Building resilience can help turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s triumphs

Managers must strive to create workplaces that can foster healthy, highly productive workforce

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 10:18pm

Managers are routinely rewarded for designing and driving through bold change programmes. They frequently have massive incentives to discover and highlight indicators of the success of their initiatives, as well as to ignore or bury evidence of the collateral damage to other people created by their striving to be a courageous change leader.

This collateral damage can include employees experiencing overwork, exhaustion, cynicism, and turnover.

No wonder then that, not just in Hong Kong, but around the world, these effects cause burnout. I am sure many workers recognise symptoms, which involves having the joy sucked out of their work.

It begs the question, what happened to our relationship to work in recent years? Have we become namby-pamby weaklings, unable to cope with day-to-day trials and tribulations?

Alternatively, but more likely, has work and its demands upon individuals grown more pervasive and led to higher levels of chronic stress?

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This possibility matters because within workplaces resilience is highly valued. Amidst demands to toil for long hours in the context of ever-shifting goal posts, it is not surprising that resilience is seen as a desirable quality.

Many people think good management is about doing more with less. The result is that people often have to work harder and constantly produce more, with less administrative support. Managers and employees alike are being seriously squeezed.

Given that ethical leadership involves keeping the best interests of employees in mind, organisational leaders have a serious professional and moral obligation to ensure that employees are not subjected to excessive pressure and stress.

Leaders thus have little basis or right to feel proud of audacious change initiatives in the service of their organisational and career goals that involve essentially forcing employees to constantly produce more than ever before.

Yet, sadly, leaders around the world boast of the efficiency gains they manage to strangle from an already over-stretched workforce.

If working in a context where whatever is produced is never enough, is there something employees can do about it? My recent research with Scott Seibert and Maria Kraimer on developing career resilience and adaptability highlights the value of developing psychological robustness as a foundation for applying other behavioural strategies.

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One of the keys to building psychological robustness is acknowledging and accepting negative emotions when they arise – such as anger, anxiety, frustration, self-doubt and sadness – in order to move beyond them as swiftly as possible.

The way emotions are acknowledged is very important. For instance, instead of saying to yourself, “I am so anxious,” it is better to instead say, “I am having the feeling that I am anxious,” thereby reminding yourself that just as day follows night, uncomfortable feelings will inevitably pass.

Doing this helps you become tougher and more resilient in the face of change.

Another way to build psychological robustness is to cultivate a growth mindset within yourself. This means not getting stuck on your self-perceived inherent limitations in all manner of realms from controlling your emotions to enhancing your physical health or your career trajectory. Instead, it involves developing the habit of constantly searching for and experimenting with more effective ways to strive to attain your career and life goals.

Once you have fortified your psychological robustness, there are some behavioural strategies you can use that are the resilience pillars on which to build a successful career.

These include seeking out suitable job challenges that fit, cultivating a good relationship with your boss, and developing your support networks.

Seeking out job challenges that fit involves identifying or creating the kinds of work activities that meet your career goals and personality type.

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Part of this can be achieved by “job crafting”. This means turning the job you have into more of the job you want, such as by reducing, expanding, or tweaking how you perform certain tasks so that the time you spend working is more inherently rewarding or energising. A simple example would be increasing (or decreasing) the amount of time you are writing, engaged in selling, or negotiating with others about change initiatives, depending on the extent to which you inherently enjoy such tasks.

In the face of constant change, many companies are now starting resilience training for their staff. Courses and programmes like this really can work.

However, signing up for this training often has an image problem, because doing so may be perceived by colleagues as a sign of weakness. Firms are thereby euphemistically labelling such training in ways that doesn’t imply weakness, such as “How to achieve your potential!”

Leaders also need to help. All the emphasis on self-help may suggest that a lack of resilience is merely an individual’s problem to sort out. The best leaders understand the inherent and instrumental benefits of treating their people well and thus work out how to attain high productivity without squeezing the life out of their employees. Yes, there are important strategies that an individual can apply, but ultimately leaders should pride themselves on creating environments that foster a healthy and resilient, as well as a highly productive workforce.

Peter Heslin is an associate professor in the School of Management at UNSW Business School