Becoming more resilient is about achieving higher levels of performance through managing the pressure of work better. Managing resilience is a positive, constructive aspect of performance. Resilience is the way you choose to respond to something that could be potentially traumatic and ensuring it is not. Resilience arises from self awareness, the right mindset and developing the right habits focused on clear business objectives that are in line with personal capability. If stress management is about helping people cope when things have all got a bit too much, resilience is about enabling people to do more because they are better able to manage themselves and those around them.
It’s like surfing a wave
Resilience is like surfing a wave. At first we struggle to surf the smaller waves. Sometimes when we fall off the wave we are overwhelmed by the power of the water. Coughing and spluttering we contemplate the next wave. Over time, we learn how to surf ever bigger waves and learn to cope much better when we get wiped out. Eventually our experience means we can surf big waves and choose when to end the ride to minimise the struggle to get the next ride. Those without any experience of surfing watch people surf the biggest waves in awe at the huge power and potential danger. For the surfer, they have learned how to cope with the pressure and to manage the risk and rather than fear, they are fuelled by the buzz of the ride. In the same way, some people seem to cope with incredible levels of pressure and stress because they have learned over time to manage themselves effectively and instead of getting over-stressed, are able to enjoy the buzz of a challenging workload / situation.
But how do we become more resilient? At a very practical level, if being resilient means choosing the right response to a set of events, then the first thing is to identify a trigger or a sign that helps you to acknowledge that a different response is required. For example, my daughter tells me she knows when I am getting angry as I remove my spectacles as a precursor to a more forceful contribution to the conversation. Removing the glasses is an example of a trigger that I can learn to notice in order to deploy an alternative approach that’s likely to get me a better outcome from the conversation. Recognising that under pressure we default to our habits, learning how to have the right habits means no matter what the pressure, we end up doing the right thing. Habits describe a very specific set of behavioural responses triggered by a cue rather than the need for logical thought. Thus, it helps to understand the processes that are taking place in the body and the brain that drive our behaviour. Understanding the changes that take place in the body and mind in response to a potentially stressful situation helps us appreciate why our choice of response is so critical. This article provides some fascinating insights into how our emotions affect the way we see things.
More than ‘me’
From a managerial perspective, learning to recognise the signs in others of when they are beginning to struggle under pressure means that we can step in and help them regain control in order to ‘surf the wave’ of productivity. Resilience is a team thing – it’s not just the individual’s job or that of their manager. A whole team looking out for each other and working on developing resilience together is a virtuous spiral that benefits everyone. It means someone struggling is less likely to slide under the radar.
Resilience is about more than the individual. It’s also about the context in which they are working. A detailed-oriented, logically thinking, numerically literate introvert will be happier buried in a spreadsheet than an extroverted, people-oriented creative individual. Ensuring your round pegs are in round holes goes a long way to helping people cope with the pressure of work. A robust and resilient team is a group of people who are doing what they are best at doing and working well together. It’s linked to the principles of employee engagement. This means helping ensure people have a clear understanding of the strategy and how what they do adds value, is meaningful and contributes to achieving that strategy. This is in addition to feeling valued and having the opportunity for personal development.
Developing your people
If you are looking at developing resilience in others, this checklist for a one-day programme provides a useful starting point. From our experience delegates find it useful, applicable and reassuring.
We recommend teaching people
- What resilience is (and is not)
- The nature and impact on the individual of the increase in pressure at work
- How to spot in others when they are struggling to cope
- Management factors that can affect the level of pressure people are experiencing
- How to utilise a team approach to developing overall levels of resilience
- How to habitualise high performance
- How elite performers develop resilience to cope with extreme challenges
- Developing your own ‘Cabinet’ of advisers to help sense check your thinking
- Understanding the hot cold empathy gap and its role in resilience
- Establishing lines in the sand – putting yourself in control
- Using case studies to determine how best to manage the situation to optimise performance of those involved
- Applying the learning to:
- Themselves – very practical things people can do, making it a habit
- Their team – watching, noticing and responding
- The work – making sure the right people are doing the right things
- Those around them – applying principles of engagement
Does it work?
Yes. We have worked with a number of companies to provide one day resilience workshops to get people started. These have met with much success.
