Archive for resilience

What Brexit Can Teach COVID

Remember Brexit?  A year ago I wrote a blog linking the uncertainty of Brexit with the need to be resilient.  Where once Brexit dominated our media, now it does not merit a newspaper column inch.  Its’ place has been taken by a word unknown to us all until 2020 – COVID 19.  In 2019 I wrote about  VUCA: a term then increasingly familiar in business contexts, because it captured the sense of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity that many people felt in their workplace as Brexit loomed.  Little did we know that a year on, we would be living with VUCA on steroids.

Rereading that piece I realised that many of the remarks I made are equally relevant to now but repositioned. Where once I wrote of challenges to our markets now it is a challenge to our health and financial security. Where once I wrote of new entrants disrupting the market now it is a virus disrupting our ability to do business. Where once technology was changing how customers wanted to do business, now it is technology that is enabling us to still be in business and in connection.

What these disruptions mean at an individual level is remarkably similar to what we then feared from Brexit

  • Not knowing if your organisation will exist in a few months’ time
    • The fear of job loss
    • Promotion opportunities disappearing
    • Career promises being undeliverable
    • Fighting for your existing job as a result of restructuring
    • The scope of your role being dramatically extended as the price of retaining it


While lockdown may protect you from COVID, it cannot protect you from what may happen as a result of COVID, and so the need for resilience will be as critical as we move out of lockdown, as it is as with live through lockdown.

I was reminded of this in rereading Kathryn Jackson’s book ‘Resilience at Work’. The book is based on the learning she gained by living through the major earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch NZ in 2011. Kathryn was both a victim, in that her home and workplace were destroyed, but also a player in the city’s recovery: through her role in working with those who were recruited to rebuild the city’s infrastructure in record time.

Central to the book is the model which was developed by a team of academic researchers and professionals brought together to support those doing the work of rebuilding Christchurch.

They recognised that turbulence at work, things happening with no obvious cause, an overwhelm of information, lack of precedent and complicated circumstances could fuel strong emotional responses, doubt and hesitation, frustration, unpredictable behaviour and resistance to taking risks, and of course endless speculation. All of these could be markers of our return to work, just as they have been in the shutdown of work.

The model they developed to support individuals through disruption has 4 key elements:

Emotional Honesty
Noticing and acknowledging the negative emotional impact of events on you, so that there is a possibility of managing them vs denying the impact of what is happening, or accepting it as inevitable.

Seeing looking after yourself as a valuable resource as critical to dealing with difficulty vs seeing it as a ‘nice to have’ when there is time.

Building strong connections with people who you want to help and who will help you vs seeing yourself as isolated in dealing with the challenges of your work.

Looking at what you can learn both formally and informally that will be helpful to dealing with the current situation vs rather than denying the need to adapt.

How COVID 19 is impacting on your work right now:
• At the macro-level (external pressures that are impacting on how the organisation is operating)
• At the micro-level, what that is meaning for you?

In responding to COVID ask yourself:

Do I:

1.Notice  when I am getting negative and dispirited in my work and see it as a signal  to do something to change my emotional response. (Emotional Honesty)                                                                                                                        Yes/No.
2. Recognise  when the pressures at work are changing how I am with myself and with others. (Self-Care)       Yes/No
3. Actively seek out people to talk with when things at work are challenging, because I know it helps me handle pressures more easily. (Connection)                                                                                                                                                        Yes/No
4. Review  my approach when circumstances change at work to identify how I need to develop in order to remain of value. (Learning)                                                                                                                                                                                    Yes/No

If you have answered No to any of those prompts then it is a signal that you need to consider how you can address your need to increase that pillar of resilience in order to stay resourced in a COVID world that will continue to be with us long time after lockdown ends.


Reference: Kathryn Jackson, Resilience at Work (Routledge).

Week 2: Has Lockdown Become Your New Normal?

Days blur together. It is difficult to know if it is a Monday or a Saturday. We have been living this new life for less than 2 weeks and yet our normal ways of living are fast becoming memories. So how are you doing?  Of course, your reaction will be shaped by your income, whether you are working or furloughed, whether you have children to amuse whilst trying to work, whether you are alone, whether you have a home office or are trying to work from the kitchen table. Whether work has been an escape from home difficulties or the place you most want to come home to.

 However, whatever your situation there are stages which typically we will go through in coming to terms with how we are being asked to live.


Psychologists suggest that there are 4 stages that we move through in coming to an acceptance of what is.

Stage 1:  Uncertainty.

