As leaders we are expected to be calm when all around is in chaos, but often we’re like the proverbial duck, smooth on the surface and paddling like heck underneath! We are also human, not superhuman, with our own frustrations, worries and doubts – just like the people we lead.
We know that our emotions affect the emotions of those around us, and, as leaders, we recognise we have a responsibility to influence others positively. Neuroscience calls this effect ‘emotional contagion’ (Elaine Hatfield, University of Hawaii)and it has a powerful impact. One experiment carried out at airports where a ‘stooge’ got impatient waiting, showed that within 3 minutes the negative emotions had rippled throughout the queue.
So how do we build our resilience first to be able to role model productive behaviours that show us being positive, adapting quickly to change and staying cool, calm and productive under pressure?
1 Fact – Resilient Leadership is Good for Business (and Good for You!)
“Resilience is a central component of one’s capacity to lead. It’s the ability of leaders to manage their own personal responses and reactions in a fast-paced environment.” Dr Jane Gunn, Partner, People & Change, KPMG.
When leaders focus on building resilience, the impact on employees is increased engagement and fulfilment, greater focus and increased purpose at work (The Resilience Institute).
Being a resilient leader starts with applying the oxygen mask analogy that before we can help others we need to look after ourselves. Resilient people tend to be more positive, have flexibility in thinking, are able to get their emotions under control quickly and have developed the mental agility to naturally focus on the benefits of a change.
What do all these attributes have in common? They are all features of resilient thinking and that’s where building resilience starts, with our thoughts.
1. There is a naturally learnable Set of Behaviours that Contribute to Resilience
We can choose to intentionally and mindfully build our resilience by practising optimism and not creating overwhelm by churning over emotional upsets in our mind, known as ruminating. This thinking is often accompanied by negative self-talk or blaming others and it drains our resilience.
Just think about the effect of saying to yourself “I’ll never get over it” or “this should never have happened”. Compare this with “well it’s going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to think about a different way of doing things” or “I have come through worse things than this and I can do it again”.
2. Our Thoughts Create our Reality
“More than genetics, more than intelligence, more than any other factor, it is thinking style that determines who is resilient and who is not”
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book, The Resilience Factor
It is the meaning that we attach to events, and not the events themselves, that determine our reactions to them. We can’t change the events but we can choose a different way to interpret them, and by doing so, build our thinking flexibility and create a potentially more positive outcome.
Let’s look at an example…
An event happens, for example, a key customer changes their business model and no longer needs your company’s services. How we react to this will depend on what thoughts and beliefs we allow to fuel our behaviours and actions.
If we get locked into negative thoughts and continue to think them (rumination) then we will experience and reinforce negative emotions and we might take these out on our team members and impact important relationships.
If we can develop our self-awareness to notice and then change what we are thinking, we can then build our thinking flexibility. We can look to see if our thinking is helping or hindering us in adapting to this news. We can choose to replace the negative thought of “this is a catastrophe and could mean redundancy” to “this gives us an opportunity to go after the new and more profitable markets we have been discussing”.
The event is neutral, it’s how we think about it that creates our subjective reality, so in order to change our outcomes, it makes sense to start with changing our thinking.
3. Our Beliefs Reinforce our Thoughts
If we believe that we have a leadership weakness, for example, we lack empathy, then what do we believe about this? Do we have a fixed mindset which tells us we will never be empathic because people are born with this, or do we bring a growth mindset to it and tell ourselves that this is a skill which can be developed and which we haven’t yet acquired?
If we can ask ourselves – “How does having this limiting belief impact me? Is it helping or hindering my development of empathy?” If it is hindering, then make a conscious choice to change it.
These 4 tips come from the 7 Building Blocks of Resilient Leadership based on a combination of our experience and the work of Martin Seligman and Karen Reivich of the Penn Positive Psychology Center.
1. Look for and Find Different Perspectives
Challenge your unresourceful thinking. Take a moment to put a gap between your thought and the next step of reacting or interpreting. If something happens that you would normally label as negative, how might you be able to put a neutral or positive slant on this instead?
You can develop this skill when coaching your people by asking them a set of questions if they come to you with a negative stance on something. For example:-
“If there were to be a positive lesson in this, what might it be?”
“How can we see this from a different angle?”
Use the following to gain perspective –
“What will this mean for me/my team in 5 hours/ 5 days/5 weeks/5 months’ time – what difference will it make?”
2. Stay Connected
Often when the pressure builds we can resort to withdrawal as a strategy, not wanting to burden others with our problems, yet research from Penn State University has found that staying connected and drawing upon our support network in challenging times is a key foundation of resilience.
Encourage your people to stay connected too if you notice them not reaching out.
3. Review your Approach to ‘Failure’ – F.A.I.L = First Attempt In Learning
As humans we all make mistakes, but how we reflect on them makes a huge difference to our attitude and resilience. Are you self-critical, do you admonish yourself and feel incompetent, or do you choose the route of objective curiosity?“That’s interesting, how did I arrive at that result? What can I learn from this that will help me and my people in the future?”
We know that our approach to failure or pursuit of perfection significantly impacts our levels of creativity and innovation (Tal Ben Shahar, Harvard University). When we are afraid to make mistakes or feel the need to get things perfect, our brains are not at the level of neural activity that facilitates insight and when we feel like this, there’s a good chance our people will too (back to emotional contagion) so as a resilient leader how can we take a more resourceful stance on failure and create a culture of learning and growing from our mis-takes instead?
4. Believe that You can Succeed
Back to our ‘Understanding Me’ model. If we can change our initial thoughts and beliefs to be more optimistic, we are half way there because our brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination (just think back to the last time you saw a horror movie – technically it’s people acting and pixels on a screen so why do we get an increased heart rate and jump at the slightest noise!).
The optimism we are referring to is rational optimism, not blind optimism. It’s a belief that things will turn out well, that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that we can control far more in our life than we originally thought.
Some of the most inspiring leaders we have had in our management career have been the ones that challenged us to believe that anything was possible and, with encouragement, could be achieved or exceeded.
Encouragement starts with self-encouragement, positive self-talk and even a little ‘fake it till you make it!’.
We will leave it to 2 of life’s exceptional philosophers to close – Watty Piper a.k.a. Arnold Munk in his 1930 children’s book ‘The Little Engine that Could’ who trudged up the hill with her positive self-talk of “I think I can, I think I can” until reaching her destination and finishing with a steamy huff of “I thought I could!”and good old Henry Ford and his mantra “whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” .