We know because we have applied the lessons we have learned to ourselves. At Epiphanies, we not only provide experiential learning, we learn experientially. This year, Dominic Irvine, one of the partners, completed the gruelling Tour Divide, a 2,725 mile off-road unsupported mountain bike race that stretches from the Mexican border to Banff following the line of the Continental Divide over the top of the Rockies. Despite a quite frankly ridiculous number of setbacks, Dom finished as first Northbound Rider. You can read his somewhat harrowing exploits here. This experience builds on his achievements as a record breaking ultra-distance cyclist, and his research towards his PhD exploring mental fatigue.
I’m tired of this
As fatigue sets in, our ability to respond degrades. You know the feeling – you are reading something and realise that you have taken none of it in and have to go back and start again. It’s that ‘war weary’ feeling of trying to mentally pick yourself up, dust yourself down and go again. The consequence of fatigue is that the degradation in the speed, accuracy and quality in how we respond means we are more likely to make mistakes. Just how serious is being tired at work?
A useful analogy is to think of it in terms of alcohol consumption. The more you drink, the more drunk you become. The more inebriated you are, the more unable you are to do even the most basic of tasks. As for something as simple as driving – forget it – if you are drunk, you are a serious danger to yourself and other road users. The same is true for fatigue. Fatigue is a spectrum from, on the one hand being alert and awake and, on the other needing to fall asleep. Persevering when you really need to get some rest is to ramp up the risk of taking a poor decision or worse, having an accident. Research has demonstrated that having a period of sustained sleep deprivation is the equivalent of being drunk.
Universally, turning up at the office whilst intoxicated is unacceptable, Yet think for a moment how many people turn up for work tired. Parents of young children. People coming to work after a long haul flight. Maybe people who have had a late night with friends. This is aside from the travails of shift work. It’s food for thought. We really should treat fatigue as a serious issue. Pilots, drivers of commercial vehicles, air traffic controllers all have their hours closely monitored to ensure they are not overtired at work – so why not for all employees? Equally sound judgement and decision-making ability is required by the senior executive making a major strategy or investment decision; or by the manager who is interviewing candidates for a new position on their team. In the absence of legislation, what can we do to improve our awareness and management of fatigue?
Fish and chip suppers and driving accidents
The challenge then is how to determine when our fatigue levels are such that we would be better off taking a rest than to continue working. Relying on the person who is tired to make this decision is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, we are not very good at judging risk. By way of illustration, it is well understood that exercise and a healthy diet significantly reduce the risk of ill health, but many people eat too much of the wrong things and exercise too little. It’s easy to see why. The fish and chip supper on a Friday night didn’t kill you last week, or the week before, or the week before that, so the chances are it won’t kill you this week. But you have no real idea whether you are an inch or a million miles away from a heart attack or how much each mouthful takes you closer to the risk. Similarly, we are all happy to drive (or be driven) on roads. If I told you that in the UK, there are 31.9 deaths per million vehicles does that help you understand the risk of losing your life whilst driving? Probably not. The data is relatively meaningless.
For people to make a decision about their fitness for work based on risk of incident, we would need to have a commonly accepted understanding of what is an acceptable risk. “I’ll be all right,” is not sufficient a justification for working when overtired. This is because people have different appetites for risk. Free climbers, who choose to scale massive rock faces without any form of protection in the event of a slip or a fall have a different approach to risk than the person who insists on holding a handrail when going up or down any staircase. Secondly, there is the problem of our perception of how tired we really are. I am sure you can recall having a conversation with someone who absolutely believed they were fine but quite clearly were not. You probably noticed changes in their behaviour such as more extreme emotional reactions to events or making simple mistakes or perhaps dropping things. This told you they were far from OK and would benefit from some ‘time out’. People can push themselves to extraordinary levels of performance despite being incredibly tired, but that does not mean they should. Knowing when to stop sometimes requires outside intervention to help us make the decision. Equally, people may be capable of a lot more than they think, but what is lacking is not so much rest but motivation. Much evidence exists that fatigue can in part be overcome through the judicious use of a suitable reward.