The weeks before lockdown was marked by that uncertainty. Would it happen?  What will it mean for me?  Do I need to do anything different, when it feels unreal? Are we like other countries or different?  It was a time for some to deny the looming reality in order to protect against feelings of anxiety.   It was also time when for others catastrophising came to the fore.  When watching the news and following social media leads to imagining the worst, and yet doing so is compulsive


Stage 2: Disruption

When what is required becomes real then strong emotions emerge. To have one’s wedding cancelled or not be able to visit a loved one in a care home or hospital. To not go on that holiday that had been long planned or have that big birthday celebration. To not be able to go out whenever one wants to. Disruptions to our lives bring out the big emotions: sadness, fear, anger. The fear of not being able to get medication makes a normally amiable soul become abusive with the pharmacist, a reasonable shopper becomes a self-protecting greedy stockpiler.  There are tears of disappointment that celebrations are denied, or even that an exam that had been dreaded, now will not happen.  The world seems unfair.


Stage 3:  Adaptation

In this stage there is some acceptance that something different is needed. If we cannot change the reality, we can adjust how we deal with it. It’s not just that technophobes have become Zoom zealots, it’s not just the many initiatives that people are using to raise our spirits, it’s learning how to be with each other in close confinement. It’s building new routines into our lives to break up the day, it’s discovering the upsides of a disruption.  It may even be discovering that work is not as important as you thought it was. It’s learning that not consuming can bring positive emotions.

Stage 4:  Normal

At the end of this you will have developed new norms, in how you live, how you work and how you connect. As much as you may initially rush back to what was familiar, you will do so with a sense that there are now other choices.  You will have internalised new norms which will shape how you choose to live and work.

So in less than two weeks in where are you in those 4 phases.

Struggling with Uncertainty

If you are still struggling with uncertainty, focus your mind on what is known right now.  When you look ahead you are inviting in the catastrophiser. Instead ask yourself:

  • What is true right now?
  • What thoughts and actions can help me to deal with the current truth?

Finding it Difficult to Deal with Disruption

  • What disruptions are you experiencing that are evoking strong emotions?
  • Which of those disruptions will look small in 6 months’ time?
  • Which of those disruptions will be less painful if you look at them through a lens of acceptance rather than resistance or guilt?
  • What is not being disrupted in your life?

Resisting Adaptation

  • What have you adapted in how you think, feel and behave without even noticing?
  • What fears do you have about making adaptations to how you live and work. When you hold them up to the light how real are, they?
  • What adaptations are adding to the quality of your life?
  • What adaptations are you or could you make that connect you to a bigger sense of purpose (your own or the wider community)

The New Normal

  • What have you adapted to or created that you want to continue into the future?
  • What are you learning in this time that you want to become a sustainable new normal?
  • How are you going to sustain the new normal when the old norms start to reappear?


 Whereever you are recognise that you will move constantly through the phases and it will not be linear. You can have a new normal day followed by one where you fall back into uncertainty.  That is human.  By noticing that our responses change regularly, you also know that tomorrow can be different even in the world of lockdown.






Remember You Are Resilient


As our lives have closed in and the threat of COVID 19 has become real, there has been a rush of interest in resilience. As someone who has researched, written about and coaches on resilience, the assumption has been that this is a time when like Amazon and the supermarkets I can benefit from bad times. However, to do so would be to challenge everything that I believe about resilience. Because the truth is, we are all resilient.


Charles Darwin wrote, ‘It is not the strongest of a species that survives but the most adaptable’.  Resilience is about adaptability. A crisis asks that we adapt. In a week we have adapted ourselves to new ways of working, to using video technology as our way of being able to earn our living. We are adapting to having to create our own structures for  the day.  We are breaking patterns of how we live our daily lives. We are learning how to be with our families for more hours than we are used to. We are looking for ways of keeping ourselves entertained that go beyond endless TV watching, and we are finding ways of exercising that don’t require gyms.

In the early days of the crisis, we saw the panic buying that spoke of fear, but as the days progress we are adapting: accepting that when something is not available we can adjust our recipes or do without,  and trusting  that there is enough for all if we only take what we need.

So, rather than focusing on the loss of resilience, I want you to consider how you can harness your resilience in the coming weeks.

The Supports to Resilience

There are 8 key dimensions of resilience. How you are doing against them right now.


Are you using this time as one in which you can create meaning for yourself? It may be a time for rethinking the importance of work in your identity? It can be a time for developing other aspects of yourself or strengthening your relationships with those you live with.

When you think back on this time – which may stretch for months, what do you want to have gained by having this uninvited experience?



COVID 19 is making us aware of both our vulnerability, but also our interconnection. We are more resilient when we are both giving and receiving support.

How are you offering support to others?

