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Resilient leadership

Personal resilience always has been and always will be an essential leadership skill. Resilience provides us with the calm, clarity and time to make sensible, calm decisions. Resilience means we can project calm and clarity to those around us. And our personal resilience can help us push through the darkest times in our lives and business. But what about when the entire world is facing a crisis, lacking confidence and everyone is anxious. This has been a growing reality for a number of years, but in the wake of COVID-19 resilience on a massive scale is being tested more than ever. What can you do to boost your resilience and be the leader that helps their team (and loved ones) feel more resilient too? Read on...

The need for leaders who are calm, rational and respond to crises in a calm manner has never been greater. Leaders need to handle hugely differing reactions to situations and channel these emotions to better reactions and outcomes.

But how leaders respond in times of crisis and upheaval is directly linked to a leader’s personal resilience. Whether we are able to build resilience in the people around us also depends on our own personal resilience. But what does resilience really mean and how can we build and utilise it to be better leaders?

What is resilience?

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health issues or workplace and financial stressors. Our resilience needs to kick in whenever our emotional response goes negative so that we can bounce back from difficult experiences.

We are all resilient, all the time on some level, otherwise, we would never get out of bed ever again after we experience emotional pain. We all demonstrate resilience every day, from the every-day things of dealing with difficult colleagues to the more unusual and painful situations of losing a loved one. Right now, the world is experiencing the need to resilience to uncertainty. And each and every one of us is dealing with that in a unique way. How we are responding, is in some measure, directly related to our personal resilience.  

But it is important to remember that being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are normal responses to challenging and emotional situations. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress, as you only learn about and build your resilience by necessarily testing your resilience level.

Resilience is also directly linked to stress. The need for a resilient response kicks in during times of stress, and by stress I mean whenever our emotional response is a non-positive emotional response. We often think of the need for resilience to ‘bounce back’ after a stressful event, but actually what is really happening, is that we keep exhibiting stress symptoms until such time as our resilience response kicks in. 

Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. Resilience is not a trait that you either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

Coping and adapting

Your resilience and anyone else’s can be thought of as of comprising two key components: coping and adapting.

No one expects working life to be consistently straightforward and routine, however, routine is comfortable for our minds, so we ‘cope’ more easily. But for many of us we would find a predictable job where we did the same thing every day, with no innovation or change, a source of frustration. So to enjoy our jobs we need change and therefore we build in an intrinsic level of unecrtainty just to enjoy what we do. But, it needs to be balanced and within moderation to ensure we are ‘coping’

So we come to the second component: adapting.

Your ability to adapt helps you develop your resilience, or adapt to support others, which in itself may test your resilience. This is why this is such a complex subject: everything in your work and personal life contributes to your current emotional state. Just because you are ‘fine’ at work, doesn’t mean you are ‘fine’ at home and vice versa.

We also need to all learn and adapt to other people’s current resilience, or apparent lack of. This is important if you are a manager or work in a team, as most of us do, not just for the benefit of the person who is currently at the limit of their resilience, but for our own benefit and resilience. If someone else’s resilience is currently low, for whatever reason, that may put a strain on you, which means you also need to adapt.

To help understand what we might need to do to adapt and cope, it is first worth reflecting on why resilience is an issue. Start by listing out all the things you think might be a ‘drain’ on your resilience. This is anything that makes you sad, sigh, angry, tired, or just generally contributes towards you feeling drained in some way. Some will be big and out of your control (hello COVID-19), but many will be small and you may think they are trivial (a team meeting that you don’t find enjoyable) or something you are ashamed of (feeling exhausted by your children is something to accept and not judge yourself on!). You can keep this list private, but you do need to be honest with yourself

Developing your resilience

Once you know what is draining your resilience you can work on mechanisms to boost it. Tackle each one and see if you can reduce them, but here are some general tips for improving your resilience:

  1. Resilience is a finite resource that resets overnight when you get a (good) night’s sleep. So focus on getting plenty of good quality sleep. Most people today do not get enough sleep, let along enough quality sleep. Aim for 8 hours at least in bed, and ideally at least 7 hours asleep. Sometimes this might be difficult (hello children!), but do the best you can. If possible share childcare responsibilities as nights-on/nights-off, and nap when your children do! Stop trying to squeeze more in during naptime! If you are better rested you will be able to show up better when you are awake, be more productive, more resilient and have happier people around you too!
  2. Clear your brain before bed. We all know that we should reduce blue light and screen time before bed. But what isn’t talked about more is the need to actively calm ourselves. If you want a good night’s sleep we need to be ready for sleep at bedtime! That means emptying our heads of all the things that are currently filling our thoughts. So if you tend to be someone who lies awake going over things, start journaling before bedtime to process thoughts and actively calm down. Meditation is also a great tool for relaxing but doesn’t work for everyone.
  3. Brain dump all-the-things at the end of your working day. If you don’t already have a definitive end-of-work process, this is the thing you should be doing. Grab a piece of paper or electronic document and spend 5-10 minutes listing all the things going through your head. Get them out and tell yourself that you’ll handle them tomorrow. Then first thing in the morning you can plan your day. Some people advocate planning the night before for the next day to improve focus in the morning, but this really is a personal productivity choice. If you find planning out makes you more productive, purposeful and better able to sleep then go for it!
  4. Surround yourself with people that boost your energy. Even if you are an introvert we can still get energy from those around us. A really great friendship, children that light you up, a great partner – all of these can boost your resilience and provide recovery time. This is best done when you are well-rested and resilient already, which is why we tend to go in upward spirals of resilience. People feed off your response to the world and you of them. So if you turn up positive and well-rested, whether you then interact with friends, family, colleagues or children, those around you will also respond more positively and you will all get a boost. Similarly, if you are not well-rested, drained and/or lacking resilience, your mood will impact those around you. This is most obvious in adult/children relationships! But it happens with all relationships. So start by aiming for the upward spiral.
  5. Move towards motivating goals.
    Moving towards goals that motivate us and have clear end-points that don’t constantly shift can be extremely rewarding and therefore build our resilience. When we’re under strain we might tend to focus on the here and now and only see the immediate challenge we’re facing. Trying to develop or improve yourself means learning to do things that you currently can’t and this process can be difficult at times. Changing the way your business works, developing new strategies, starting in a new job or taking on a new project or role are likely to generate stress or difficulties but result in a better situation. If there is a setback on the way (e.g. failure to achieve promotion or secure funding), reminding yourself of the longer-term goal can help you to see the setback in context.
  6. Learn to say no. As a recovering people pleaser learning to say no was a difficult process for me, but has been essential for building and maintaining resilience. And the same is true for everyone I’ve worked with. Remember that when you say yes you are actually implicitly saying no to many other things. Those things might be super important to us, such as being forced to miss a family event or a child’s recital. So start saying no.

  7. Accept that change is part of living.

  8. Adverse situations may mean your goals are unattainable, focus on what can be changed.

  9. Ask for help.
    Every day we need to develop new skills, build our knowledge and will face new challenges. Much of this you will learn through experience, but there’s no sense in wasting time and losing confidence by trying to do things on your own when a colleague can help you work out a solution much more quickly.

  10. Take decisive actions
    Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Accept that many things won’t just go away!

  11. Learn to take time off and time out. We live in a time when people equate high performance to working crazy hours and never taking vacation. But these are not representative of the reality of high performers. The CEOs who make headlines for being sleeping on office floor are the unusual ones – that is why they make the headlines. Study after study shows that time off (vacation) and time out (breaks, evenings and weekends) correlate strongly with high performers. And its not surprising: when you take time off your brain recharges, but you don’t stop thinking. Instead your brain digests and solves problems. Over the years I’ve gradually reduced my number of ‘desk hours’ but my productivity has skyrocketed because my brain is problem-solving while I’m away from my desk! So start walking away from your work to build your productivity. 

  12. Set an alarm if necessary to take regular breaks.
    Switch off technology!
    Take your holidays!
    Avoid taking work home – go home, refresh and come back with a clear head. If you work from home, set a time when you will be done, finish up your task and put everything away.

  13. Find perspective. 
    Our resilience is often tested to the extreme when we can’t see a way out, or no good way out of a situation. Getting a different view can be hugely beneficial. Consider using a peer mentoring group as a way to tackle difficult situations, or hire a coach.

