect family life’.
Job Fitness is the area that often we give most attention to. Often our coachees have been highly successful by focusing on this area, achieving demanding deadlines and setting high standards. Then suddenly notice all the best work/credit goes to colleagues who aren’t perhaps as good, but who’ve managed their profile strategically.
Career fitness can get overlooked in busy lives but this helps us should something happen to our job or organisation. It means we have a game plan, strong networks and high levels of self awareness. We take appropriate risks to stretch ourselves. We manage our personal reputations and know how marketable we are. All this gives us confidence to exploit our current roles for opportunities to play to our strengths and broaden our experience.
The more that each of these aspects of our lives are strong and in balance, the more we can remain pragmatic and optimistic, with our key ally the frontal cortex in charge.