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Archive for resilience

Good Grief in Organisations

 

It is being called the turnover tsunami: the evidence that faced with returning to work people are looking for new roles in unprecedented numbers,. This is more than the annual reflection that often takes place when people go on holiday. It is an indication that the demands that the past 18 months have impacted on how people see their work and the organisations they work for. Something has been lost and they hope it will be restored by moving on. The word grief has been used to describe the sense that COVID has changed not just many personal lives, but also work lifes.

Death has been brought to the front of our minds because a global experience  has impacted on every community. Loss has become more than a personal experience it is a community experience. The word grief describes not just the individual pain of losing a person we love, of time with loved ones, of what we once accepted as normality, and now the word is being used to describe what people may feel in returning to the workplace. That grief may be for the ending of the life that has been created during lockdowns. It may also be for the recognition that the workplace is changed.

Personal Grief

When we grieve we are acknowledging the loss of what we valued.  When we grieve for an individual we are recognising what about them was important to us.  To get through that process and be able to create a different life requires that we adjust and move forward accepting that change. Both of those truths are difficult and our instinct is to resist: to yearn for what has gone, to be angry at the unfairness of what has happened, or to numb ourselves so that we feel nothing as a form of self protection. We may even as Joan Didion wrote in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ imagine that nothing has changed, that the person is still there just waiting to reappear, and that the death has not really happened.

All of those personal reactions to the loss of someone we care for can be played out again in how we see the organisation that is emerging as we move through COVID.

  • A sadness and yearning for how things were before we knew the word COVID.
  • An anger at the organisation for what it has done in response to COVID which changes what we do, where and with whom.
  • A numbness towards work that leads to disengagement.
  • A denial that anything has changed in the hope things will return to how they were

In any major change in our lives there is loss, so looking to what we know about the grieving process can be helpful in the context of work as well as in our personal lives.

What does grieving mean in a work context

It would be easy to look towards the Elizabeth Kubler Ross model of the stages of grief, because it has been used so many times as a change model, but the model has limitations.

 

  1. It was never intended to be seen as stages that people have to go through sequentially, but it often is interpreted that way.
  2. It was based on research on those who were dying, not the responses of those who lived after them. Neither was it designed for change in an organisational setting.
  3. Many people don’t recognise themselves in the stages and sometimes feel angry at the sense that they are only doing grief properly if they follow stages.

 

More helpful to looking at grief in an organisational context is the dual-process model.

This model captures the process that we live on a daily basis. Humans oscillate. We oscillate between breathing in and out, between rest and wakefulness, between the desire for stability and the desire for adventure.  Looking at grief as a necessary process of oscillation means:

  1. Allowing for sadness
  2. Ensuring that there is also a focus on restoration and of creating something new.

What does this mean in a work setting?

  1. Acknowledging the changes that people are finding difficult. Grief is an internal process of sadness that leads to self reflection and over time a resetting. It is also externalised in being able to talk about what has been lost.  Going back into the workplace, it is going to be important to allow for talking about what people are experiencing as loss, as an important part of being able to adjust to what now is.
  2. Grieving also encompasses mourning: the visible rituals that allow us to mark loss. What is it important to visibly acknowledge in returning to work? What rituals are needed?
  3. Restoration means encouraging people to do new things. Just as repeating the living patterns that once marked a person’s life with their loved one can reinforce a sense of loss, encouraging people to do different and new things can help recovery. Focus on helping people to see value in doing things differently. It is in doing something different that people create the flexibility that is the marker of resilience. Working life will be different, but within that there will be things that were not possible under the old ‘norms’. Helping people to experiment with the new is an important part of moving forward.

 What will help recovery?

Richard Bonnano, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University has spent his career studying bereavement and his concludes from many studies that the marker of grief is that most of us are resilient. Most people work through what is a difficult process and do live satisfying lives. What helps that process is:

  1. Behavioural flexibility ie being able to adjust the changed reality.
  2. An optimistic outlook that things will work out OK
  3. Confidence in being able to control outcomes
  4. More behaviours in our repertoire e.g. can express sadness but can also recognise when  it is best not to express that sadness.
  5. Being able to identify benefits g. I have discovered I am strong, I never thought I could do . . . without . . . and I have learnt that I can.