We need a three pronged attack to the problem. Firstly, we need to raise the awareness that being fit for work means being properly rested. This means having a sense of what this means in practice. Secondly, individuals need to take responsibility for their own condition and recognise in themselves when they are tired and or be open to others telling them that they are tired. Thirdly we need to legitimise the value of time-out. Recreation is just that, re-creation. The good news is that sometimes when we are mentally fatigued, a short rest can be sufficient to get us back to an acceptable level of effectiveness. This need only be a ten minute nap for a restorative benefit to be realised. For this to be truly effective, we need to keep the focus on the outcomes people deliver rather than whether they are seen to be working or sleeping.
In the next article, I will explore how technology may offer a solution that takes out the ambiguity from whether someone is sufficiently alert for work.
© 2018 Dominic Irvine, all rights asserted.
First published in bdaily news on 2 November 2018
I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. 18 hour days cycling in all weather conditions high up in the remote Rockies, miles from civilisation, on my own, sleep deprived, hungry and physically tired. The effect was to reduce the quality of my decisions to worse than those of a drunk. I should not be surprised, research into the impact of the training regime on Navy Seals and Army Rangers has documented in some detail just how badly degraded cognitive functioning can become in extreme environments. It explains in part my utterly stupid decision to see whether I could get a photograph of the black bear I had missed by inches whilst descending a steep mountain path. Common sense would have dictated putting some distance between myself and the startled animal, rather than stopping and get my camera out. Clearly, I was not thinking straight.
An army of intelligence
Try as I might, I cannot find the same research into the impact of extreme environments on the lives of business people. A business person may not be expected to spend time in the wilds, but extremely long working hours, lots of travel across time zones, different cultures and languages and the pressure to deliver results is by no means easy when compared to someone who attends the same office each day, parking in the same place and with a mostly similar routine.
Take for example the case of John, normally an engaging and interesting person, he sat at the dinner table contributing little to the conversation. He had landed at the airport just a few hours earlier from a transcontinental flight, one of several he’d taken that week as he travelled around the world visiting suppliers and shareholders. He wasn’t too sure whether the meal he was eating was meant to be breakfast, lunch or dinner, so confused was his body clock. In the past, John had been a keen rugby player and occasional cyclist, but he was simply too tired to do any activity these days. There are many senior business leaders who would relate to John’s current state. If this work environment is having the same cognitive degrading impact on John as the military environment does on soldiers, then John’s decisions are likely to be significantly poorer than if he were fresh and rested.
At present, there is no easy way of assessing the impact to determine a) whether John should be making an important decision, given his state or b) at what point he is sufficiently recovered to be considered “effective”. If John were drunk at work, he would be dismissed, or at the very least sent for some counselling to help him learn how to manage his alcohol intake. So why is it that, when the context in which John has to operate potentially reduces his decisions to worse than that of a drunk, we simply expect him to get on with it? It makes no sense to me.
The military have some tried and tested methods to train people such that in the heat of the moment and under extreme pressure, even when tired they are more likely to take the right decisions. We have no such training in business.
Just like many executives, John had learned to cope. He had adapted to his lifestyle and had developed a level of resilience to the pressure. These adaptations are to be expected based on the research into military training. This same research also shows us that coping can vary depending on a number of additional factors, such as:
- The nature of the extreme environment – for example, the sense of isolation
- The characteristics of the person – for example, their will to win
- The work that has to be done – for example how ambiguous or monotonous the work is
- The level of danger – the personal risk to the individual
In business, the decisions are unlikely to be life threatening either to self or others, but they are many and varied and relentless in nature. The world of work in business has its equivalent aspects of a) to d) above, but in the absence of research, it is not clear how these pressures compare to those of the military.
A safer way
My plea is that we take a systems approach to the way we manage our best people. Instead of simply looking at their performance in isolation, we should factor in all the significant elements that can impact on performance such as travel, the business trading environment, the nature of the work the individual is being asked to do, the people they are working with and through, and to look at it as a whole.
Secondly, we stop deluding ourselves that a busy executive jetting around the world is a valuable and useful person and discourage people from seeing that lifestyle as a badge of honour. If we really want the best decisions from our best people, we should focus on ensuring that they are cognitively effective: This means properly rested, living a healthy lifestyle and having the time and space to think. The paradox is, the more senior an individual is in a business, the more they are paid to think and the less to do, and yet these are the people most under pressure to be here, there and everywhere, which degrades the very thing we are asking them to do.
