Boosting resilience

Tuesday, 19th May 2020

Guest blog by Alex Heywood, 4and20million

“The best way is ever not to attempt to stem a torrent but to divert it”

Alexander Hamilton

Our immediate response to lockdown was soaked with adrenaline. Urgent action and positive intent.

Resilience abounded.

We scrabbled to adopt new working practices, lamented our decision to scrimp on home broadband, and learned new ways to connect with our families and friends. There has been an element of frenetic excitement to the past couple of months. A sense of novelty. Whilst the physical displacement from our office environments may have generated a sense of unease, many of us were able to find a certain satisfaction in finding new ways to cope, interact with colleagues and occasionally even achieve stuff in the immediate aftermath of lockdown.

Adrenaline flowed like an intoxicating river. We were alert and found we were capable. Much like Hamilton advised, we elected to divert the torrent rather than attempt to stem it.

We are resilient.

We will beat this.

I can cope.

Anecdotally however, that sense of can-do positivity has started to lessen. Feel good moments such as the NHS Clap have been mired in cynicism. The immediate appeal of short-term furlough has dwindled as businesses ‘re-shape themselves for the other side’. National unity has fractured and the case for regional devolution has gathered pace. Home-schooling – never appealing to begin with – may well have descended into farce. The immediate desire to protect health has been steadily eroded by a nagging fear. The long-term implications of our short-term decisions loom large. And of course, Zoom quizzes have long-since lost their charming allure.

The sapping of national resilience feels tangible.

Then came a recent Gallup study to confirm that feeling. (Insights for Leaders: UK Employee Perceptions of the Workplace and COVID-19).

The UK – despite many efforts to the contrary, has continued to experience a decline in employee engagement. According to the study, just 11% of UK employees claim to be engaged with their work. I’ll let that hang in the air for a moment like the pungent, oppressive number it is.

It is well-documented – not least by Gallup – that employee engagement increases business resilience in high stress environments. Therefore, the next statistic should make us all sit up and take notice. Most stark has been the fall in the belief that ‘my company cares about my wellbeing’. In April this year, the percentage who agreed that this was the case was a paltry 27%, a staggering decline from 41% just one year earlier. It would be naive to think that our current circumstances would have resulted in anything other than a decline. Yet the sharpness of that drop should give us pause for thought.

Businesses built on values-driven cultures have been tested. The language of ‘our company is like a family’ has been put under the microscope.  Much as you may have wanted to furlough your mother-in-law, it’s unlikely that you’d have followed through on that inclination.  As the needs of faceless shareholders have started to supersede the more pressing concerns of Kevin from accounts, ‘business as family’ is in short-supply as our collective sense of security has been eroded.

The combination of Gallup’s findings – and the evidence of our own eyes – has demonstrated the direct correlation between individual resilience and engagement in businesses. Engagement doesn’t happen by magic at the best of times, let alone a period when even the most positive people can feel flat and your cultural cheerleaders may be shelving their pom-poms.

Now is a good time to actively consider how you can support the resilience of the people within your business. Not just the resilience of your balance sheet. Prior to our current circumstances – when the streets were busy and mask-envy wasn’t a thing – resilience was high on the agenda for most businesses.

Right now, it’s critical. People need help. Employed, furloughed or otherwise.

With all that we’ve known having been whipped from under our feet and a torrent of misinformation washing through our brains each day, finding new ways to boost our resilience is vital. Figuring out what’s going on in our minds and how we can better cope with adversity is the central skill that will affect our ability to do the day job in the months ahead. We need to find ways to support ourselves and one other through this attritional phase.

Furloughed employees can still embark on training, as long as doing so does not provide services to, or generate revenue for their company. Current employees can’t simply be expected to crack on and just ‘cope’. This is an opportunity for leaders to lead in a compassionate way. To ask themselves the simple question – how can I help my people cope with the crisis?

4and20million advocate 3 distinct routes that can help boost resilience. Crucially, these routes acknowledge the reality of a tough situation, all the while attempting to lessen its destructive impact.  Each route leans on the other, providing a supportive framework to help develop a healthier mindset.

The snapshots below come with a caveat. This stuff is easier to read, write and say than it is to put into practice. But it is precisely that difficulty that makes it a potent tonic.

Route one lies in a desire to change our perspective.

Traditionally, we tend to shield ourselves from difficulty, assuming that we should take care to avoid problems less they scupper our plans.

Resilience requires struggle. Our ability to cope grows from the problems we encounter. The fewer problems, the lower our resilience threshold. It is at moments of trial that we should encourage ourselves to race towards problems, anticipating that they will continue, build and follow us throughout our lives. Yet with each one encountered and conquered, we become more aware of how our problems eventually pave the road to resilience.

Route two requires a willingness to adapt.

Irritated as we may be with bland calls to ‘innovate or die’ from gurus who won’t have a worry about paying their next utility bill, there is a less vulgar, more insular approach to the concept of survival of the fittest. Self-improvement and appraisals have long focused on fixing our weaknesses. Yet the risk with this is that continually focusing on our failings tends to undermine our sense of competence. When we feel like this, we are less capable of finding new solutions to our most pressing problems.

However, to play by your strengths is a real resilience-builder. We’re referring specifically to character strengths rather than technical skills. Your ability to quell a conflict, to learn something new, to provide perspective for another colleague. The really good stuff.

So your challenge becomes simple if a little uncomfortable. List your character strengths. Focus on them. Then try to deploy them at every opportunity.

Each action will incrementally boost your resilience, generating a little momentum to help you through even the toughest of days.

Route 3 lies in supporting others.

The rush to isolate, furlough and fire is disconcerting. It can increase wariness amongst teams, with tension now a mainstay of many a virtual office environment.

The insignificant day to day interactions that we presumed to be inconsequential have been revealed as utterly critical to our self-esteem. That acknowledgement of our new shirt, the free and easy smile by the coffee machine, the congratulatory nod from your boss, the laughter-filled walk to the shops at lunch. These moments of mundanity were peppered with kindness. They have been lost. And it aches.

Yet kindness is the antidote. Kindness is beautifully, magically contagious.

It’s just now kindness requires greater intentionality. We need to compel ourselves to act.

Find ways to provide an unexpected compliment. Listen intently to try and tune in to the struggles of other members of your team.

Professor Martin Seligman stated that “doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested”. Quickly, you’ll find that your kindness becomes contagious. Their resilience will build and magically…so will yours!


Three routes to boost your resilience.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to learn more, 4and20million stand ready to help you and your team through the weeks and months ahead. Our virtual course – Boosting Resilience is designed specifically to help people through the current turbulence.

Together, we can boost our resilience, finding ways to divert the tide rather than stem it. The only way to succeed is to recognise that resilience first starts with a kindness to ourselves, as elegantly summarised by Sharon Salzberg:

“Resilience is based on compassion for ourselves as well as compassion for others.”