The ability for anyone to keep going in stressful times – that pool of energy that we have inside us that helps us to cope – has several names.
We might call it grit, resilience or hardiness, and it has been investigated by psychologists looking to understand why some people can cope better than others.
One of the most surprising things is that this capability is not fixed: it is something we learn and can be built up. Think of it like a large tank, like a water cooler or coffee urn. As things happen, we open the tap, and some of our resilience drains away, enabling us to cope with ebbs and flows of life. With practice and experience, we can learn to quickly fill up our tank, and even upgrade the tank size, making ourselves more resilient.
Research in the early 80s into hardiness identified the traits that help us top up the tank. Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba identified three underlying beliefs or attributes that come together to create the pool of coping behaviours required. They called them the three Cs:
- Commitment – This is all about being aligned to a purpose, having a belief in what you are doing
- Control – a belief that you can influence your surroundings, make a difference to how events transpire
- Challenge – that the struggles and pressures allow you to grow. This is as much from the bad things that happen as the good.
This is where I think the problem lies. If you look at how leaders manage through times of change or when the ‘chips are down’, they become laser-like in their focus on what they want and how they can get it. That is normal. It is actually what negative emotions like fear and worry are designed to do: they reduce attention and focus it on the problem at hand. Really useful when the problem was getting away from something that might eat you!
However, in modern working life, this focus can cause them to do three things:
- They focus on the ‘what’. What needs to be done, what they want, what they want others to do. This focus on the ‘what’ drowns out the ‘why’, removing the connections that help people maintain or rebuild purpose through the difficult times.
- They take control. It is just easier for everyone concerned if a small group make all the key decisions; everything will get done faster. This is inevitable and probably the right thing to do for some key decisions, but it is never true for all decisions.
- They only focus on the next problem. The conversation goes from one problem to the next, without ever taking stock of what has been done so far. It starts to feel like that whatever is done will not be good enough, no learning, no gratitude.
So, if you want to be a leader that builds resilience and not be a walking cause of stress then think about how you might be able to consistently stimulate the three Cs.
- Connecting people to the ‘why’. Partly this is about starting every ‘what’ conversation with reminders of the ‘why’. However, to be successful at this you will have to help people make the connections between their role and the higher purpose of the team or organisation. Some people do this naturally for themselves, but you should not leave it to chance.
- Create opportunities for people to take back some control. You don’t need to make all the decisions, so focus on the ones you need to make and give up the rest. If you need to, create choices for people so that they have a sense that they have a say in how this affects them, even if that means they get there in a less efficient way.
- Stop and reflect. Remind the people around you how far you have come so far, and what that says about their skills and abilities. This might be building in time for formalised structured reviews, but it can be as easy as asking a question that creates a moment of reflection. Reminding people to think about their growth and learning will help them to build their resilience.
Just in case you think that the people around you just need to ‘man up’, then a word of caution. If you allow their resilience to drain away, they will burn out. This means that you need to pick up more of the responsibility, so you may be putting your own wellbeing on the line as well – unless you are lucky enough to have someone helping you recharge.