What is Resiliency?

When members bring challenging issues to our confidential Key Women’s Leadership Forums, they express a desire to be supported with tips and strategies on how to be more resilient through those times when life gets really prickly.  During these conversations, as facilitator, I have noticed that some people have a very narrow definition of resiliency. To them resiliency is simply the “ability to bounce back” after a challenge or setback. To me resiliency means that, and much more. It means self regulation in the presence of a threat or uncertainty. To do that, resiliency requires more than just focus or courage, it requires an infrastructure; a positive, growth mindset, and an ability to cultivate equanimity—that feeling of calm in the midst of chaos—allowing us to quell the brain’s automatic, reflexive threat response.

The human brain has a negative bias, a tendency to err on the side of fear, a tendency to turn the unknown into the “worst case scenario.” If we let our brain fly on automatic pilot, it makes it difficult for us to turn lemons into lemonade. Yet, resiliency is more than just putting a positive spin on a situation, and adding sugar to a bitter brew; it’s a practice that begins with a high level of awareness around our triggers and hot buttons and the stories we tell ourselves in the grip of fear or uncertainty. Most of all it’s about creating a safe space in which to be curious and open to solutions and responses that are out of reach when we are in the grip of the threat response. I invite leaders I coach to find ways to make their team “feel safe on your roller coaster.” Otherwise, you won’t get the best out of them.

A good real life example of this kind of leadership can be found in the NetFlix documentary series titled “The Horn” about the incredibly brave and resilient men and women who staff Air Zermatt, a helicopter service that rescues injured extreme athletes and climbers from the icy peaks and glaciers of Switzerland’s famed Matterhorn, and the surrounding mountains and glaciers. CEO Gerold and his team are called on to execute the most challenging rescues and save lives every day. Rapelling down 100 meters into a glacier crevasse is not for the feint of heart, particularly when the person you are “rescuing” took his last breath well before you arrived.

After a few episodes, I realized that bravery was only a small part of the mix of what makes these pilots and rescuers so resilient. Also present were people who really respected the specialized talents of the other, consistently honored the team’s shared values of life, achievement, challenge, and had total trust in their fellow pilots, rescuers, doctors, and the crack team of mechanics and medics who insured that the helicopters were in top condition and loaded with the supplies to face any situation with extreme confidence. Safety was honored and assured. Everyone in the Air Zermatt team was quick to credit their success to the culture that had been fostered there; a culture that supported emotional self-regulation, trust, camaraderie, healthy living, safety, and a sense of being a part of something much bigger than themselves as individuals. It was clear that all the staff members were proud to be part of the team and hyper aware of their individual contribution to the shared success of Air Zermatt.

Recently, I was certified in a suite of assessments called Resilience @ Work so that I can help clients and leadership teams determine how they come by their resiliency using a number of scales including: maintaining perspective, utilizing resources, mastering stress, and staying healthy and connected to your values and to your team members. When I was debriefed on my individual report my coach Craig noted I scored very high on mastering stress and scored much lower on interacting cooperatively. He suggested that I may not be asking for help when I needed it and I acknowledged that this was true. Now, I have been consciously asking myself “who can I reach out to for help?” when I encounter a stumbling block. There is always someone who comes to mind when I ask this question. Knowing that help is there for me allows me to move out of my comfort zone with more confidence.

Kathryn McEwen, an organizational psychologist, and executive coach who developed these tools to support individuals and teams wanting to sustain optimal performance and well being through, change, challenge, and stress, shared with me an article on resiliency and the brain. Golnaz Tabibnia and Dan Radecki, the authors of this paper, found compelling evidence that the “adult human brain is plastic” and can learn to become more resilient through activities such as active coping, aerobic exercise, and mindfulness.” They concluded that adopting the belief that the brain CAN learn to be more resilient is the first step, followed by a multidisciplined approach that also includes positive reframing, more quality sleep and social connections.

Your job may not require you to rescue injured climbers off of icing mountaintops, but some days it still feels like that. Quelling the fear and recognizing you do have help and the resources to cope and succeed allows you to focus and execute, and that is resiliency at work.

 

Guest blog by Laura S. Scott