Sunday, August 22, 2010



Psychological resilence is the capacity to respond quickly and constructively to crises. But resilence can be hard to muster for many reasons. Fear, anger and confusion can paralyse us after a severe setback. Assigning blame rather than generating solutions is an all-too-human tendency. Worse yet, those to whom we turn for counsel may offer us exactly the wrong kind of advice.

Decades of research in psychology, on topics including hardiness, learned helplessness, coping and the correlation between cognitive style and health, confirms that each of us has a distinct, consistent pattern of thinking about life’s twists and turns a pattern of which most of us are largely unaware. It may be an unconscious reflex to look backward from traumatic incidents to explain what just happened. Such analysis can be useful, certainly but only up to the point where strong negative emotions start to prevent our moving on.

We believe that managers can build high levels of reslience in themselves and their teams by taking charge of how they think about adversity. Resilent managers move quickly from analysis to a plan of action (and action). After the onset of adversity, they shift from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking and their focus is strictly forward.

When adversity strikes:
Most of us go with our gut when something bad happens. Deeply ingrained habits and beliefs sap our energy and keep us from acting constructively. People commonly fall into one of two emotional traps. One is deflation. Someone who has marched steadily through a string of success can easily come to feel like a hero, able to fix any problem singlehandedly. A traumatic event can snap that person back to reality. Even for the less heroic among us, adversity can touch off intense bursts of negative emotion as if a dark cloud had settled behind our eyes, as one manager described it. We may feel disappointed in ourselves or others, mistreated and dispirited, even besieged.

The other emotional trap is victimization. Many of us assume the role of a helpless bystander in the face of an adverse event. “Those people” have put us in an unfortunate position, we tell ourselves (and others) again and again. We dismiss both criticism and helpful suggestions from others and go out of our way to affirm that we are right, everyone else is wrong, and no one understands us. Meanwhile, self-doubt may creep in, making us feel hopelessly constrained by circumstances.

Highly accomplished managers are confronting, in rapid succession, challenges the likes of which they have never seen before a world wide economic crisis, the globalization of business, the rise of new technologies, deep; demograp;hic shifts. Feeling discouraged and helpless, they turn away from the problem and unfortunately, from people who might be able to help. Even if these managers went to their bosses for guidance, they’d most likely receive inadequate coaching. That is because most supervisors, riding their own long wave of hard-won successes, lack the empathy to intervene effectively. They may not know how to counsel direct reports they feel are not quite as talented as they were at escaping the shadow of defeat. They may be so well accustomed to handling adversity in ways that minimize their psychological stress that they don’t recognize their own bad habits.

Independent studies in psychology and our own observations suggest that the ability to bounce back from adversity hinges on uncovering and untangling one’s implicit beliefs about it and shifting how one responds.

Most of us, when we experience difficult episode, make quick assumptions about its causes, magnitude, consequences and duration. We instantly decide, for example, whether it was inevitable, a function of forces beyond our control, or whether we could somehow have prevented it. Managers need to shift from this kind of reflexive thinking to “active” thinking about how best to respond, asking themselves what aspects they can control, what impact they can have, and how the breadth and duration of the crisis might be contained. Three types of questions can help them make this shift.

Specifying questions help managers identify ways to intervene; the more specific the answers, the better. Visualising questions help shift their attention away from the adverse event and toward a more positive outcome. Collaborating questions push them to reach out to others – not a affirmation or commiseration but for joint problem solving. Each type of question can clarify each of the four lenses of resilent thinking.

Taken together, the four sets make up the reslience regimen.

To strengthen their resilence, managers need to shift from reflexive, cause-oriented thinking to active, response-oriented thinking.

Answering the questions:
CONTROL: - was this adverse event inevitable, or could I have prevented it ?
What features of the situation can I (even potentially) improve ?
IMPACT: Did I cause the adverse event, or did it result from external forces ?
What sort of positive impact can I personally have on what happens next ?
BREADTH: Is the underlying cause of this event specific to it or more widespread ?
How can I contain the negatives sof the situation and generate currently unseen positives ?
DURATION: Is the underlying cause of this event enduring or temporary ?
What can I do begin addressing the problem now ?

Al though the question sets offer a useful framework for refraining manager’s responses, simply knowing what to ask is not enough. You won’t become more resilent simply because you have read this far and have made a mental note to pull these questions the next time a destabilizing difficulty strikes. To strengthen your capacity for resilence, you need to internalize the questions by following two simple precepts:

Various studies on stress and coping with trauma demonstrate that the act of writing about difficult episodes can enhance an individual’s emotional and physical well-being. Indeed, writing offers people command over an adverse situation in a way that merely thinking about it does not. Instead of ruminating about events, letting them interrupt your work, you will have solutions in the making.

Under ongoing duress, executives’ capacity for resilence is critical to to maintaining their mental and physical health. Paradoxically, however, buildihg reslience is best down precisely when times are most difficult when we face the most upending challenges, when we are at the greatest risk of misfiring with our reactions, when we are blindest to the opportunities presented. All the more reason, then, to use the reslience regimen to tamp down unproductive responses to adversity, replace negatively with creativity and resourcefulness and get things done despite real or perceived obstacles.


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