It is not resilient to grit your teeth and hide your own needs for connection. If you are in need of support, are you reaching out and gaining that support whether it is through an existing relationship, social media or a support service?



We are comfortable with the familiar, but a crisis asks that we become more creative and find solutions when the usual resources are not available to us. It may mean rediscovering the creative you that has not allowed time for writing, painting, or crafting in how you have been living your life. Or it may mean finding creative solutions to the obstacles that lockdown puts in our way.

How are you showing your creativity?



Nature tells us that adaptation is the key to survival.

What have you already had to adapt in your life, and what are you learning by doing so?



We are more resourced when we take action rather than seeing control as being in the hands of ‘them’.  It is easy to blame others for the situation we are now in, but that denies us any power to make things better.

What have you, or could you take action on that would contribute to feeling more in control of dealing with this disruption?

Realistic Positivity

No one can say when life will return to ‘normal’; but for as long as it lasts, it is important that we can recognise the positives that remain in our lives.

What can you be positive about?

Emotional Control

This is a time of strong emotions: the fear of job loss, or of becoming ill.  Being at home with others can stir heightened emotions and tensions.  Being at home alone can bring feelings of abandonment, loneliness or self-pity. Emotions are inevitable.

What are you doing to manage those emotions so that you can make them transitory?


Many philosophers have made the point that while we cannot control events (and who could have predicted that meat bought in a Chinese market would bring us to this) but we can control our attitude towards those events.  Core to this is a sense of belief. A belief that we can deal with this, and will learn from it.

What in your sense of self is going to help you get through this time?

Developing Your Resilience in A Tough Time

In asking yourself those questions you will have found a range of qualities that will help you through this time.  You have probably found that there are some that are more difficult for you to access. Rather than seeing them as deficits, see this time as a learning gym in building your resilience. Identify the resilience muscle that most needs attention and consciously practice it in the coming weeks and months.


Set yourself a purpose for this enforced period of life outside the usual norms.


Make a conscious effort to offer support wherever you see a need, however small.

Allow yourself to express a need for support knowing this is a time when the need for support is widely recognised.


Consciously think of how you can do something differently, particularly if the accepted way is not easily accessible.

Rediscover the creative part of you, at a time when the usual places that we observe others’ creativity are closed.


Notice what you are finding difficult to adapt to. Consider what is the smallest adaptation you could make that would show you that you are evolving through this period. Notice how you feel after making that adaptation.


Catch yourself when you are blaming, and notice how satisfying it is to blame. Then ask yourself, ‘Even if that is true, what can I do that would make me feel I have some control’.

Realistic Positivity

You may like being a ‘glass half empty’ person because it prepares you for the worst. You may be ‘glass half full’ person who always looks at the bright side and ignores the risks.   Whichever position you hold ask yourself on a regular basis, what can I be realistically positive about?

Emotional Control

If you are finding your emotions are overwhelming you, or you are being dominated by one particular emotion then find ways of disrupting the emotion. This can be by doing something that completely absorbs you, by having a laugh, or by doing some mindful breathing. All of them show you that emotions when disrupted dissipate.


Connect back to your purpose for this time.  If you are clear on what you can gain from this new experiment in living then your self-belief will follow.  You will be able to say to yourself ‘I can do this’. Support it by congratulating yourself each day for what you have managed to achieve, despite its frustrations and limitations.

And When It is Over

This is a time for both accessing your resilience but also for growing it. We will all emerge more resilient. We will no longer use as our resilience reference point the ways in which people lived in WW2. We will be able to speak of how we showed up when Corona Virus challenged our lives and how we took that learning into how we live going forward.








John McCain Resilience and Getting Back on a Horse





In the obituaries for Senator John McCain, all commented on the courage he needed  to survive 5 years in captivity during the Vietnam War.  Even more courage was required when he refused to be released one year into his imprisonment because he understood it was his father’s appointment as Commander of the Pacific Forces that was driving the offer.  The North Vietnamese believed it would give them leverage.  He rejected the offer and said he would only accept his release when all other prisoners were released. His resilience was present in rejecting the offer because of strong principles, but even more so in surviving the torture of the subsequent years and his own suicide attempts.


That resilience, no doubt supported him in his many subsequent years in politics. It enabled him to speak ‘truth to power’ because of being clear on his values and principles, but it also influenced how he raised his children.


In her eulogy to her father, Meghan McCain said, “I was a small girl, thrown from a horse and crying from a busted collarbone. My dad picked me up. He took me to the doctor, he got me all fixed up. Then he immediately took me back home and made me get back on the same horse. I was furious at him as a child, but how I love him for it now.”  What she loved was that when she got back on the horse she saw the look of pride in his face and his words “nothing is going to break you”.


