Ordinary magic (Executive Series)

Why resilience can completely change a person’s experience of work
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2015

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements: 

Canadian HR Reporter's news coverage

OE, 1 employee at a time, by Michael Clark

Ordinary magic

Why resilience can completely change a person’s experience of work

By Liz Bernier

Eight years ago, Andrew Soren went to camp. It wasn’t an ordinary camp — it was a summer camp for children with cancer. And Soren was one of a number of volunteers who spent a week there with the kids. 

“It changed my life,” he said. “It’s the most magical experience to be able to go to camp and see these kids find ways of connecting with each other, and they totally transform the lives of all the volunteers involved.”

The volunteers got to see the kids flourish, despite overwhelming adversity, he said. And both the children and the volunteers gave that camp the best they had.

“There was no monetary reason why they were doing this, but they were performing at their very best.”

Soren has returned to volunteer at the camp every year since — and those experiences have made him curious. 

“How were they creating this ordinary magic that made this experience of camp come to life?” he said at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“How do you get individuals in organizations to flourish? How do you get people to perform their very best?”

That ordinary magic, as he calls it, has a name: Resilience. 

It’s quite a loaded term, said Soren, who is a leadership coach and consultant as well as senior advisor of talent and leadership strategies at BMO in Toronto.  

“There’s actually a huge wealth of information and research about this topic.”

Defining resilience 

Resilience is one of those topics that people have all sorts of extraordinary definitions for — and there are a number of pervasive myths about it, said Soren. 

 “We have often this picture of the resilient hero standing alone in the field of battle,” he said. “We have these senses that resilience can mean no emotion, going it alone, doing it the solo way… those are some of the myths that people often have about resilience.”

But that’s deeply untrue — resilience is very much a team sport, he said. 

Another big myth is we are born with resilience — we’re either got it or we don’t, and it’s not a skill that can be developed. But that’s not true either, said Soren. 

“The reality is that resilience is actually very emotional. I would say resilience and emotional intelligence are actually two really closely tied connections.”

And resilience isn’t about being stoic, perfect or unmoved. 

“In fact, much more of the research suggests that it’s actually about muddling through than it is about being able to confidently move on… those who are best at resilience are those who are best at just muddling through,” he said. 

“The type of resilience that I want to connect about and talk about is really the ordinary magic, as opposed to the invincible and the invulnerable.”

It’s actually something we all know — to a certain extent, you already know how to be resilient, he said. 

“If we just applied a little bit more attention and focus on it, we’d be able to, ultimately, be much more satisfied.”

Tiny paper cuts

One classic definition of resilience is patterns of positive adaptation during significant challenge or adversity, said Soren. 

“But there’s one thing about this definition that I don’t love, and it’s the notion of significant adversity. I don’t actually think that adversity necessarily needs to be about big things. I think in many ways, it’s a series of tiny paper cuts that we get every single day.”

When we tackle strategy execution, for example, those tiny paper cuts can sometimes be the biggest challenges.

“It is the collection and accumulation of all the tiny things that get in our way every single day that ultimately make us exhausted at the end of the day,” he said. 

But becoming positively adaptive to those little situations that add up can help make the big stuff easier.

“My bottom line on resilience is that the way that you think changes how you feel and what you do,” said Soren. 

“I am focusing on the things that we’re not born with, but that we all have the capacity to develop.”

Building resilience 

There are six factors of resilience, he said.  Ultimately, these allow someone to become more resilient. 

“These are the things that we all have a capacity to change.”

The first is emotional awareness and regulation.

“We need to identify that ‘Whatever emotion I’m feeling right now isn’t going to last forever,’” he said. 

The second is impulse control, or the ability to control behaviour to achieve goals.

The third one is optimism. This is often misunderstood because it doesn’t mean that we aren’t realistic, he said. 

“We do mean just an ability to see the glass as half full.”

Also, optimism can be learned, particularly when it comes to changing how we explain negative situations to ourselves, he said. 

“(I need to be able to) look at something and say, ‘That bad thing that just happened, that’s not entirely my fault. And it’s not always going to be bad, and it’s not everything that’s bad.’”

Connected to that is the fourth factor, which is flexible and accurate thinking, he said. 

“It’s about really thinking through all the causes and effects of a situation,” said Soren.  

“When I see that bigger picture, that ultimately allows me to become much more cognizant of my place in it.”

The fifth factor of resilience is empathy and connection, which really connects to the notion of resilience being a team sport, said Soren. 

