Contributed by Laurie J. Ferguson
How is it that some people encounter significant failures and setbacks, and yet keep showing up and producing? There are those who collapse from the stress and those who navigate through rapid change with style and grace. What is their secret and where does it come from?
Social researchers call it resilience, a quality that is ever more important in our current work climate of constant change and shifting demands, and a key skill of effective leaders. Losses can be a valuable learning opportunity – ask anyone who’s played team sports – and studies have indicated that leaders who are able to learn from failure and move on are able to build more effective companies and organizations.
The word resilience comes from the Latin verb “salire” which means to jump. When you add the “re” it connotes back, so the word resilience means jumping back, or rebounding. It has an almost tensile physical feel, a kind of active energy.
Resilience is about jumping into the game – being flexible and involved even in stressful times. Resilient people have a bounce that keeps bringing them back even when they have been pushed down.
The great news about resilient energy is that it is not a trait or the product of your genetics. It can be cultivated and deepened. With some attention and intention, you can become more resilient and create reserves to draw upon when needed.
Resilience: A Case Study
One of my coaching clients, who I’ll call Sue, came to me because her work wasn’t going well and she wanted to address the slide before it became damaging. Recently promoted, she was having trouble managing up with a boss who was demanding and erratic, and her ability to produce results was diminishing. She rarely enjoyed her job and felt overwhelmed by small details that normally got handled with ease. Sue was a high achiever and this was not her usual standard.
Her resilience reserves had been spent down and not replenished.
Together we looked at the attitudes that develop resilience. These attitudes tend to cluster in three major areas. The first arena has to do with meaningfulness and key commitments. A feeling of being in charge, and able to manage is the second arena. The last cluster involves challenge and enjoyment.
Sue identified that she had lost her sense of purpose in her new job. In her earlier position she had a team with whom she worked closely. In that position her purpose involved a sense of teamwork and not wanting to let anyone down. She didn’t have that dedication to sustain her now, and she wasn’t sure what about her new role mattered to her. Without some commitments that go beyond ourselves, our resilience can quickly drain away.
Sue was encouraged to think about her life both in and beyond the office and she worked to articulate some key values. As she began to clarify what was important to her, she could see how to apply that to her job. Sue joined a professional organization and connected with colleagues. She began to mentor a young woman entering the field and found renewed satisfaction in the profession.
As we focused on the area of manageability I gently challenged the way Sue was “telling her story” or describing her work situation. It had a ring of victim/martyr when she talked about her boss’ requests and her daily workload. Sue began to try out some new ways of talking about her day that reflected the choices she was making –rather than describing herself as powerless. Sue recognized that when she was promoted, she lost the small closely- knit team that had helped her stay engaged. But she recognized that her job change, though a loss in some ways, had also been a choice, and a positive one. As she shifted her language, she began to see herself differently. We looked at what she was tolerating and Sue resolved to eliminate some key “tolerations” like a desk that was too small. Even the seemingly simple step of requisitioning a new desk and feeling it was “right size” helped Sue feel more in charge of her space and therefore in her work.
The last area to tackle was Sue’s sense of challenge. She realized she was avoiding taking on some new responsibilities in her work because she “didn’t feel ready.” She had been asked to supervise some of the newer staff, but had stepped away from that assignment because some of them were older and more experienced. Sue began to look at the challenges around her as opportunities to grow and stretch – even though she might make mistakes.
Her boss noticed when she took on these responsibilities and became less critical. Sue felt energized when she was willing to try difficult tasks rather than avoiding them. Sue regained her sense of herself as an achiever and doer.
By the end of our three-month engagement, Sue described herself energized and enjoying her work. She said she had more stamina and could push herself further – as well as cut herself some breaks. She was less reactive to stressful situations.
Sue had re-charged her resilience reserves.
This is something you can do, too. The benefits are tremendous – not just in your work, but for your health and enjoyment of your life.
Laurie J. Ferguson is a health psychologist who provides resilience training for leaders of organizations and individuals. Her workshop “Resiliency Training—Building Your Ability to Bounce Back,” which will explore the basic tools of resiliency training and how to set personal goals, will be offered by the Athena Leadership Lab at Barnard College on Feb. 5.