And there is one additional factor that emerged from the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s collaborator David Kessler: the importance of creating personal meaning from the loss of that person, so that the person stays with you, even though they are no longer physically present.

Apply that to organisations and it means:

  • The organisation being able to adjust to the changed reality of how work can now be done.
  • Signalling an optimism that difficulties can be worked through.
  • Showing confidence in the future as within the organisation’s control.
  • Responsiveness to the differences in people’s attitudes as they return to the workplace – rather than rigid policies.
  • Highlighting the benefits that have emerged from being forced to think differently about business is done.
  • Building into discussions with individuals the purpose and meaning of what they now want from their work.

 

Talking about grief in organisations, may feel like a diminution of the enormity of what  envelops us when someone we care for dies, but  there is much that organisations can learn from grief work to help the transition back into a workplace that has been forever changed by COVID.

 

References:

George Bonnano, The Other Side of Sadness: what the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss, 2009, Bantam.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2006, Harper Perennial.

David Kessler, Finding Meaning: the sixth stage of grief, 2019, Rider.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving, 2014, Simon and Schuster.

Stroebe, M.S and Schut, H.A.W., The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Overview and update, 2001, Death studies, 23, 197-224.

Just Needing a Holiday or Burnt Out

The word burnout is one of the buzz words of 2021. I hear it from clients in coaching sessions. I hear it from organisations concerned at the demands COVID has placed on its’ people.  It is hardly surprising. COVID has placed people under multiple life pressures,  with boundaries between work and home broken, and no certainty about what will follow. The word signals that people are reaching their energy limits, but does it mean you are burnt out? You may be pressured; you may be stressed but are you burnout?

It was in 1974 that Dr Herbert Freudenberger coined the term. He saw it as a chronic affliction of the overachiever: people who are so driven to achieve that they work to the exclusion of other parts of their life, denying signs that their way of working is detrimental to their physical and mental health.  Tim Casserley, who himself burnt out whilst working for a global consultancy, concluded in his book, ‘Learning from Burnout’, that it is caused by a collision of individuals with high needs to achieve, being attracted to environments which make high demands and which reward excessive levels of commitment.  Are you that person?

Is Burnout Just Exhaustion?

Burnout is more than exhaustion, though this is often how people talk about themselves in relation to their work.  We can be exhausted by an intensive period of work, and recover through taking a holiday or working on a less demanding project. Burnout is more.

When the World Health Organisation defined burnout in 2019, it drew attention to 3 dimensions that need to be in place:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s work.
  3. Reduced professional performance.

It is the coming together of all 3 that leads to burnout. Being overextended in one’s role can lead to exhaustion.  Being disengaged from one’s work can lead to cynicism. Being out of one’s depth leads to reduced performance. It is when all 3 come together that a red flag is waved.

The Body Control  If the Head Cannot

Those most at risk of burnout are often skilled in ignoring the signs that all is not well. The signs build slowly as the body recognising that the person is operating under stress,  engages the sympathetic nervous system to put the body into a state of fight or flight. The pituitary gland is signalled to send the hormone ACTH to the adrenal glands, which then allows for the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These provide the short-term stimulus the body needs to deal with the immediate stressor, but these hormones are only intended for short term use. They are not designed to be engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Over time, the adrenal glands become exhausted and unable to respond. It is at that point that the physical signs of burn out start to appear:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and anger
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Weight gain around the middle
  • Lowered immune system showing up in viruses and frequent colds
  • Headaches, stomach, digestive and bowel problems
  • Type 2 diabetes

All of these symptoms can be challenged by the use of drugs, alcohol, medication, eating sugar laden foods, withdrawing from contact with others, whilst continuing to work to the same pattern.

