When our professional and personal lives are in such a state of flux, the most critical skill we can focus on developing, both as individual contributors and managers, is resilience.
In workplaces across the UK, we are seeing a focus on individual circumstance and flexing ways of working in order to retain productivity, stay connected with customers and drive revenue. Yet as weeks turn into months in this crisis, we know that people are feeling overwhelmed in many different ways.
For some, their own workload is the same, but they are also expected to pick up where furloughed friends and colleagues left off. Some are working with family in small spaces, while others are living alone.
What are the practical ways in which each of us can quickly and proactively build resilience and cope better with all that we’re currently experiencing; and what may be coming next?
In the third in our series of practical and supportive virtual events for our apprenticeship learners, we put together another experienced panel of Corndel Professional Development Expert coaches. Ahead of the live panel discussion, we asked more than 200 learners about real-life challenges they are currently going through in terms of resilience – both for them personally and within their teams. Here is a recap of the practical advice that was given.
What is resilience?
While resilience has become a bit of a buzz word in the modern world and especially during this coronavirus period, it’s important to recognise that it’s not about lack of feelings and being impacted by events. Resilient people do feel the full range of emotions. They feel the impact of events. They get angry, sad, frustrated, afraid and demoralised. The difference is that they don’t stay there for long. They bounce back much more quickly from the events that they experience than those who lack resilience. It is a critical life skill that is never too late to learn.
What clues are there that your resilience is being impacted?
Whether you are often plagued by pessimism, generally quick to bounce back, or wavering between the two depending on the broader context of what’s going on for you, the first step in building resilience is to be aware of when your buoyancy is taking a hit.
Tina Tilmouth, a trained counsellor and psychotherapist, says that signs of this are feeling very down, overwhelmed by events and generally not being able to cope. Alarm bells should ring when we start ‘catastrophising’. This is a common term in counselling and psychotherapy to describe when you take a relatively minor event and your inner dialogues escalates it. You stub your toe and you quickly think your toe is going to drop off. The overwhelm you’re feeling makes everything seem bad.
Jaclyn Russell cites resilience as being the factor that enabled her to excel in each of the extremely different environments in which she has worked – from being a classical ballet dancer to managing mergers and acquisitions. She describes having your resilience impacted as ‘feeling stuck, less happy and less strong’. You may notice an increase in negative self-talk. You may feel a loss of broad perspective of why you are heading in a particular direction or having less confidence in pushing through on what you’re working on. People often describe being ‘powerless’ where they feel they lack control over what is happening around them.
The panel emphasised the importance of recognising these signs in yourself first, otherwise you are unlikely to spot it in your team members. With this in mind, we all have a duty to communicate as honestly as we can in order to help others pick up on how we are feeling. Be open to explaining the bigger picture so people understand your context. Be calm when explaining how you are feeling, and avoid blame. Sometimes just saying ‘I don’t want you to solve the problem, I just need you to listen’ can be very powerful in moving things forward.
As a manager, being able to quickly spot changes in the behaviours of struggling team members can be instrumental in helping them. Things to look out for include people not turning up to meetings, not being engaged when on a call, a change in body language noticeable on video meetings, working longer hours without taking breaks. The panel have seen an increase in their learners working longer days which, when working at home, is even more intense as the ‘downtime’ moments of chatting while fetching a tea or coffee and moving around to meetings are lost. These are all cues worth looking out for in yourself and your colleagues.
What are the tools and practical ways to build resilience?
Teresa Roberts, in her own words, is living proof that resilience can be learned. In her early thirties she began a process of self-development when she realised how debilitating pessimism could be. She was determined not to pass it onto her children and set about changing her own mindset. Teresa generously shared three core factors that helped her start her journey.
1. Although the facts of a situation are the same for everyone, the way in which we experience events is unique to each of us; we create our reality. A very personal example of this was when Teresa suffered a miscarriage. Although she and her husband were both devastated, as the weeks went on, they started to have very different experiences. Teresa found herself assuming this was always going to happen, started blaming herself and began to let this undermine the rest of life’s joys. In time, she realised that it’s not so much the facts that are happening, it’s how you interpret them and the thinking process that you go through.
