Building resilience within yourself and your team post COVID-19
Updated: Jan 24
In conversation with one of my coaching clients recently, they made a remark that stuck with me:
“If I gain one thing from this year, I want it to be resilience. I’ve had enough ****ing opportunities to develop it after all.”
This resonated for two reasons. Firstly, because I think by and large we’re all feeling the same: we’ve had to channel more resilience in the past year than perhaps ever before. And secondly, because it led me to consider, yet again, what it is that makes us resilient anyway.
Before lockdown 7 point whatever it is, I delivered training to a group of clients focusing on this exact thing. It’s been a big training theme of 2020 in fact, and I’m already booked in to give two more talks on it this Spring. Whenever I deliver talks or training on resilience, or coach on it, I realise quite quickly that people use the word a lot, and are desperate to have it, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means. In a survey of business leaders by Sarah Bond and Gillian Shapiro, the definitions that people gave commonly included the ability to recover from setbacks; adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.
If someone is feeling emotionally low, each of these actions could sound impossible - like something that, if you don’t have it, you can’t get it. But research shows, time and again, that it’s simply not true. Resilience consists of three parts, and if you want to work on improving your resilience, you can build yourself up in any or all of the three areas.
“Have a positive attitude!” in its various guises is a common and often frustrating mantra. Be positive! Just be positive! I am sure I’m not the only one who, on a difficult day, has wanted to ram the postcards, notebooks and memes with positive affirmations on them down the creator’s throat. That said, there is truth in the idea. If we try to look on the bright side, we are building up our muscles of resilience. Sometimes, easier said than done. But when it does feel possible, give it a go.
The next time a tricky situation presents itself, take a breath and attempt to find a positive spin. You’ve just been given negative feedback? At least you’ve been given feedback you can learn from. Your boss just took credit for your idea? At least you know you did a good job, that you’re ultimately a better person than them, and they’ll have to take the hit if it all goes wrong. Didn’t have time for lunch? Imagine the dinner you’ll be hungry for. If there’s a positive spin, and you can bring yourself to spin it, you’re more likely to bounce back from whatever set-back has come your way.
Here are four ways to develop positive attitudes. Try them out and let me know if one of them really works for you:
1. Visualise your best possible self. And then plan opportunities to exercise this version of yourself.
“Create space in your job for your best self to show up. If you can, craft your job so that at least one aspect of your role brings out your best self. If your job is truly difficult, find even a narrow set of tasks in which you can draw on your best self to offset the less gratifying aspects while you consider the long-term viability of your tenure.” (Source: Laura Morgan Roberts, Emily D. Heaphy, and Brianna Barker Caza, Harvard Business Review)
2. Put things in perspective. Don’t catastrophize.
It’s important to recognise that pressure doesn’t have to turn into stress. Nicholas Petrie, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership explains: “Pressure is converted into stress when you add one ingredient: rumination, the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts.” Recognising these feelings are a crucial part of retraining your mind towards positive thinking. Acknowledge them. See them for what they are. Move on.
3. Try to take the opposite view.
Is being furloughed terrible, or is there a glimmer of light in there somewhere? Is being given that enormous new project catastrophic, or is there an upside? Can these misfires help you get somewhere you wanted to go, albeit perhaps in a different way? Practising taking the opposite view for a period of time will bear fruit eventually - as you rewire your brain to think about this stuff differently.
4. Reframe spiralling thoughts
At the moment, it feels as though COVID-19 has our brains constantly geared towards "future threat", heightening anxiety and spreading fear and so you have plenty of opportunities to practise. Where possible try to catch those anxious thoughts before they spiral, and reframe them into more realistic, probable outcomes. As a leader, showing that you can do this will help your colleagues and team to do it, too. Emotionally leading by example has never been more important for the well-being of your colleagues and coworkers.
Building resilient behaviour relies on staying balanced. Prioritising tasks, decisions, and even emotional responses allow leaders to maintain balance and avoids experiencing situations of overload. There are plenty of behaviours that help to build resilience, but I think the five below are easy to achieve and, most importantly, have been shown to work.
They are mainly about adopting behaviours of self-observation, and self-management. If things are going too far in one direction, adjust the thermostat. If work feels overwhelming, step away. If you feel stress, look at what you can do in the short-, medium- and long-term to relieve it.
Everything above is about practising balance. Not too much of anything - now is the time for moderation. Moderation helps to build resilience because it keeps you in a stable, central place, rather than ricocheting from high to low and back again.
Those around you - particularly those that you lead - will thank you for being a good self-manager, too. You will role model behaviours that will help them to develop their own resilience, as well as being more stable and dependable at times when they need to lean on you.
“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. Building trust is a fundamental element of establishing psychological safety and is key to ensuring you and your employees are resilient. Google undertook a two-year study to understand the qualities of a high-performance team. The findings showed that the highest-performing teams had one thing in common: psychological safety which means that team members trust that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake.
But it’s not just about work teams. It’s about building social supports in all domains of your life. Your neighbourhood, communities of interest around your hobbies, your friends and family. Because research shows that communities make us happy. Not all of these will be relevant for you, but pick and choose where you would like to an active part of a network. For me, it’s my street, my daughter’s school, my book group, my LinkedIn community, my friends/family, my coaching colleagues, and the organisations which I am an associate for. I like the balance these provide between work and non-work, and between interests, and socialising for the sake of socialising. What are the networks you are already an active part of? Are there more that you would like to cultivate? You’re not just looking for people who will be there to catch you when you fall (although that can be a positive), you’re looking for people who you enjoy being with and can gain sustenance, happiness, and ultimately resilience from being part of that community.
So, from reading the above, you will hopefully have a better understanding of what resilience is and how it works. See if you can find ways to practise and change at least two elements that are highlighted here and see if they have a positive impact on your feelings of resilience.