A Head Start: Developing Resilience

Head StartIan Price

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

There is still a great lack of understanding about what constitutes resilience, and what it means for people in work who are increasingly being exhorted to be "more resilient", argued Ian Price at the October meeting of the ABP held at the University of Westminster, where he launched his book "Head Start".   Before we can move meaningfully on resilience and in related areas such as mental health we need a greater understanding of the causes and consequences of negative resilience.

 
What is Resilience?

An accepted definition of Resilience is the "Ability to bounce back from Adversity".  One of the most respected professionals in this area, Martin Seligman, sees Resilience in two ways:

  1. Resilience is like height - if one could describe it in simplistic linear terms, it would follow a normal distribution
  2. Resilience can be built and developed.  This has implications for addressing Mental Health problems, where, arguably we are being overgenerous in terms of "treatment" when Resilience training/development could help, such as in the most common situations like dealing with the "Bad Boss".

 

Ian developed his interest in this area while working in the Telecomms Industry, where he undertook his Master Degree studying Mobile Phones and associated addictive behaviour.  He is a great convert to Positive Psychology as it contains elements of possible solutions to developing Resilience.

 

Resilience effectively equates with the less frequently discussed Mental Toughness: in this context it is useful to talk about the steps required to achieve "Resilience Plus", leading us to define it in terms of practical examples:. 

  •  Bouncing back from adversity becomes easier when you become, in Seligman’s words managing your explanatory style in an optimistic way. His work here revolves around the “Three Ps”: Do you explain the adversity as Personal, Permanent or Pervasive?
  • Not "Bouncing Back" but "Bouncing Forward".  Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant called this in their book Option B.  Personal disasters can be terrible but a Resilient person should emerge stronger as a result of the experience.   We should be in the business of help people to build a positive mindset.
  • "Grit".   We should be helping people towards achieving long term goals and develop the vision to persist, in spite of a series of small setbacks.  A good example of this is Sales Teams where a measure of Resilience is the ability to remain in roles.
  • Some people are fortunate enough to not have setbacks that they have to cope with.  But what if we are one of the lucky few who don't have setbacks?  The only sensible answer here is that it is essential to develop an element of self control and discipline.  Carol Dweck undertook some important research which addressed the condition of the Ego and the need for discipline and control which can not be fully honed if not faced with some degree of adversity. 
  • Cognitive performance.  This is relatively new and, underrated as an area should be treated as part of the mix in building up a picture of Resilience.

 

It is inevitable to move at this point into Sporting experience and the lessons which can be learned.   "When the Going gets Tough the Tough Get Going" was attributed to Jim Lloyd.  While Sportsmen embrace this, CEOs have difficulty with the concept of unadulterated "Toughness".  However, there is something we can all learn from the 2018 World Cup - it has to be admitted that we have to sit up and notice how England managed to win a penalty shoot out for the first time in World Cup history.  20 years ago Glenn Hoddle employed a Faith Healer with no real result.   In 2018 the use of a performance psychologist, combined with good leadership, to work on anxiety and managing fear had a transformational effect.  And so did the associated practice in these shoot outs.

Other sporting examples abound: Steve Peters' work has had a transformational effect on the British cycling team and his success is being studied closely by business leaders.  

 

So what can be learned from this?  The Three Bs provide a good summary:

*          Beliefs - changing the negative belief that it was futile to practise penalty shoot outs, a concept that golfers, who regularly practise their putting, would have considered bizarre.

*          Behaviours - We have all read about Elon Musk allegedly sobbing under his desk.  If this actually happened, it is less important than the onset of more fundamental negative emotions which are difficult to rectify.

*          Best Practice.  Sharing a business goal and working out how to achieve it with someone you are reasonably close to can engender a feeling of self confidence and belief. 

 

But if negative beliefs get in the way and take over: what next? 

Understanding and use of the brain is essential in assisting in our use of psychology.   Current thinking is that the Prefrontal Cortex section of the brain in conflict with the anxious part of brain when negative beliefs predominate and can affect good decision making.

