A Research Paper By Anja Haman, Performance Coach, CANADA
Why Resilience Matters
- Over 80% of executives believe that the ability to lead through complexity and ambiguity is now a unique leadership requirement (Deloitte, 2019, pg 6).
- The pace of change is called out as a key trend for future leadership by a third of respondents in a 2020 LinkedIn survey (LinkedIn, Jan 2020).
Adapting positively to a faster changing world matter today. As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, our global economy can require rapid, large-scale shifts at the moment. Even without a large-scale event, customers can switch their various providers more easily than ever before, competitors can surface from around the globe, and technology can change the landscape of an industry. In response, companies – and their employees – need to adapt quickly and efficiently to maintain their ability to compete.
What Is Resilience?
Resilience research is still in its early phase, but the number of research publications has been increasing steadily with over half of them published since 2017. Many of the studies are focused on health care or high-risk occupational settings like the military, police, and firefighters with fewer on business, public administration, and educational contexts (Scheuch et al., 2021, pg 3)
In line with the early phase of research, there is no agreed alignment on the definition of resilience. Initially viewed as a trait, it has more recently been viewed as a process or an outcome, with no final agreed definition to date. However, some common elements help anchor the concept. For this paper, we focus on psychological resilience rather than physical resilience.
Most researchers agree that resilience requires both adversity and positive adaption (Fletcher & Sakar 2013).
Adversity itself can range from everyday stressors to uncommon traumatic experiences and clarifying what is meant is key to any resilience work.
Positive Adaptation Needs to Be Clearly Defined as It Can Infer “Bouncing Back” After Adversity or “Never Bouncing”. So Is the Goal to Manage the Adversity as It Happens or to Bounce Back Afterward?
Some useful resilience definitions:
- “The ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress and adversity” (Wu et al. 2013).
- “Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity” (Adam Grant).
Resilience can be learned even though genetics can play a part (Tabibnia & Radecki 2018, Wu et al. 2013). In fact, facing adversity can help individuals develop resilience as recent evidence suggests that individuals without a history of adversity may not fare as well as those with some adversity in their histories (Wu et al. 2013).
Individuals can develop a suite of capabilities – skills, attitudes, and strategies – to support resilience. While these capabilities tend to endure once learned, resilience is dynamic over time and each context may require slightly different capabilities (Fletcher & Sakar 2013).
Context matters. Interventions deliver the best results when multiple individual capabilities are developed, the environment is managed to enable resilience, and social support is available:
- Resilience capabilities include labeling emotions, reframing perspectives, journaling, positive self-talk, and many more (detailed in the next section). Different capabilities are used in different contexts – there is no one formula – and the more capabilities an individual has the more contexts they will be resilient in (Lawton Smith 2017).
- Capabilities are only as good as the environment – executives who had displayed resilience throughout their careers felt their resilience fade when they encountered environments where their values didn’t align, they lacked meaning in their work, or they weren’t given opportunities to refuel. This implies that values alignment, purpose, and time to refuel provide people with the environment necessary to use their resilience capabilities (Lawton Smith 2017).
- Research papers consistently cite that perceived social support is a requirement for resilience. Having a small, meaningful set of relationships and sharing gratitude with them or journaling about gratitude for having them is of particular impact (Tabibnia and Radecki, 2018).
Resilience in Coaching
The good news is that coaching is already well set up to enable resilience. The following are some opportunities for coaches to help develop their client’s self-efficacy over time.
- If resilience is a goal, ensure you align on what resilience means in their context: what is the stressor, and what does positive adaptation look like? What are the performance or emotional outcomes? What cultural and environmental influences are at play?
- Your client’s expectations around an outcome influence their experience (Tabibnia & Radecki 2018), so a growth mindset is a key conceptual model: if they believe they can grow through the process they are more likely to. Also, teaching clients that resilience can be learned may be an important part of their success.
- Setting process and outcome goals is a key activity for developing momentum through adversity. Process goals help create short-term wins and positive feedback that builds confidence and keeps us engaged over time; outcome goals help focus our minds on what matters to us in the long term. Together these goal types can help clients overcome inertia and keep the momentum going.
Creating Awareness and Reframing Perspectives
- Labeling emotions has been shown to reduce their potency in multiple research studies.
- Facing negative emotions has been shown to be more effective than avoidance, with two exceptions: when clients are ruminating or have experienced more serious trauma (when therapy is preferable). In both instances, distancing and distraction are then viable approaches.
- Reframing limiting beliefs and behaviors is key, specifically:
- minimize catastrophic thinking
- challenge counterproductive beliefs
- move from a negative or over-generalized explaining style (“I failed, so I am unable”) to a more specific and positive style (“I failed this exam but when I study more I can pass”)
- focus on what is controllable, and when little in the environment offers control, focus on controlling mindset and responses
- Problem-solving develops the resilience muscle. Enabling clients to solve their problems, acknowledging their progress, and celebrating results are key coaching activities that build resilience. Tied in with attentive goal setting, a positive feedback loop is created.
- Positive self-talk and self-affirmation have been referenced as key tools in sports and personal effectiveness for some time. It encompasses accepting thoughts as they appear but appraising if they serve you. If negative thoughts are not serving you, mentally “shelve them” as unhelpful and replace them with positive thoughts. Most recently, research has demonstrated that speaking to oneself in the third person has a greater impact on reducing stress and increasing performance than using the first person (CCL 2022).
- Self Compassion is cited as one of the more powerful sources of coping (Jean Whitlock et al. 2021). The authors describe self-compassion in the form of mindfulness (identifying emotional, physical, and mental pain at the moment), placing our struggles as a common part of humanity (“my struggles are experienced by many others”), and offering ourselves kindness (in the form of physical or emotional care).
- Expressing Gratitude and journaling can boost well-being and have lasting effects on emotion regulation.
- Humour has been shown to provide a powerful protector against stressors, not only for alleviating tension and creating a sense of lightness over significance but also because it can attract social support (Wu et al. 2018, Carson & Langer 2006).
Context Matters: The Importance of Aligned Support Structures
- Purpose and values play an important role in a person’s capacity to be resilient. As mentioned earlier, context matters: resilience capabilities seem to lose effectiveness when values are misaligned or a meaningful purpose is missing. Coaching can help clients define their values and purpose, and explore how these affect their current challenges. It also has been proposed that individuals with strong internal compasses spend less energy on managing thoughts, emotions, and impulses leaving them with more energy for performance-related activities (Lawton Smith, pg 19).
- Time to refuel is another requirement for resilience. Without adequate refueling opportunities, leaders are unable to draw on their existing resilience tools. Coaches can help clients identify what refueling looks like for them and how to build it into their lives.
- Social support is consistently cited as a critical piece for being resilient and is indeed a part of the ICF coaching process. Small meaningful groups that offer positive relationships are particularly impactful. Journaling or talking about gratitude for this support group enhances the value of the support.
It Is Possible to Develop Resilience
Resilience can be learned, and coaching provides a way for individuals to develop an awareness of their responses to adverse events, and application capabilities to face those events in the workplace. Developing a broad set of tools over time allows individuals to remain resilient in more contexts. Coaching can also support the individual by ensuring the environment is managed to enable resilience: confirming the individual has a social support system, time to refuel, and a strong inner compass with purpose and values defined.
Since context matters, team and organizational opportunities exist for supporting resilience in individuals, and these should be further explored.
Carmelina Lawton Smith, (2017, March). Coaching for leadership resilience: An integrated approach, International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 12 No. 1, pg 4-21
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