Many of us report higher levels of stress in the workplace these days, whether due to global challenges, climate change, political turmoil, the constant onslaught of information through social media, email or text, running between work and family responsibilities or the pressure to lead with greater flexibility to reach the bottom line. Many of us look to external fixes to alleviate stress, such as taking on bigger workloads, doing more with less, pushing our employees to work longer hours or perhaps even looking for a new job if conditions become untenable. In relation to complex challenges at work, we might cultivate resilience by looking for and engaging in adaptive solutions that we’ve not considered previously. The solutions to stressful situations or big challenges do not always require external options, however, they may in fact, require us to shift internally to resolve them.
Resilient leaders embody a few consistent traits that come from shifting their internal mindsets and emotional states. A shift in mindset, for example, may require a re-framing of the stressful conditions, moving from a perception of overwhelming odds, to perceiving an opportunity to try something new or to learn from the situation. The ability to make this internal shift, to re-frame the story we choose to tell ourselves about what’s happening, can alleviate the impact of highly stressful conditions. The stories we tell ourselves are often based on our past experiences. In fact, as soon as we perceive similar circumstances taking place with a new challenge, we are more able to travel down the path to despair, fear, anxiety or anger. Our internal perceptions about what’s happening can be powerful enough to hijack our emotional state.
Re-framing the challenge isn’t about being an unrealistic optimist either. A leader may ask for example, “how can I use or work with this challenge or set of challenges to ensure a better or different result now and in the future?” The right amount of risk assessment or negativity, balanced with the potential to imagine positive outcomes, creates a steady state of mind from which to problem solve, think, reflect or learn about the current challenge.
Resilient leaders lean-in to the challenge or stressful situation by asking more questions before moving to action. These are not the type of questions that we already know the answer to or statements of fact disguised as a question. Open-ended questions require us to suspend our judgments or assumptions with the motivation to learn more before solving or acting too early. The more complex and difficult the problem to be solved, the higher the stress experienced, the more a leader must remain in the questions to find a new way forward. In most business cases, the choice to remain curious before solving a problem can feel counter-intuitive to the urgency one experiences to deal with the dilemma. However, adopting an attitude of “I may not know everything there is to know about this challenge or where might I be wrong about this?” are questions that encourage leaders to think differently or in new ways.
Adaptive leaders that bring curiosity to complex challenges are also more likely to see early warning signs of big problems. They are more able to engage differently, bring in perspectives from others, explore more deeply and try new strategies before situations become even more challenging to the business. These curious leaders are better able to see the causes of complex problems and may be described by others as being able to “see around the corner” or observe patterns before others see them.
Another important internal factor to is the ability to maintain emotional balance and fortitude, while dealing with what may appear on the outside as insurmountable issues. Resilient leaders are more able to work with their emotions (both positive and negative emotions), exhibiting a sense of being in control, even-tempered and calm in the eye of the storm. The ability to self-regulate when one is feeling angry, frustrated, afraid or anxious means others may see this leader naming what they’re feeling, or understanding when others are feeling these emotions, without reactivity or emotional displays such as panic, blaming, demanding or yelling. The ability to remain calm in the storm builds trust with others and allows people to focus during times of stress.
The emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness, self-management and social awareness, enable leaders to see themselves more clearly and to understand their default reactions to stress. Self-awareness leads to the ability to self-manage in the moment or regulate emotional reactions. Social awareness, especially during times of stress (or any other time) is about the ability to see how one’s behaviors are impacting others. Noticing for example, that a tendency to rush people with unrealistic expectations during stressful times, only creates more stress for others. Thus, being able to consciously adapt or change one’s reactions, to have a positive or productive impact on others, is important while weathering the storm. As emotions can be contagious to others, leaders that intentionally manage their reactions when under stress, create environments where people are better able to remain optimistic and motivated while working to solve challenges.
A friend recently shared a Wall Street Journal article, dated September 22, 2018, by Sam Walker, titled: The Two Contagious Behaviors of a Great Boss. The author referenced George Washington (1777) as a leader that modeled the way under the most difficult of circumstances by being relentless and exhibiting emotional control. The article went on to say that the ability to be resilient in any situation (especially stressful ones) requires the pursuit of high standards and tenacity or strength of mind, as well as fortitude or the ability to be reasonable or even-tempered.
George Washington was creative, demanded the best from his men and was reported to spend significant amounts of time bringing soldiers along with him or motivating them for battle. Resilient leaders, while being realistic and steady, bring an attitude to complex challenges of “we’re all in this together and we’ll figure out a way forward when we work together in new ways.”
Great leaders then and now, remain relentless in their pursuit of questions and re-framing challenges. They expand possibilities by working in new ways and take risks, and they remain connected to themselves and others along the way, while managing their emotions. These adaptive behaviors build and create resiliency in leaders.
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.