This experience led Teresa to the work of Martin Seligman and his theory of Learned Optimism. Seligman says that pessimistic thinkers will do three things:
a) Assume their situation is personal. They blame themselves. This is not so much behavioural blame, but global blame. Their inner voice says ‘I’ve always been useless’ and similar explanatory statements.
b) Assume their situation is permanent. They project it out into the future, leaving them feeling helpless as there’s nothing they can do it change it.
c) Assume their situation is pervasive. It’s going to undermine their whole life.
For example, what starts as a shocking presentation at work turns into ‘well that’s it, I’m useless at presentations. My boss will never trust me to do this again. I’ll never get promoted and move on in my career. Worse still, when there are redundancies, I bet I’ll be the one who’s going because I can’t do any of this.’ This is catastrophising – exploding an event outwards.
Seligman’s work includes a lot of useful tips around disputing that thinking. Debating with yourself. ‘What’s the evidence for this?’ ‘What’s the evidence for the contrary?’’ Is this interpretation accurate?’ ‘What other possible explanations are there?’ You can learn to dispute that explanatory style. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
2. The second factor is about showing compassion for ourselves. Our self-talk is often appalling and leaves us feeling unresourceful. If you are constantly telling yourself how useless you are, it’s not great for being resilient and being able to pick yourself up and carry on. The rule of thumb should be if you’re not willing to say it to your colleagues, friends and family because you know how damaging that will be to their self-worth and self-belief, then you need to stop your own negative inner voice. Have compassion for yourself in the same way you do for others.
3. Teresa’s third pointer was around circles of concern, influence and control. This idea comes from Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. There are many things that we might be concerned about in our lives and the world around us, but many are not within our control or possible for us to influence. If we spend our time worrying about the things we can’t control and influence we will be left feeling helpless. It is important to recognise what we can influence and control and focus our energies on those things. An example of this is being diagnosed with a long-term health condition. Such news is clearly going to evoke feelings and emotion and there will be lots of things we might be concerned about. Covey’s approach suggests that instead of catastrophising and thinking about all that it could mean and what can’t be changed, focus on what you can control. This might mean doing research and making decisions about things that you can change such as how much pressure are you willing to take at work and adjusting your diet. This approach makes you more resourceful; and optimistic thinking is all about being more resourceful. It’s worth printing Covey’s tool and having it on your wall as a reminder if you are susceptible to investing time on things you can’t control.
Tina added that people who are resilient have a positive outlook on the future – and this can have a huge impact on how the future pans out. They look at negative events as temporary rather than permanent. ‘Today may have been a bad day, but tomorrow could be much better.’ Negative talk and blaming ourselves can harm our resilience. If you have had a bad day, what went wrong that can be changed for tomorrow? It’s an NLP strategy of ‘there is no such thing as failure, only feedback.’ It’s about making that distinction about what you can control. A pertinent example of this is a friend who lost their husband and was stuck in a downward spiral of ‘why me?’. A friend gave what could have seemed like quite a brutal response, saying ‘well why not you?’. This eventually released her from the persecution of something that had actually just randomly happened. It gave her a different frame of reference from negative to positive, from pessimism to optimism.
What strategies can the panel recommend to avoid overwhelm?
Jane Shannon, Corndel’s Chief of Staff drew from her career experience as a midwife and in the prison service where she would often find herself in unpredictable situations beyond her control. Her recommendation is to first pause and take a breath. And then to think about and draw on the strengths you already have as they do not desert you in those moments. For example, it may be difficult working in a small room with several people all wanting the laptop at the same time but if you have strong organisational skills, think about how to make a practical plan to deal with the situation. Go back to your strengths and then apply to them to the different circumstances and environments that you find yourself in.
Jane also shared that she used to have a tendency to be pessimistic. ‘When you know you have that trait you need to manage your pressure points. For example, if watching the news makes you feel anxious and overloads you with information about situations you can’t control, don’t watch the news on your lunch break. It’s about using your strengths to your advantage.’