At a time when much is being said about both the greater need for resilience in a world of uncertainty, and the lack of resilience in children who have been parented to avoid risk or failure, many 21st century parents would not take McCain’s approach. However, what he was doing is what the brain needs to deal with difficulty and distress.  The hippocampus, that part of our brain which lays down memories embeds the memory over time.  The initial fall from the horse will initially be a fragile emotional memory of shock. If the parent responds by telling the child never to get back on a horse because it is dangerous, over time the encoded memory will be one of fear of horses and a deepening of the memory of the fall and the break.  If the parent responds by saying ‘now you are OK, let’s see you back on the horse again’, and celebrates our courage, the fragile memory gets overlaid by the experience of realising it is still enjoyable to ride a horse.


The same holds true beyond childhood. How often we use a single setback, disappointment or downright failure to lay down in our hippocampus the memory that we cannot, or we are not good enough, when if we can get back on the horse that has dismounted us we discover that we can succeed, we can learn to do better and we can deal with disappointment and move on.


So, the challenge to support your resilience  is:

  • What is it that has dismounted you recently?
  • What memory have you laid down in your hippocampus about that experience?
  • What do you need to do in order to challenge that memory?
  • What new emotional memory would that action embed?

Challenging the Tetris Effect

If you have ever played the computer game Tetris you will know it can become addictive.  A game as simple as lining up blocks of the same colour can consume hours of time.  That is why an invitation to university students to be paid to play Tetris as part of a research study was irresistible.  The study reported that even when the students stopped playing the game they saw Tetris blocks everywhere they went.  If they were shopping they were mentally lining up cartons of the same colour. If they were out running they were rearranging bricks on walls so that the colours matched.  Their brains had become wired in just a few days to see a world in which Tetris was the new reality.


The relevance of this to non computer game players is that it reflects how we operate in many spheres of our lives, if we give enough time to something, the way we view the world is shaped by that experience.  Test it for yourself: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a colour. Open them and the colour you first see in your surroundings will be the colour you were thinking of.


Shawn Accor in his book The Happiness Advantage, translates this phenomena to the workplace; to show how lawyers trained to critically analyse evidence in court, found they applied the same techniques out of court, when questioning their children. Or, auditors with the ability to spot an error on a tax return would use the same skills to identify errors in their partner’s cooking. Unsurprisingly they did not receive a positive response for the use of their expertise; but all they were doing was continuing to scan the world for further evidence of their skills in action.

Once we have established our reality framework, we develop a spam filter which quickly puts into a junk folder anything which does not accord with what we have decided is our reality. If our filter is scepticism then any experience that confounds our scepticism, is more easily put into the junk folder than examined as contrary evidence.

This argument would seem to support the  ‘I am what I am’ school of thought, where once we establish a position it does not change.  That would be true if we could not move items out of the junk folder, but we can, and do.   Consider what happens when you buy a new car.   Suddenly every car on the road seems to be the same colour and model as the one you now own. Those cars were there all the time but when your framework was your previous car, they were invisible to you.

The importance of being able to challenge our established (and partial) reality, particularly if it is one shaped by an expectation of  difficulty and negativity becomes particularly important when we are under pressure.  Given that resilience is fuelled by adaptability, how can we adapt our thinking?


One answer lies in accessing the power of thinking more optimistically, through letting into our reality evidence that there are things in our life that are ‘good’ even when times are tough.  The idea of recording gratitude each day for the small things in our lives has been well established in the positive psychology literature, but the advice to write 3 gratitudes daily is often not backed up with the ‘why?’.  Psychologist Robert Emmons, whose research is behind this advice has shown that people who commit to the discipline of recording three things each day that they are grateful for, become more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better sleep and even have fewer headaches than control groups.  So gratitude makes you feel better about yourself, but beyond this, people who show up as more optimistic set themselves more challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulty and cope better in stress situations.  Optimism is valuable for achievement, determination and dealing better with the pressures of our lives.

To develop the practice of gratitude as a means of developing an optimistic mindset requires practice,  and we are often resistant to committing to developing new habits, when the old ones are familiar, but there is evidence it is worth the effort:

  • In scanning the day for 3 things that you are grateful for (no matter how small) you become more skilled at noticing, so your reality framework expands.  At the same time in noticing what has been good, what has been frustrating, annoying or disappointing changes its position in your reality.
  • Even doing gratitude for a week leads people to feel happier and less depressed at three month and six month follow up points according to a study by Professor Martin Seligman (the pioneer of positive psychology).
  • Once your brain has expanded its perception through the daily habit, you don’t need to write it down your brain will start doing the work for you, as part of how you see the world.
  • You can take the practice of gratitude further by writing about a positive experience. People often think of journaling at times of difficulty because there are well established health and psychological benefits from writing about strong emotions, but researchers Chad Burton and Laura King showed that happiness is increased by writing about positive experiences.