Thirdly, is that we treat the nature of work in the same way that Health and Safety has separated out process safety from ‘personal safety’. Yes, we need to help people to manage their resilience and stress (the equivalent of personal safety) but we should also consider more carefully the impact of the environment in which people are expected to operate (the equivalent of process safety). Above all, it’s an area that cries out for more research.
Dominic Irvine ©2018 All rights asserted
First published in bdaily on 5 September 2018
I’ve got to thinking that we may be missing a trick in the way we develop resilience in employees. It only took me 2,725 miles for me to have this epiphany, but I think I am onto something.
I recently participated in the Tour Divide, the self-supported mountain bike race that goes between the border of the USA and Mexico and Banff in Canada (or vice versa) along the line of the Continental Divide. It’s nearly 3,000 miles of wild open spaces, epic climbs and stunning scenery. What I was hoping to be a delightful adventure race in the wilderness, ended up being an exercise in survival. Intense temperatures on day one threatened to end the ride with heat exhaustion. Then, after about 1,000 miles, a strained thigh muscle meant pedalling was acutely painful. The change in riding position to cope with the pain resulted in red raw saddle sores that were deeply uncomfortable. The sores meant that the only way I could get the power down was to ride standing up out of the saddle. I had to do this for a little over 250 miles into a stiff headwind across wide open plains. Next, a gear failure which meant riding over a hundred miles in the biggest gear I had through the Yellowstone National Park and into Idaho.
A further two days were spent trapped in the easiest gear, where progress on the flat was possible only by moving the bike along with one foot in the pedal and the other pushing off the ground to maintain momentum. I spent a total of 350 miles in one wrong gear. Next up was a terminal failure of two parts of the bike requiring a replacement bike and by this point, I was about 2,000 miles into the race.
However, the race was not yet done with me; over the next two days I broke two teeth. First one on the right hand side of my mouth and then a second on the left side. This made chewing food difficult. Finally, the riding position of the replacement bike caused nerve damage in my hands, resulting in loss of grip and numbness. I struggled to control the bike on the very rough ground. All of this was aside from days of relentless rain, riding through sticky mud, sleep deprivation and encounters with wildlife including seven bears, two of which were uncomfortably close. Many times I was close to tears wondering just what else this race was to throw at me. I managed to make it to the end and, somewhat surprisingly given the problems, as the first Northbound rider.
Since completing the ride, I have spent considerable time pondering what kept me going in spite of the many problems I experienced. The conclusion I have reached is not that I am blessed with some extreme level of resilience but rather it was the strength of the dream I had. I spent two years preparing for this event and as time went on, my obsession grew and almost every waking moment was spent thinking about it. I would find myself in the middle of a piece of work daydreaming about the race rather than the job at hand. I had lived almost every moment of the ride even before I turned the first pedal stroke. I had arrived in Banff so many times in my mind that when I finally did arrive, it felt like a familiar place. I had lived the routine of packing my bivvy, cleaning my teeth, oiling my chain, checking my bike and loading the next route file onto my GPS before heading off into the sunrise. The desire to complete the ride had become this aching ambition.
In contrast, just the other day I saw a TV advert for green tea. A woman awoke dressed in her running kit, stretched, warmed up and opened her door only to be confronted with rain. Rather than heading out, she put the kettle on and had a cup of tea. Whatever the goal motivating her to run was insufficient to overcome a bit of rain. My simple epiphany was that the stronger the goal, the greater the resilience to overcome the hurdles preventing success.
In terms of business, managers and subordinates set goals to be achieved within a certain timeframe. Although time is spent thinking about what that goal should be, how much time is spent dreaming about the goal and what it could mean for everyone involved? I would suspect in most instances – almost no time. Why then should we be surprised when in the face of adversity people struggle to achieve the targets set? How much more challenging could the goal be set if sufficient time was spent allowing people to dream about what achieving that goal could mean for them. It might be the ability to buy a beautiful sports car with the bonus earned, or standing on the stage at the annual conference as the recipient of a CEO award, or the opportunity to be considered the industry expert. Whatever the dream might be, the stronger the sense of what it means in all its glorious detail may turn out to be an incredibly powerful way of developing employee resilience. Perhaps instead of helping people manage stress, we should help them grow their dreams.
Dominic Irvine © 2018 All rights asserted.
First published in Bdaily News on 30 July 2018