When we think about “resilience,” we typically imagine bouncing back from major hardship. Management theorists have increasingly put forward a more nuanced definition, however: resilience as the ability to adapt to complex change. But in today’s world, that means the demand for resilience is almost constant. With the ongoing onslaught of problems leaders face, and change being the only constant in organizational life, leaders must cultivate resilience as an ongoing skill, not just for the “big moments” of painful setbacks or major change.
After more than 30 years working alongside senior leaders amidst profound change, I have found that there are four strategies you can use to build resilience. These recommendations stem from a significant study of 167 leaders, which revealed that the most resilient leaders know themselves well — their strengths, their triggers, and their convictions. Here’s how to build your resilience through deeper self-knowledge:
Take honest stock of your skills. In the face of precedent-setting changes, leaders often second-guess themselves to a paralyzing degree. One client I worked with, a long-tenured supply-chain executive, needed to announce plant closings as part of improving his company’s manufacturing footprint. He was so panicked over what the organization’s reaction would be, he delayed the announcement by weeks. At the core of his fear was a gripping belief that he didn’t have the credibility to explain the decision or the skill to withstand the resentment of his department with whom he had enjoyed mutual loyalty for decades. But in truth, it was precisely that long-standing loyalty that gave him the credibility to announce the decision, and his meticulous planning that would eventually minimize any negative reaction. The anxiety of change had blurred his ability to take an objective look at his own strengths.
Resilient leaders take honest stock of where their skills and experiences have prepared them well for the difficulties they are facing, and what they may be legitimately lacking. They augment their shortfalls with the skills of others, and prepare themselves as best they can. Most importantly, they readily acknowledge those shortfalls to avoid the appearance of trying to hide them.
Curb misplaced irritability. Confronted with intense levels of stress amidst turbulent change or the headwinds of a harsh market, leaders’ fuses get short. Leaders lacking sufficient awareness of how their behavior is being affected tend to take out their stress on whomever happens to be in the way. Administrative assistants, unwitting family members, or direct reports trying to help can often bear the brunt of misplaced frustrations. During an onslaught of major change, sources of irritation can often be circumstances outside anyone’s control, like changing regulatory requirements or a market slow down. Leaders who fail to constrain their petulant reactions to adversity drain their organizations of resilience.
Leaders with strong self-knowledge can stop their misdirected harsh reactions before hurting others. They focus on the things they can control.
Push back on unrealistic expectations instead of passing them on. One of the common but unfortunate byproducts of major change is the setting of unrealistic goals. For many leaders, those expectations are set by higher-ups. Leaders who lack a sufficiently strong sense of themselves simply pass those expectations onto those they lead, compounded by their own angry sense of victimization. I’ve watched many ineffective leaders open announcements of change with messages like, “I know it’s not fair, and it feels like we’re being set up to fail, but these are the expectations we have to live with.” What little resilience the organization may have had is drained before change is even attempted.
Leaders with strong self-knowledge don’t fear pushing back on others, including bosses or customers, and renegotiating goals and timelines when they don’t make sense. With a clear rationale and supporting data, these leaders make their case for why expectations are unrealistic, what risks get imposed by not adjusting them, and offer realistic alternatives that give the organization a greater chance of success. And they do this with the clear intention of helping those with implausible aspirations to adjust their outlook before facing a major setback.
Leaders strengthen their own and their team’s resilience when they impose change or face challenges that they are confident they can realistically execute.
Recognize when you’ve fallen into ambivalence and go back to first principles. Protracted seasons of adversity or discontinuous change can lead even the most tenacious leaders to feel discouraged. Many leaders subconsciously succumb to an “auto-pilot” approach just to cope. The problem is their resulting ambivalence about overcoming adversity or thriving through change causes those around them to also lose hope and withdraw effort.
One of my clients was on the brink of quitting her job. She was the head of R&D in a large pharmaceutical company and was faced with dramatically accelerating product development cycles in the face of a culture whose therapeutic area leaders were notoriously territorial. After two years of trying to build a culture that shifted from cross-functional competition to a shared sense of success, she was ready to give up. But her deep passion to bring promising medicines to patients whose lives could be changed prevailed against her battle fatigue, and served as a rallying vision to push otherwise parochial leaders past their “for me to win, you have to lose” mentality.
Leaders mindful of their own flagging tenacity dig deeper and redouble their efforts to push ahead, inspiring those around them to do the same.
Adversity in organizational life, sometimes the result of major change, sometimes the provocateur of it, is a way of life today. Leaders need higher levels of resilience in constant reserve to weather this new normal. Those leaders with strong self-knowledge — who have a clear understanding of their skills and shortcomings, their frustrations, and their core principles — are more likely to sustain those needed reserves of resilience to thrive through adversity and change.