You may never have played Tetris. You may be immune to computer games, but it is likely that at times you are seeing the world through a view of reality shaped by particular experiences.  By increasing your access to alternative data  you will increase your resilience to deal with the demands on you.



Grief: The Elephant in the Workplace


Sheryl Sandbergs new book ‘Option B’ has received wide attention because of her profile as COO of Facebook, but its’ real importance is that she has brought into the open a universal experience that receives little attention, that of grief at work. In a society that looks to massage grief into invisibility after the immediate aftermath of a death, she shares how the loss of her husband impacted on every part of her life: from suddenly  becoming a single parent, to  dealing with the demands of her role when her brain was overwhelmed with the weight of loss.  She shatters the myth that we pick up where we left off once the funeral is over, and speaks openly of her lack of focus, her frequent tears, and her memory lapses.  Her colleagues were generous in their support, often the bereaved perceive their colleagues as less than supportive.


They are silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.   They are embarrassed as to how they will deal with the emotions of a colleague so avoid the topic, or offer a mundane expression of empathy ‘I’m sorry for your loss”,  before moving onto business. They ask ‘how are you?’, as though there can be an authentic answer to describe the reality of what the person is experiencing.  As the saying goes, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” The offer is made,”is there anything I can do?” putting the onus on the person  to define an appropriate  action, knowing the one action they want, the return of their loved one cannot be delivered.


This book will be read because of Sandberg’s career success, but her experience is no different from any other employee, so what can we all take from it to normalise both loss and responses to loss at work.

  • There is no way of knowing if you are saying the right thing, but it  is worth taking the risk of asking the person how they are today. It acknowledges that reactions change day to day, while the bland, ‘how are you?’, invites the platitude  ‘Fine’, that both parties know is a lie.
  • Not naming the elephant in the room of the death of a partner, parent, child or even pet, does not make it easier for the bereaved. It simply makes them feel there is something shameful in the death of someone they love.
  • Don’t ask if there is something you can do – offer to do something.
  • There is a fine balance between offering to take on work for a grieving colleague and their feeling diminished by the off.  Check  in if it would be welcome if you took on a meeting, delivered a presentation, took on an assignment to reduce their workload – or will simply compound their sense that their brain has deserted them.
  • Don’t offer reassurance ‘time is a great healer’, two years on you’ll have moved on or once you’ve worked through the  Kubler Ross grief cycle you’ll be fine.  Grief is not a  programme to be completed, it is a set of states  that the individual will revisit for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t assume your responses to loss will be theirs. Better to be interested in their response to their loss than to see yours as of interest to them (at least in the early stages it won’t be).
  • Give affirmation of what they are doing well at work, as they will be focussed on what feels strange or meaningless, what they have forgotten and when they could not focus.

Most centrally, treat them as the person you have always known. They do not  have a disease, but grief is a large hole in a person.  That hole will never disappear,  but  over time they will start wrapping layers of life around it.  Those layers are paper thin at the beginning, bu with  time they will become thick enough to protect them and to enable them to create a different life.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Advertity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy  is published by  Penguin Random House

Resilient Leadership: The Performance Difference Between Pressure and Stress

If you are a leader you are subject to pressure, because pressure is the demand to perform well.  You may love pressure.  You know you do your best work under pressure.  When the deadline looms is when you kick into gear.  It is because of your ability to absorb pressure that you have been given a leadership role.


But – what happens when the pressure becomes uncomfortable?  When the demands are more than you can manage.  When your sense of being in control disappears.  When you feel unsupported, and when your emotions become entangled in the situation. In those conditions pressure becomes stress.

I have yet to meet any leader who thrives on stress, and yet it has become an accepted condition of working life.  It is often only when stress shouts loudly, through showing up as physical or mental illness that it gets attention.

Much stress does not shout loud enough to be noticed.   It silently simmers under the surface,  whilst shaping how people show up at work.  Many leaders struggle through tough times, whilst feeling depleted, and hoping no one will notice.  The reality is it is noticed, even if it is not acknowledged.   Team members sense that their leader is less available to them and less connected to their work. They notice mood changes and loss of optimism.  In turn their sense of commitment to their work, their optimism about what can be achieved and their willingness to stick at the tough stuff is directly impacted by what they are noticing  in their leader.