  14. Put feelings into context and find some perspective.
    Avoid comparing yourself unfavourably to others. It never ever serves us! Instead, focus on reminding yourself of your successes.
    Learn to let-go of things you can’t control: write down your concerns and look at them a week later.

  15. Work to your strengths.
    Sometimes our resilience drops because we inadvertently set ourselves up to fail, then become despondent when we do.
    Be realistic; set sensible deadlines; figure out when you are most productive.

  16. Develop coping strategies for specific resilience triggers.
    Figure out your triggers to prepare your reaction. For example, develop a checklist for dealing with a rejection of job/funding/paper.
    To help push through difficult times plan a reward for the end of a difficult project.

  17. Look at failure differently
    Accept that failure is part of working life and build in the following coping strategies:

    • Build in plans for failure: build a habit of being ready with an alternative plan

    • Reflect and ask for feedback

    • Remember that you don’t have to come up with the perfect solution every time! 

Demonstrating resilience as a leader

A leaders ability to stay calm, on message and focused, has a huge impact on the resilience of those they lead. We see this from politicians leading countries to a high school sports coach with their team. Once you’ve built up and learnt how to maintain your resilience, your next task to help build resilience in those around you.

  1. Remember that resilience at work is uniquely intertwined with what goes on outside the workplace too. As a leader, it is essential to remember this when we are dealing with difficult staff. We should all think twice before judging someone else’s apparently unreasonable response to something. We should still aim to educate people on being kind and professionalism. But more often than not when there is a performance issue there is something going on that we are not aware of.
  2. Make difficult decisions that impact your team at the beginning of the day when your resilience is highest. You will make a better decision and will be clearer on how to inform those involved in the most appropriate manner. 
  3. Act swiftly and decisively whenever possible. Resilience drops when people know there is uncertainty. Sometimes great leadership requires us to make decisions before we have all possible information for the benefit of the mental health of those we lead. Ask yourself why you are hesitating. Get comfortable with making decisions at the right time not just for your benefit but at the right time for the benefit of others too.
  4. Keep track of current projects and responsibilities. How resilient your team is, is often directly proportional to their workload. A good project manager should have a clear understanding of a team’s current responsibilities and workloads. And you should have some understanding of this for all your direct reports. The more senior the people that report to you, the more they should do this for themselves, but make sure you have a way to check up on this and not just pile on the pressure.
  5. Encourage your staff to be honest with you about your leadership. 360 reviews can be great, but what is even better is trust and honesty. If you build relationships where your staff know they can trust you will not get defensive, won’t explode and fire people and won’t just dig in, they will come to you sooner. You’ll get the chance to put out fires while they are only smouldering, and your staff will have boosted resilience because they know they can trust you.
  6. Encourage push-back. If you aren’t actively tracking the workload of your direct reports, make sure they can come to you and say ‘no I’m already too overloaded’ or ‘what do you want me to prioritise’. It is very easy for us to forget all the minutiae of the work we no longer do and the time that takes and we just pile on work for those that report to us. So encourage them to be honest with you about their workload.
  7. Tackle those who undermine the resilience of others. Toxic workplace behaviour has no place in 21st-century business’ and yet sadly, it is still thriving. Research has demonstrated for over 30 years that one toxic person undermines an entire team, however brilliant they may be. And poor behaviour by one person encourages it in others. Tackle it before it becomes a problem. If you are inheriting a group you’ll have your work cut out, but it will be worth it. 
  8. Share and be transparent. Too many managers don’t explain their decisions, their thoughts or their strategy. Things are kept private because it is business-critical, it will distract, or its too complicated and nuanced. My personal favourite is seeing a business where everyone is spending all their time trying to anticipate what a boss is about to dump on their plates because they know it is coming, but the boss isn’t sharing because they are worried about distracting the team! This happens. Openness and transparency will always work out better. Some stuff has to be kept private, but the default should be openness, with minimal privacy, not the other way round.

The above tips should help to build the resilience of your team, but if you are looking for more help head on over the Leading Women in Tech Facebook group for some free training on resilience.

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