"Reviewing Resilience as an outcome: the real experience is a positive outcome from deeper levels of learning" by Sue Young

A fresh look at ‘Resilience’: After some recent coaching assignments, I have been left wondering about the idea of resilience  – something is still missing from these definitions (as I often see it ‘defined’).

Resilience is usually positioned as a necessary response to a difficult situation that involves some pain in conditions that were seen in a negative light – something to be got through. However in my view there is not enough attention given to the growth and satisfaction derived from coping with and even coming to thrive in conditions that can be seen as a source of stimulating accelerated learning and even enjoyable challenge.

A Peer Coaching Study: I have recently been working with a peer coaching group of managers in an organisation that is in a phase of major change and transition.

The report offered here, by the people involved, in the language of the actual people in the situation somehow carries more immediate meaning than most of the ‘professional’ language about resilience (a quick comparison I’ll expand on later). Their language speaks to what I considered I was doing in contributing to this Peer Coaching, as well.

The importance of a practical view: This perspective, as I’ve described here, has raised questions for me about the real nature of resilience. This reflection has made me take a more practical and positive view of resilience especially when it is something that is part of a normal healthy approach to continuous learning, rather than something that is taken up as a vague theoretical label for the solution.

My Case Study:   

The People involved: In one organisation, I have been working with a group of Managers on their development as leaders – some for nearly 3 years. Again, they have been going through a lot of pressure, working in a highly politicised international environment, close to government and political interests, and going through a great deal of restructuring change.

Those I am working with are highly capable people fully stretched by the scale and complexity of the Task they face. There is not a clear direction and focus from the top; there is a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity, as the organisation goes through major shifts and re-aligning in the ways it operates. The perception by some that they need to come up with simple direct answers is still an illusion that holds, despite all the evidence showing that it is simply not a feasible, realistic, or even desirable way forward.

Not everyone has adapted well. In some areas, and with some people, the uncertainty has caused some individuals, and sometimes whole areas of the organisation to be frozen in a highly defensive mind-set and set of behaviours. This feeds a negative, highly politicised culture where fear causes people to be reluctant to stick their head above the parapet. Avoidance and blame behaviours dominate the culture.

This can result in the best people looking to leave, and low levels of motivation and initiative in everyone who stays.

The report coming out from this group.

Let me share what resilience really looks like on an every day basis for people coping with the ambitions and hopes they have for themselves and their organisation, as managers and leaders. Following a number of peer coaching sessions they shared what they had experienced and learned that helped them bounce back and retain their sense of motivation.

  • The support of a trusted group and ‘safe space’ where I can feel free to express my feelings, doubts and thoughts in relation to the realities of what I see going on

  • Retaining my personal independent values and standards of professionalism

  • Supporting my people and being there for them

  • Seeing and connecting to the Bigger Picture and taking a longer term perspective

  • See the organisational politics and political manouvreings for what they are. Recognise and take account of them but don’t be driven thoughtlessly by them

  • Maintain a positive sense of the opportunities in times of change – think out of the box

  • Connect to and be able to articulate the skills, capabilities and breadth and depth of experience I bring. If I don’t do that for myself I won’t be able to convey it to others

  • Maintain balance. Work is part of Life, not the other way around. Retain a sense of the really important things in Life

  • Extract the learning from setbacks. There would be no deeper learning and true progress in Life without setbacks

  • Ensure you can always step back and see things objectively, review your options and retain that sense of independence

  • You may not have the power to change the situation you’re faced with but you do have the power to choose how you think and feel about it

  • Retain a sense of humour!

As capable people none of them were helpless in the face of challenging circumstances, and including peer coaching as part of their leadership development helped them significantly to strengthen their insights, confidence and ability into how to deal with these challenges.

It has to be said that the challenges were partly due to the ambitions they had each formed. Without such aspirations, they may not have been so challenged.

Another thing that has stood out for me is how some people do not recognise or appreciate the strength they have shown. It is only when it is affirmed or pointed out by others that they feel it for real. This is where coaching skills that help individuals focus on their strengths and opportunities can best contribute to the way forward.

I have been so impressed and humbled by peoples’ abilities to hang on and continue to deliver and grow in todays’ organisations.

So what does the best current theory on what Resilience have to say?

I include a reference to a reasonable professional authority on the matter of resilience – the American Psychological Association (APA). Interestingly the British Psychological Society’s description of resilience was more general and ‘academic’.

The American Psychological Association (APA) looks at the Psychology of Resilience from the perspective of extremes of personal stress but also emphasises how it can be approached very constructively as a process that helps another person re-engage with their abilities to learn. This way everyone can find resilience.

The APA also provides useful information that “describes resilience and some factors that affect how people deal with hardship.” Importantly they list the “10 ways to build resilience” to develop a personal strategy for enhancing resilience as a result of how people have dealt with difficult events that have changed their lives (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx)

A summary of their key points is:

10 ways to build resilience

  1. Make connections. Accepting help and support from those who care about you

  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better.

  3. Accept that change is a part of living. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

  4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals.

  5. Take decisive actions. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses.

  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves

  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems

  8. Keep things in perspective. try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.

  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. expect that good things will happen in your life rather than worrying about what you fear

  10. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings.

Comparing my case report with the formal theory …

The APA starts from a particular position that focuses on something that needs to be got through as a matter of survival or coping, let alone natural adjustment, or learning. They then moves to ways to enhance resilience. Comparing the summary shown with my report there are some similarities with comments made … and they may need to be just accepted as they are … very general (and mantra like).  But where do we then get the real practical understanding from?

It is so much more meaningful when this is in the words of the people actually involved - because they relate it to the specific conditions which they operate in.

The gap:  Resilience is still too often described as only a response to high levels of stress, i.e. a crisis where the level of stress that is about to cause some significant breakdown; when people are at some apparent stage of helplessness. The call for resilience is put to!

Conventional commentaries also describe resilience as what makes the difference –  a special quality, by itself,  of some sort. ‘Resilience allows a person to rebound from adversity as a strengthened and more resourceful person’. It’s described innately as a characteristic or a particular and special human trait, some sort out input rather than output.

I still find the research and writings in the field on resilience limited compared to the reality I see in organisations and the experience of my coaching clients.

The reality:  Resilience is more an outcome, and certainly not the best way to create the learning needed. It is a sign of positive success in what has been needed. It is also something that is a normal sign of healthy functioning. People are all well capable of it. Of course there are times when circumstances produce surprises that can leave people very stressed. But then coping is more a matter of effective learning than it is found through anything I have read about resilience.

In times of rapid far fetching organisational change the ability of people to reflect on and learn from their experience is paramount – often while under time pressures. It is a long term game, with a particular set of capabilities required.

In conclusion:        

Writing this has been a chance to express the reality in everyday words what this Coaching thing can be – from people doing it, rather than attempting to sum it all up in a few short ‘ models. Translating the Coaching theory into something more realistic…

  • How have you observed in practice how managers learn to adapt under pressure?

  • What would you want to add to my group’s list?

  • What is your experience of the kind of characteristics, behaviours, ways of thinking and support that help people develop their ability to bounce back from setbacks, go beyond and further?