Stress impacts on the whole system around a leader (both at work and at home). However, no matter how heavy the pressure, stress is not an inevitable.  Sitting between the two is the amazing quality resilience.  A quality which we all have, but which at times can desert us.   When present, it buffers us so that we can deal with the difficult. As we lose access to it, our susceptibility to stress increases.




The challenge for leaders is how to retain access to those resilience qualities that life has already provided, and how to increase resilience capacity to work through difficult times.


The answer I have discovered through research and many years of working with leaders as an executive coach, is that resilient leaders are skilled at learning how to manage their energy sources:

The three energy sources


Physical energy is shaped by how you take care of your body as a resource that deserves to be looked after well, if you are to do good work.  Rather seeing the  head as the source of your skill and the body as a neglected attachment, resilient leaders accept that the well-being of the body affects the power of the brain.   How well your body is resourced through food, exercise and sleep directly affects how well your brain functions.

Mental energy is depleted by the time we give to going over what is unchangeable or catastrophising the future. It is reduced by expending energy in multiple directions rather than focusing on what is most important now.  We can increase our mental energy by:

  • Learning how to challenge our thoughts, rather than being undermined by them
  • Considering how your purpose as an individual and your purpose as a leader are aligned.


Emotional energy

It is hard to sustain emotional energy when feeling pessimistic about the present and future.  It is hard to sustain positive emotions when life is so absorbed by work that there is little energy left for life outside of work.  Sustaining emotional energy is helped by:

  • Being able to recognise what is OK alongside all the challenges of work
  • Having supporters who can give a loving boot to help you move forward
  • Ensuring you do things that enable you to use other parts of you; whether that is helping out your child’s rugby team, singing your heart out in a choir, playing a sport (no matter how badly) or writing poetry. When we do something different we re-balance and renew.

Since every leader requires resilience to deal with the demands of the day to day, as well as those events which destabilise us, every leader owes it to themselves to manage their own resources well alongside those of the organisation they work for.

To find out more about how you can develop resilience as a leader then click to this link for details of my new Resilient Leadership on line programme


Are you reflecting or ruminating: the key difference in staying resilient

Talk of being stressed by work has become a norm. The blurring of lines between work and non work because of technology, means there is no longer a buffer between work and home. The volume of work constantly increases because of what technology can deliver. The demand to do more with less at speed and the complexity of many problems with no clear answer are all markers of the pressure to perform. But does pressure mean stress? Two people facing those same pressures will react differently. One will seem to take it in their stride; the other will experience the demands as stressful. Even if they do not admit to their feelings, the stressed worker will notice changes in their ability to control their emotions, to work productively and to maintain a sense of optimism about outcomes. It may even make them ill as their immune system is unable to support the demands they are making on it.

Or consider the converse, someone whose work seems to involve little pressure, but who shows every sign of being stressed. So what is the difference between pressure and stress? This is the question Dr Derek Rogers, a research psychologist from the University of York has been exploring for the last 35 years, and his conclusion is that the difference is simple. Stress and loss of resilience come from the propensity to ruminate rather than to reflect. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with pressure. It is simply the expectation of performance, and many people say they thrive on that pressure to deliver. Stress comes when the demands produce thoughts which are played in the brain like a scratched record. The thoughts generated by the emotions in the moment of demand become trapped in the faulty groove of the vinyl, and we cannot change the record.

What does rumination look like? You have had a bad day. One team member announces they are resigning at a key point in the project. Your boss calls you in at the end of the day and tells you that you need to get the project finished even earlier, and as an afterthought adds that you did not get the tone right when you presented to the Exec Committee earlier in the day. On such a day it is understandable if your thoughts as you go home are dominated by anger at the team member for making your life more difficult and concerns about how easily you will replace them. Add to this your feelings of failure at not delivering the presentation well and possible consequences for your career in terms of how you are seen by senior leaders. Then there is anxiety about how your boss will appraise you if you don’t deliver on the delivery date.

Those reactions are normal, and a good night’s sleep can provide perspective. Rumination starts when you cannot let go of the thoughts and feelings. When for days and weeks after you are worrying about your reputation and you are seeing catastrophe ahead in terms of the project’s delivery. You hold onto the emotions the events of one day generated. You do not sleep well and when you wake in the middle of the night your brain immediately fills with negative thoughts. On the bad day your body recognised you were feeling threat and prepared you to fight, flee or freeze as adrenaline flooded your system. Weeks later if you are still replaying the situations in your brain your body replays the same reactions. It is now also calling on cortisol to help you deal with the danger which it thinks you arefacing, and cortisol called on over time both compromises the immune system and lays down fat. More causes for negative rumination.