As the individual notices that they are finding it more difficult to concentrate or that they are achieving less, the solution stays the same – work harder.  As they notice that they are exhausted, the easy solution is to cut out anything which takes energy away from work. As they notice that they are feeling less connected to their work, the satisfaction that came from their efforts is taken away, so putting in that effort becomes more tiring.

Burnout often has to flare to an inferno before the body takes control forcing the individual to take a physical break, as their body protests that it can no longer support this way of living. In taking that break, the opportunity is given to re-evaluate and to make changes to how one engages with work. This can be a powerful wakeup call, as Dina Glouberman’s book, ‘The Joy of Burnout’, argues.   Some, once recovered, simply return to the same pattern, with the same results, and the cycle repeats itself

 

Are you at risk of burnout?

Dr Freudenberger suggested the following as signs of the risk of burnout. If you fear you may be at risk then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you tiring more easily?
  2. Do you feel fatigued rather than energised?
  3. Are people annoying you by commenting that you don’t look well?
  4. Are you working harder and accomplishing less?
  5. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  6. Do you often experience unexplained sadness?
  7. Are you forgetting deadlines, appointments or personal possessions?
  8. Have you become more irritable?
  9. Are you more short tempered?
  10. Are you more disappointed with people around you?
  11. Are you seeing family members and close friends less often?
  12. Are you too busy to do routine things like make phone calls or stay in touch with friends?
  13. Are you experiencing increased physical complaints (aches, pains, headaches, lingering colds)?
  14. Is joy elusive?
  15. Does sex seem more trouble than its worth?
  16. Do you have very little to say to people?

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to 5-7 of these then your stress is starting to show. If 7 or more then you are a candidate for burnout and it is a signal to take action.

Can Burnout Be Avoided?

So, is it inevitable that high achievers will burn out if they work in environments which reward intense effort? Of course, the organisation has a role in this, and some organisations are beginning to look at how their working norms contribute to either illness or the loss of staff through burnout.

Relying on an organisation to reduce workloads, to increase resources, or slow the pace of change will help, but it does not guarantee that the same person with the same drivers will not repeat the pattern unless they change their relationship with work.

The Place of Resilience in Preventing Burnout

Individuals need to be their own smoke alarms. To be able to recognise the signs of danger and to be able to respond in ways which enable them to stay engaged, energised and performing.  This is where resilience has a key role.

In a study in The Lancet in 2016, the authors concluded after looking at multiple studies on burnout in doctors that the key to combatting burnout was the cultivation of resilience that focussed on 3 key areas:

External Resources:  Having strong connections with friends, family and in their professional relationships.

Internal Resources:  Having coping mechanisms and stress management skills

Extrinsic Resources:  Being able to reflect on their experiences and to derive meaning from the work that they do

Burnout is too serious a condition to use the word simply to signal that a holiday would be welcome. It is a condition that impacts on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the talented to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, their ambitions and the organisations they work with.

Resilience building is a key component in ensuring that the desire to perform well is not undermined by lacking the resources to manage a healthy relationship with work.

 

References

Casserley, T and Megginson, D. Learning from Burnout: Developing Sustainable Leaders and Avoiding Career Derailment, 2009, Elsevier.

Freudenberger, H.J.,   Staff Burnout  Journal of Social Issues, Winter 1974 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x

Glouberman, D, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, 2019, Skyros Books

Regehr, C et al, Interventions to Reduce the Consequences of Stress in Physicians, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2014, vol 202, 5, pp353-359

West, Colin P et al, Interventions to Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, The Lancet, vol 388, no 10057, 2016, pp2272-2281

 

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.

Self-Care
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.

Connecting
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.

Learning
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.

Consider:
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.

Purpose

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?

 

Support

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?

 

Creativity

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?

 

Adaptability

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?

 

Proactivity

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?

Self-Belief

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.

Purpose

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

Support

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.

Creativity

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.

Adaptability

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.

Proactivity

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.

Self-Belief

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

http://instituteofleadership.org.uk/wp/course/resilient-leadership/

 

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)