The sixth and final factor is self-efficacy.

“Self-efficacy is a huge predictor of whether or not someone will be resilient. If they believe that they can, then they’re much more likely to able to be resilient,” he said. 

Workplace benefits

Those skills and competencies behind building resilience have been tested extensively, said Soren. 

“Most of the research that has been done has taken place in schools and in the army.” 

In schools, in particular, there have been huge amounts of success training teachers to be able to train students in resilience, he said.  

They’ve also had a huge impact with resilience training in the military. The U.S. army created a resilience training program for every single military cadet that enters, he said. 

“(It’s aimed toward) helping people ultimately prevent things like post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, drinking problems — all of the things that ultimately are terrible and costly. So how can they help soldiers prevent those terrible things that happen?”

Those benefits are clear, but what about resilience in a more general workplace setting? 

There are numerous benefits,  according to the research that’s been done on resilience in organizations, said Soren. 

“When people have positive expectations for the future, there’s a greater belief in our ability to be able to handle on-the-job challenges. There’s more discretionary effort that people are putting in, there’s higher job satisfaction, there’s greater intentions to stay, there’s reduced turnover, there’s more organizational commitment and less deviant behaviour,” he said. 

“Those attitudes and behaviours lead to performance.”

OE, 1 employee at a time

By Michael Clark

Organizational effectiveness initiatives tend to be big solutions to big problems: A modernist legacy of imposing our will on systems instead of individuals. However, as we become firmly enveloped in a post-modern world, where the increasing complexity of organizations increasingly resists “big change,” the return on these initiatives — spotty to begin with — wanes. 

What if we reversed the telescope? If organizations are the sum of their individuals, could we drive organizational effectiveness through individual effectiveness? Could many small solutions to many individual problems overcome the inertia of complexity? Could these accumulate to create a sustainable, critical mass of positive change that would result in organizational effectiveness from the other direction? To be clear, I’m not referring to just-in-case skill building, the go-to solution of yore — rather, I’m suggesting we individually look inward toward our destructive and ultimately self-destructive thinking and resulting behaviours.
Andrew Soren’s resilience presentation to SCN revealed exactly that. Soren is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s renowned positive psychology program, home base for the resilience movement. He demonstrated that resilience research has shown that many small improvements in characteristics such as emotional regulation, impulse control, optimism, flexible thinking, empathy and self-efficacy resulted in individuals and their organizations being much better at handling adversity, and change in general. 

Soren positioned “resilience” not as the modernist myth of the superhero — resolute, solo and stoic — but, rather, as everyday individuals in a complex and interconnected world that acknowledge and confront adversity, do so together, and move forward by muddling through. The science of resilience has shown it’s not about “invincible and invulnerable,” it’s about the “ordinary magic” of learning to use intrinsic coping tools that we, as individuals, have at hand.

Soren showed that “bottom up” resilience is teachable and it results in sustainable improvements in attitudes and behaviours (including engagement), greater performance and increases in well-being. Taken as a whole, that’s organizational effectiveness “by any other name.” 

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company Limited in Toronto. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm, with over 25 years experience developing organizational and leadership capability in organizations. 

Fail wisely to be resilient

By Morgan Smyth

There are several qualities found in most successful people. Tenacity, drive, willpower, integrity and passion, to name a few. They all are valuable and all produce positive results. But the one “must-have” quality is resilience.

What is resilience? It’s the ability to successfully bounce back from, or adapt to, serious external risks, threats and adversities, and to achieve emotional and intellectual growth from these experiences. It also means to not get too euphoric when all the stars align. Remember the old Persian adage: “This too shall pass.”

Resilience is special because it’s most useful when things go bad. For instance, when key employees inform you they are quitting to start a competitive company or when a main supplier decides to eliminate all distributors and sell direct only — how well would you bounce back?

It’s moments like these that test our mettle. Sure, it’s great to have the other qualities and they are all very important, as long as our road is clear and free of any surprises. To paraphrase an old African proverb, “Smooth roads do not make skilful travellers.” 
Businesses are facing greater challenges as they try to survive, let alone catch up to this ever- accelerating market pace. Competitors are re-inventing themselves overnight. Most companies’ best-before dates have come and gone. Technology is creating new routes to market by leaps and bounds. And the millennials are here.

How does one cope? Many executives can’t. Why not? Because they haven’t experienced many misfortunes or severe hazards, nor have they been run over or beaten up in their careers.

Even recent cohorts of overly protected graduates have never experienced academic failure — one of the most important lessons any training facility could provide.