One of the differentiators between humans and other species according to York and his co-author Nick Petrie is our ability to ruminate, and to re-experience emotions and bodily sensations long after the event. If you surprise a pet cat by walking into the room quietly, it will spring into the air, arch its back and be prepared to fight. Once it recognises you as its loving owner it will relax lie back on the rug and go back to sleep. It will not be asking itself questions such as ‘’Why did I not notice the door opening?’, or ‘What would have happened to me if it had been a big dog? The cat simply recognises the reality of the situation as it is.

So rather than the pressures of the job in themselves causing stress, it is our propensity to ruminate which is a key contributor. Our ability to deal with pressure without becoming stressed lies in being able to reflect rather than to ruminate. So what is the difference?

  • Reflection comes from dealing with the present moment. It comes from focussing on ‘what is the situation right now?’, and then drawing up plans that deal with that reality. It is the difference between constantly thinking about the possible cost to the project of a member leaving and becoming anxious, and wondering what you could have done differently to keep them, and focussing on the reality of what you can do to minimise the impact of their leaving ,and what you can renegotiate to make the project workable.
  • Reflection starts from noticing when you are in what York and Petrie call ‘waking sleep’ i.e. spending time trying to rewrite history or predicting the future, and then asking yourself how useful those minutes of thought have been to solving the difficulty. It is a practical application of mindfulness: a noticing of the emotions and thoughts which are filling your brain, in order to be able to challenge the process, by bringing you back to the present.

So how do you shift from rumination to reflection, given that going over things in our head as though we can change what has passed or write what will pass is an engrained practice in many of us.

Get out of Waking Sleep

Waking sleep is when we are not focussed on the task in hand but are daydreaming about the past or a projected negative future, with all the emotions that go with those thoughts. Getting out of waking sleep and into reflection means:

  • Notice yourself. Mindfulness asks you to notice your thoughts as just thoughts and not the truth. Catching yourself and being able to say ‘I’m daydreaming again’ is the first step.
  • Question yourself. Notice how long you have been in daydreaming mode, and then ask yourself how useful those minutes have been. What new ideas or solutions have come from the replaying of emotionally charged thoughts.
  • Ground yourself. What is the situation right now? Rather than ruminating on ‘Will I have a job next year?’, or’ What if the deadline is not met?’ Ask yourself – ‘What is the reality at this moment, and what does that enable me to do?

We can never work without pressure, but those who succeed have the ability to stop themselves derailing by focusing their energies on reflection, rather than rumination.

Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. (McGraw Hill Education)

Confessions of a Failed Mindfulness Practitioner

Zen stones in water

What if you know mindfulness is good for you, but you still find reasons why it can’t be fitted into your day.   What if you have studied innumerable raisins close up in the service of mindful attention but you still don’t like raisins.  What if your mind is always full but not of the thoughts and feelings that are helpful.  What do you do instead?

Mindfulness has entered the mainstream.  There is hardly a leadership programme that does not include it.   Major plcs as diverse as PWC, Glaxo SmithKline and Google provide programmes and even special space for mindfulness breaks during the day.  Harvard University offers it to students, and  state schools include it as part of examination preparation.  The 8 week programme of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat Zinn to help clients with symptoms of stress and anxiety is now offered far beyond its original mental health setting.  When high street retailer, Tesco, teaches mindfulness to staff at store level it is a signal that it is now so commonplace that a backlash is inevitable, and it is beginning to happen.  Why is that?  There is plentiful evidence of its efficacy when it becomes a committed practice.  There are MRI scans which show how by regular mindfulness practice the brain is changed to think more positively,   but the truth is most of us are not committed practitioners.  We enjoy it whilst on a programme and when done with others.   We recognise its value at times of stress, and then we forget.  It takes up too much time, it becomes another thing to do, or our practice is so intermittent that we feel little value.  Who am I talking about when I write this – me.  I have done the 8 week programme, I have downloaded guided meditations, I have numerous mindfulness books sitting on the shelf, and yet I don’t continue to do the work.  It’s not because I don’t need to, it’s because I am a natural resister of regular disciplines.


I kept my sloth quiet when amongst those committed to mindfulness, until I found an ally in the work of Emma Young.  Her book ‘Sane’: written by a science and health journalist who shows a resistance to doing many of the things which she is told she should do in the name of well being struck a chord in me.  In setting out to establish what really works and is supported by science, she filters out many of the contradictory messages we are given, and identifies the essentials for improving mental strength.  Inevitably, she examines mindfulness, and concludes after talking with a range of researchers,  that it is the disruption to mental thought processes which is key.  Some may get it from mindfulness, others from running, playing a musical instrument, or making a cake.  It is the value of the activity in keeping us in the moment, undistracted from any other thought or concern that gives the activity its recuperative power.