Ian used the analogy of two people living in a bungalow.  Essentially, the person living downstairs living a tedious life with the television permanently on, controls the second person who lives in an upstairs room who rarely emerges, except for work. The former is in control of the relationship, is lazy and risk averse.  Crowded out mentally, the person living upstairs adopts the negative emotions.

Interestingly this is not really about personality or the Big Five: it is more about the functions of the Brain and the relationship between those involved.  Behaviour is also about the environment which people are working in.

The primitive part of the brain is cautious and sees danger in taking risks and for many people this is the override.    However, for some people risk taking is an essential part of daily activity.   For some people it doesn't matter and style is about the environment they are working in. 

 

However, it is unsatisfactory to try to draw up theories and dangerous to proceed without trying to understand more about the beliefs we are discussing.  Sharing negative beliefs is not the complete story: Values can also have an influence on the development of negative thoughts and negativity bias.  Seligman defined the three "Ps". 

*          Persistence. This can occur when negative beliefs are ingrained

*          Pervasive.   A sales force might consider that they can't deliver sales because the market doesn't like the product.    Under these circumstances, however good the product might be, it is better to not persist and just stop trying to sell the product.

 

Resilience is very subtle and manifests in discrete ways.                        

Andy Murray found that sporting a Brand 77 worked for him as his Wimbledon win was 77 years after the previous British winner - Fred Perry. 

Tennis can provide us with a good example of building resilience through progress towards one outcome.  Johanna Konta's coach recognised that it is often the small things we do day to day which can make a difference.  This "Process Mindset" approach enabled her to rise rapidly in world rankings: we can all learn that taking micro steps can make a huge difference in what we do.

 

Goal Setting

This leads neatly on to goal setting and attainment. Having the space to think and develop is essential.  A good example is that many people become creative and have additional capacity just as they are about to retire as they planning ahead.  It is not directly about motivation although this can have an influence. 

If we are really serious about achieving goals, establish first out when motivation is highest and then set the previously discussed small process goals, preferably on a daily basis.

 

Best Practice

Properly applied this can bring mental activity to life.   It can improve our ability to enable the all important ability to undertake multi- tasking. However, excessive use of multi-tasking can be bad for resilience.  It can be over stimulating in the brain and can be exhausting.  This can result in easy distraction and reduced empathy with others.   Natural antidotes to this are the best form of cure.    

Switching off emails and working offline can be huge productivity boost.   Taking a rest in the middle of the afternoon can help some.  Dan Pink found that 45 mins was a powerful block of time and was reviving.  For someone approaching burnout such an approach is essential.    

Dan Pink considered his relationship with time and ability to focus, coining the word "Napuchino".      

 

The pace of change over the last 20 years has been unnerving for most people.  There is a cause for optimism: although we have difficulty managing work we shall learn to embrace productivity improvements and get to grips with this sudden change.  Trollope's Barchester Chronicles depicts the challenge of the early mail service and people learned to adapt to the disruption.  Similarly we shall learn how to manage modern communication.  Social norms will take hold. 

 

Finally

Finally a discussion on Resilience can not be complete without some reference to Groups and the onset of negative beliefs.  Group resilience. Take hold in groups.   As previously mentioned this can occur in e.g. sales teams, starting with thoughts such as "It always Happens to Me".  There can be huge implications for corporate leadership.  Under such circumstances it is essential to gather as much data as possible to establish and distinguish between fact and what is coming from the brain.  Sales people have a grasp at the sharp commercial end of the business and should always be listened to as they have a higher degree of natural bent and therefore are arguably more resilient? 

 

In conclusion, a note about High Performance.  While it is to some extent rooted in grit, grit can be built, as illustrated by timeshare sales people.  Can one build persistence?  This can be achieved through reframing in ones own mind but it should not be taken personally. 

Impact of motivation: passion is a big driver as Angela Duckworth found in her work. 

Resilience cannot be built through motivation as it can't be boosted artificially in an enduring way. 

 

Richard Taylor

16 Oct 18