Jaclyn suggested setting small targets – it might be about getting to the end of the day or the end of the week. Don’t let your mind wander too far ahead – ‘what happens at the end of furlough?’. Make an active decision to be positive. How can this be done in practice? Find three positives in every situation. If you are anxious about going back to work after furlough, remind yourself to be glad that you have a job. If you are grappling with a tough work challenge, think about how you will be able to take forward to future interviews the skills you are developing. When you are feeling overwhelmed, take some time away – ideally an hour or so – from what is causing you overwhelm. This is proven to give perspective, space and a bird’s eye view, helping you to make mindful decisions.
If you’re finding workload overwhelming, consider using Covey’s time management matrix – categorising what needs to be done according to urgency and importance, and thinking honestly about what tasks can be shared. Make sure you communicate with your line manager – don’t assume that they can see the pressures you are experiencing.
What are the best ways to share these tools with someone in the team who may be feeling less than resilient right now?
Relatedness is key. It’s important to meet people where they are as they need to believe that you understand their world. If they don’t believe that you ‘get’ them, they are likely to push away anything you suggest to them. Use your coaching skills. Show empathy. Never underestimate the power of being listened to.
One particularly interesting angle to this is ‘relentless positivity’, which in fact be quite damaging. As a leader it’s ok to share your own down days. Maintain honesty, integrity and trust. Speak genuinely about your own experiences, ‘the other day I was feeling so demoralised. I felt it would never end. But here’s what I did…’. A practical reflection of your own feelings and experience means you are able to empathise and not just sympathise.
It’s important to get the timing right and to really connect with people and listen to them without other distractions. One thing we have learned at Corndel over recent weeks is that people need support at different times. We have created a resource bank of helpful tips and best practice and have it available for people to access when the time is right for them. We encourage people to respond to these resources, sharing their feelings and insight and using their own vulnerabilities to help others.
Here are some of the ways in which we have seen positive outcomes of helping others build resilience – whether it’s your team or family and friends.
- Reassure people that others are in the same boat. When we are feeling isolated at home, events feel more dramatic. It helps to know that other people are going through similar experiences.
- Explore what someone’s worst fears are – what is at the heart of their concern? Only then will you be able to help them work through it.
- Explore solutions together – use coaching skills to draw out all possible solutions and find that inner resourcefulness.
- Reassure people that doing their best is absolutely ok.
- Remove the loneliness by talking about handling the situation together.
Our aim for the live session was to provide extra support to our learners to help them build and maintain the ability to bounce back; and to help them help their teams, friends and families to do the same.
Key tips that emerged:
- Challenge yourself to find positives in any overwhelming situation – this will help you and your teams to shift perspective.
- Having a practical plan for your working day will help you realise what you can achieve even when you are feeling less than resilient. We are working in different environments at the moment. How do we work at our best and how do our actions help those around us work best?
- Constantly ask yourself if the choice you are making will really make you feel better.
- Stay curious about the reality of your situation and what’s driving your feelings.
- Be compassionate and be kind to yourself, in the same way you would behave to others.
- Recognise your own strengths and apply to them to the situation you find yourself in.
- Have the courage to push back and ask for help – I want to do my best but this is too much. Don’t suffer in silence and alone.
- Sometimes you and your colleagues will need external, professional support.
- Be mindful of how your inner voice can either treat you really badly or really well.
Closing comments from participants indicated that such an open and honest forum was indeed valuable in giving people ideas of what they can go away and do differently.
“Great insights and views from a varied panel which has left me with a lot of positives to go away with and manage myself and team better.”
“This has given me a really positive boost! Thank you.”
“Thanks very much – lots of practical easy suggestions.”
“Thank you for holding this session. Was very helpful to hear that we are all in this together.”
“Thank you, some really positive approaches to take on board, nice to know we are not alone with these thoughts and feelings.”
You can listen to the panel discussion recording here.
Thank you to our panellists and hosts, Natalie Kwan, Jina Melnyk, Teresa Roberts, Jaclyn Russell, Jane Shannon and Tina Tilmouth; and the learners from around 50 organisations who took the time to participate.
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