Developing Resilience: Learning to Thrive Under Pressure
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. – Maya Angelou
How many of us feel we’re doing well to just survive and get through these challenging times? Our world is full of volatility with change occurring at breakneck speed. In the midst of this change are constant surprises and uncertainty. As leaders, the issues we face in our organizations are rarely simple and straightforward. Ambiguity abounds, where even the most careful planning gets derailed by the unexpected. Too often we find that things don’t always go as planned. Expanding our capacity for resilience is essential if we want to thrive in our personal and professional lives.
So what exactly is resilience? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as:
- The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
- The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.
A key to being resilient is the ability to rebound and bounce back from adversity and disappointment, to persevere and adapt when things don’t go as planned. However, it’s not just about toughing it out. Resilient people still experience doubts and angst, yet are able to manage their emotions and learn from their disappointments as well as successes. Having a growth mindset and constant willingness to learn is critical. More important than what happens to us is how we think about what happens and our ability to make meaning from life’s experiences.
“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” – John C. Maxwell
Strategies for building resilience:
1. Put in perspective
For many of us, our first reaction to adversity or unexpected events is to think the worst. Our thoughts begin to spiral as we consider all the “what ifs” and possible negative implications of an event or crisis. This catastrophic thinking blocks us from adapting and bouncing back from the situation facing us. Learning to take a balanced perspective is key to building resilience. First, do a perspective audit. Consider the positive elements of the situation. Where is the blessing in the crisis? Focus on the good as well as the bad. Sometimes this may mean looking beyond the current challenge and into the future.
Putting it into perspective also means having a realistic outlook, what some call a realistic optimism. Resilient leaders stay positive about the future, yet do not let that optimism distort reality. Leadership calls for realistic thinking. Ask yourself, what is the potential downside? Do I truly understand and accept the reality of my situation? Taking the time to balance one’s perceptions and thinking will help us accept change and move forward.
“I had many catastrophes in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain
2. Take time to reflect.
Life is busy. So often we’re running just to keep up with the pace of change. Then add adversity and hardship to complicate matters. Yet, at times we need to slow down to go fast. Take a moment to “go out on the balcony” and reflect. Looking at a situation from a distance helps us to focus on what we can learn from the situation. We can’t always change what’s happening, but we can change how we respond. Stepping back from adversity, even if just for a moment, allows us more breathing space to learn. Resilient people recognize this and adopt an attitude of continuous learning, seeing obstacles and setbacks as an opportunity to grow.
In taking time to reflect after a setback or failure, a good place to start is with three basic questions:
- What went well with the situation? (Yes, there may be positive elements as mentioned above!)
- What did not go so well?
- What will I do differently next time? What will I start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing?
Resilient people learn from mistakes. They embrace challenges because they know they’ll come out stronger on the other side.
“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.” – Benjamin Barber
3. Get connected.
Why is it that in times of adversity many of us retreat and become isolated? Maybe we are so busy just trying to manage day to day. Or we may feel embarrassed to acknowledge our mistakes. Yet, that is exactly the time we need to get connected with others. Perhaps that’s why the American Psychological Association and the Mayo Clinic list this as the number one strategy for building resilience. And building community is just as important in the workplace as it is in our personal lives. Seek out supportive and positive relationships with peers and colleagues. Look to expand your personal and professional networks. Often others can help us view the situation from a different angle, broadening our perspective and understanding. Reaching out opens us up to greater learning while at the same time offering us support in coping with adversity.
Healthy relationships are also a two-way street. Find ways to assist others in their time of need. You will gain the benefit of learning from others’ experience while also giving support. Feeling challenged in this area? Consider your interpersonal and communication skills. Empathy, the ability to “walk in the other person’s shoes,” is a common characteristic of resilient people. And this quality will also help you broaden and deepen your professional connections with others.
More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.” – Diane Coutu
4. Find balance with life activities.
The challenges of today’s work world require stamina and perseverance. Life is truly a marathon, not a sprint. So resilient leaders find balance with life activities along the journey. They seek to be multi- dimensional. The more you are solely focused on your job, the more workplace adversities and crises will impact you. Look at what you are doing across all areas of your life – family, social, physical, mental, spiritual, as well as career. What activities can you engage in that promote your well-being, both within the workplace and outside? Are you maintaining good nutrition? How can you better manage your stress? Consider conducting walking meetings to energize your day and spark brainstorming and creative problem solving. These are just a few areas to look at. Start small and build upon your successes.
Resilience is at the heart of leadership. The good news is resilience can be developed. So how resilient are you? Where is your opportunity to build resilience so that you bounce back and find your way through the organizational maze and uncertainty facing you?
“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.” – Helen Keller