October 15, 2020

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #37 – Clarity and Stakeholder Engagement – Tell It To Us Straight: Building Resilience

By Rob Andrews


This article features paraphrased content from Marcus Buckingham’s September 29th article in Harvard Business Review.

Psychology Today defines resilience as “that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.”

Marcus Buckingham began his article in the Harvard Business Review with a commentary about his good friend Sally. She had been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, eleven years earlier.  Previously, Sally had led a fairy tale life and had everything going for her. After her diagnosis, everyone thought Sally’s life was essentially over.

However, today, against all odds, Sally is still alive, and in her view, doing quite well. She cannot move, talk, or breathe on her own, but with the help of modern technology and the support of her loved ones, she is as feisty and loving and wise as she ever was. “There are many things I can’t do, but why bother looking at those?” says Sally. “Instead, I focus on the things I can do. I can still love my husband. I can still love my kids. I am still here.”

Sally, and people like her, have much to teach us about resilience, resolve, and purpose. For over a decade, she has been forced to shelter in place, unable to participate in most of the activities she used to love, and yet she has retained her verve and spirit.

While Sally is a remarkable person, we all have the capacity to tap into the same kind of strength and forbearance she demonstrates. By doing so, we are enabled to bounce back from extreme adversity better and stronger than ever.

Amid COVID-19, Marcus and his team conducted a global study of resilience involving 25,000 people in 25 countries. Each person answered 10 questions designed to determine the percentage of people in each country with high resolve and resilience. They began with the theory was that people in countries who had the fewest cases would have stronger resolve and higher resilience. That thesis, however, did not hold up. Instead, a very different pattern emerged. The pattern, among other things, revealed how leaders in organizations can more effectively enable resolve and resilience in their workforces.

According to the study, levels of resilience were not significantly different by gender, age, ethnicity, or nationality. It found two primary drivers of resilience which, when taken together, lead to an interesting and counterintuitive prescription:

  1. Resilience is a reactive state of mind created by exposure to suffering. People who had had COVID-19 themselves, or who had a family member or colleague who had been infected by it, were 3.9 times more likely to be highly resilient. Levels of resilience did not vary based on how effectively an individual’s country had dealt with the pandemic, but rather on how intimately they had been exposed to the virus. The more exposed they were, the higher their resilience. This suggests that we discover our resilience only when we are forced to face adversity head on, up close and personal.
  2. The greater the threat, the greater the resilience. 96% of people surveyed said they had experienced significant changes in their working conditions due to COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, these changes included lockdowns, isolation, layoffs, furloughs, change in work hours, pay reductions, and the like. What WAS surprising, however, was that people who had experienced five or more of these conditions were 13 times more likely to be highly resilient. The study indicates that those forced to absorb disruptive changes in their work tend to develop increased levels of resilience. In fact, the more people absorb, the more resilient they become.

 Combine findings one and two and you realize that employees don’t do well when their leaders gloss over reality. People don’t need or want their leaders to sugarcoat things. In the long run, downplaying tough situations produces far more fear than facing those situations directly. Human beings, when poorly informed, will always let their imaginations run riot and will almost always conjure up demons far scarier than reality.

Instead of downplaying reality, or worse yet, saying nothing, tell it to us straight.

Describe in detail what the actual threat or challenge is.

Let us know that you know where you are going, that you believe what you’re saying, and that you have our best interests in mind.

Show us clearly what real-world changes we will have to make in our own lives.

Tell us the truth about how those changes are in the best interests of the entire group.

Some leaders today don’t give their employees enough credit. Psychologist Viktor Frankl said this to us back in the 1930s: “Our response to unavoidable suffering is one of the primary sources in our lives of meaning, purpose, and self-efficacy. Suffering and difficulty must never be hidden. Instead, show them to your people honestly and clearly and they will reveal – to themselves and to you – their greatest strength.”

Communicating with clarity starts with a decision and a formula. One need not be highly educated, charismatic, or well-traveled to deliver an effective leadership message. What is needed is a clear and courageous message that lands with your constituents, so they know you believe what you’re saying, know where you’re going, and that there’s something in it for them.

At Allen Austin, we are in the business of assisting leaders and organizations in unleashing their full potential. Call us now to start a conversation about what’s possible.

Warmest Regards,