Learning how to be resilient in times of wrenching adversity
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Learning how to be resilient in times of wrenching adversity

The pandemic has challenged us all with adverse changes nobody could have foreseen just a couple of years ago.

That’s why it’s not surprising that businesses see resilience — the ability to respond constructively to adversity — as a critical skill for their people to build. In LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, based on a worldwide survey of 5,000 learning professionals, managers and employees, resilience was listed as the No. 1 skill to acquire by respondents in the U.S., Canada, France, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

But is resilience a skill, or rather a personality trait that some have and others don’t? Behavioral psychologists acknowledge that heredity plays a role in how resilient a person is. But recent studies of the concept agree that resilient habits of thought can be learned.

Response orientation

One template for workplace resilience comes from Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Paul Stoltz, a consultant on responses to adversity. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, they recommend that managers and employees who wish to become more resilient train themselves to shift from cause-oriented to response-oriented thinking.

After an adverse event occurs, the natural tendency is to dwell on why it happened. Margolis and Stoltz suggest moving rapidly away from causes to responses — not why this happened, but what can I now do about it.

This mindset shift, they say, takes place across four dimensions:

  1. Control. The cause-oriented question is: “Could I have prevented this adverse event?” But the more important, response-oriented question is: “What features of the adverse situation can I — even potentially — improve?”
  2. Impact. The cause-oriented question is: “Did I cause the adverse event, or did it result from external forces?” The response-oriented question is: “What sort of positive impact can I personally have on what happens next?”
  3. Breadth. The cause-oriented question is: “Is the underlying cause of this event specific to it or more widespread?” The response-oriented question is: “How can I contain the negatives of the situation and generate currently unseen positives?”
  4. Duration. The cause-oriented question is: “Is the cause of this event enduring or temporary?” The response-oriented question is: “What can I do to begin addressing the problem now?

Visualizing and collaborating

Margolis and Stoltz term the above set of response-oriented questions “specifying” questions. They say it’s also useful to ask other kinds of questions, which they term “visualizing” and “collaborating.”

As a visualizing question in the Control dimension, we might ask: “What would the manager I most admire do in this situation?” Or in the Impact dimension: “What positive effect might my efforts have on those around me?”

Or as collaborating questions, in the Breadth dimension we might ask: “What can our team do collectively to transform the situation into an opportunity?” Or in the Duration dimension: “What sequence of steps can we put together to see us through this hardship?”

Exercising new muscles

Training oneself to be more resilient isn’t just a matter of asking these questions at the moment of serious adversity. At such times, we’re likely to revert to old, reactive thought patterns. The HBR article recommends practicing resilience through daily, or at least regular, exercises.

Use the many annoyances that come up every day as your prompts. If your airline flight is delayed, for instance, you can ask yourself the response-oriented questions: “What aspect of this situation can I — even potentially — improve?” “What sort of positive impact can I have on what happens next?” etc.

And jot down your answers. Writing about an adverse situation gives you a feeling of command over it that mere thinking doesn’t.

Freedom and change

When attempting to learn a resilient approach to adversity, it’s important to grasp the philosophical underpinning of the concept.

As the Austrian neurologist and philosopher Viktor Frankl put it: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

In other words, events are often beyond our control. The way we respond to them never is.

This blog entry is based on the following research article: Margolis, J. & Stoltz, P. (2010) How to Bounce Back from Adversity. Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb. 2010.

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