Now,  I have discovered my form of disruption in the work of Heartmath®.   Heartmath® is at its simplest a breathing technique to reduce stress and build resilience.  However, it is based on the growing neuroscience evidence of the intelligence of the heart.  The heart is not just a pump, it is an organ with neural circuits that it is continually in communication with the brain, informing it of our level of stress or relaxation.  All those sayings which refer to the heart:  heart broken, heart sore, heart weary , bleeding heart, heavy heart  or heart to heart, are not accidental, they recognise that the heart is an active organ of emotion and communication. It is directly linked with our limbic system.


By learning how to breath in a heart focussed way, we can control the variability of our heart rhythm and bring it into a smooth coherent pattern which balances out our need for energy with our need for relaxation.  In doing so we  enhance our performance and ability to handle the demands of the day. What is powerful for those who like to see science in action is that with Heartmath® you can observe your own heart pattern through a bio-feedback application linked to smartphone technology.   You can see how when you change your breathing you change the neurotransmitters which are driving  emotional responses to events.  And, of course, whilst engaging in managing  breathing more effectively, you are not focused on the thoughts that were causing us negative emotions.  It works for me, because I know that even 3 minutes of focused heart based breathing will support me in dealing with the demands of the day, and when the demands increase, a top up can be done quickly and inconspicuously.


Once I discovered its value for a failed mindfulness practitioner, I decided to use it with  clients as another means for supporting their resilience.  Clients like it, because even in the most demanding of situations they notice that by changing their breathing, they change their response (and no one even knows they are doing it).  So, while mindfulness has undoubted benefits, if you cannot quieten your mind one way, simply find your way.



What is Grit?


Images of exhausted refugees determined to succeed  in their quest to reach Europe in the hope of safety, have shown us people with admirable grit.  They have refused to give in or be deflected by danger, cold or hunger.  They meet difficulty  with a determination that challenges us to ask ourselves, “could I do the same  in the same circumstances?”

So what is grit, and what enables people to access it?  Grit is not the same as resilience, but it is an important part of it.  Resilience is an outcome,  it is the process of  recovering from setback.   Grit is what keeps people going when the going gets tough.  It is grit which keeps individuals determined to achieve a goal, and  we  need resilience when the reality of the goal makes high demands of us.  The refugee who attains their goal of a new life, then has to live the reality of a life apart from their family, of finding work, of learning a new language and living with new cultural norms.  They  need to access resilience in the same way as an ambitious person who has given up everything in order to achieve a career goal then has to live with the pressures of it, and the risk of failure. It is grit which makes a professional tennis player refuse to concede a match and hang on in, in the belief that their opponent will eventually crumble, rather than accepting the figures on the score board.  It is resilience that same person needs when they fail to win and have to get out of bed the next day and start training all over again.


So what is it that gives people ‘grit’?  According to Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, it is holding long term goals: goals that take months or even years to achieve.  Grit comes from having a vision of the future which goes beyond the immediacy of the moment. Wanting to escape physical danger provides a short term goal, but wanting to provide a life for one’s children so they can thrive, gives an additional impetus for sticking with discomfort.


Most of us will never face the life challenges of refugees, but we all still need grit. In studying groups as diverse as West Point Academy student cadets, contestants in a national spelling bee competiton and sales people,Angela Duckworth has concluded that grit is a  better predictor of success than IQ or EQ. To succeed we need grit.


So if you want to develop your ‘grittiness’ what can you do:

  1. You need to really want something and know why it is important to you.
  2. You must want to achieve the goal for yourself, not in order to please parents, partners or win the approval of our boss.  When we do things for others  when the going gets tough we can blame them for burdening us with their expectations.
  3. You need multiple goals that you keep in focus during the ups and downs, and which take you beyond immediate rewards.  A principle of having 3 goals helps move from the short term to the longer term.  A goal of going to the gym regularly is more likely to be stuck with if it is allied to a goal of being able to run a half marathon, which is in turn supported by a goal of having the energy to be a good parent.
  4. You need to develop your willpower muscle.  Willpower is built with practice. Everyone loses willpower at times, – but with practice it becomes easier to reconnect with willpower rather than seeing one setback as a reason for giving in.
  5. Stop thinking and ‘do’.  The energy we put into finding excuses for not doing things is enormous. Closing down the brain and just doing, denies us the possibility of a ‘let out’ clause. In the doing and the discovery that we can do something despite it being difficult or painful, we increase our grittiness.
  6. Confidence and grit are linked.  When we stick at something which stretches us, and in the process discover we can do something we never believed possible, our confidence grows.  When we allow ourselves off the hook in order to gain an immediate relief, we unconsciously erode our confidence in our own potential.