Neither group has been exposed to situations from which they could acquire firsthand knowledge of what it really takes to recover quickly and prosper from failures. It’s not easy. So what can they do about it? How do we become more resilient?

Some think we are born with varying degrees of resilience, while others think we acquire most of our resilience from life’s everyday experiences. It’s true we learn more from our failures than from our successes. Failures really grab our attention while we usually take success for granted.

But if this is the case, the obvious solution is to fail as many times as we can. But a more effective solution is “Fail wisely.” Be mindful of when and how we fail, understand why we fail, and examine how we react to these failures. Be honest and objective in our analysis — strip out all emotional content. Perform a “lessons learned” diagnosis to determine what went wrong, what went right, why they did, and how we can avoid any mistakes in the future.

By doing so, we will hone our resilience and build our confidence. We will also improve our attitude — viewing problems more as welcomed challenges and growing opportunities, rather than as threats.

As is nicely captured in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” and in the Buddhist teachings within the Noble Eightfold Path, mindfulness is a powerful tool with which to gain insight into the motives of our behaviours. So too is awareness of the alignment between our apparent resilience and our emotional intelligence (EI), namely in the areas of self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, social awareness and social skills.

How will we survive and thrive when any of these external challenges are thrown at us? One way is to always keep a cool head, be mindful of our actions and reactions, and keep a positive attitude throughout.

Morgan Smyth is an SCNetwork thought leader and a change management consultant who launched his own IT services company which soared to Profit Magazine’s 50 Fastest Growing Companies. He is based in Toronto and can be reached at msmyth@braegen.com.

Leaders need to be onboard

By Trish Maguire

What do we mean by “resilience”? I would describe resilient people as having an optimistic and positive outlook on life. They typically show an ability to navigate life’s crises by developing effective coping mechanisms, and they keep a balanced perspective between negative and positive emotions. 

Is it really resilience that needs to be mastered to survive in today’s corporations or is the root of the problem within a corporation’s environment and culture?

Thanks to the early research and developed theories of great humanist thinkers such as Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow, we all have the opportunity of choosing to learn how most of our barriers to personal growth and development are self-imposed. Rogers’ “self-actualization” concept revealed we have unlimited potential for growth and creativity. He proved we can absolutely learn how to increase our self-efficacy and our ability to make things happen both personally and professionally. Decades ago, he championed that everybody is capable of achieving the highest level of “human-beingness.”

Soren asked, “Why hasn’t this taken off in corporations already?” I too am mystified as to what it is that stops business leaders from choosing to fully leverage this human capacity of creativity and growth. Saul McLeod, in a 2014 article in Simply Psychology, offers a plausible answer where he cites Rogers’ own words — “For a person to ‘grow,’ they need an environment that provides them with genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen with unconditional positive regard) and empathy (being listened to and understood).”

So how do things improve if more leaders don’t stop to understand what’s going wrong with their culture and how to do better? What has to happen before more leaders understand that our very humanness means we act, work, produce and behave with our perception of the truth, and not in accordance with the truth? We live and work on partial beliefs, partial truths and sometimes function on false and invalid beliefs. Could it be possible the theory behind “self-actualization” continues to raise alarm signals in our workplaces? Could it be that the corporate world confuses positive psychology with frameworks of psychology such as mental health or pathology? 

We keep hearing leaders talk about their commitment to building a great company culture where people have a sense of connection, community and caring. Over and over, case studies report that improved productivity and innovation are the result of healthy work relationships in cultures where people care about each other and about their work.

If the concept of “positive psychology” is too right-brained or not strategic enough for the corporate world, there are five easy habits any leader can activate: Constantly work with a clear vision where people understand and most of all are proud of their company’s mission and reputation; promote a culture where people feel respected and valued; encourage them to convey their appreciation for each other’s contributions and to help them achieve their potential. Give people a voice in decision-making; include, involve and encourage them to share their ideas and opinions honestly; to actively listen to others ideas and opinions without judgment and disagreement. Be a responsible and authentic leader where you put the needs of others first before your own and encourage others to do the same. Lastly celebrate; people are the heart of your organization, celebrate them; celebrate their loyalty and commitment to excellence, innovation and personal growth.  

If leaders and corporations are showing a renewed and increasing interest in leveraging positive psychology to improve workplaces, the real question is: Are they ready to change their own belief and values system? Change has to start from the top. Are they prepared to change the way they think and the way they act? 

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

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