Resilience. It’s not about hardening up!

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Resilience. It’s not about hardening up!

By David Pich FIML, Chief Executive at the Institute of Managers and Leaders

The very first leadership-focused event at the Institute that I had the privilege of attending as Chief Executive was on the subject of resilience. I remember it vividly – less because it was my first AIM event, but for two far more significant reasons – Stacey Copas and Stacey’s wheelchair. First, the speaker. Stacey Copas was (and is) a super speaker on the subject of resilience (you can find Stacey right here). And then there was Stacey’s wheelchair.

Stacey was presenting in AIM’s old head office – Management House on Boundary Street in Brisbane. Management House looked on the surface like it was a top notch place. It wasn’t. It was in fact riddled with some very significant issues – especially as the flagship office for an Institute focused on leadership. Foremost amongst these was the fact that it sprawled over three floors – and all of these were accessible only by various flights of stairs. There was no lift and no access to the vast majority of the meeting and presentation rooms for people who use wheelchairs, or indeed for anyone with mobility challenges.

Stacey’s talk on resilience (to launch her book How to Be Resilient) had quite naturally attracted a large audience. The only room that could hold the crowd was the main presentation room in the basement. It was down a very dodgy and not at all safe looking ramp, that led into the back of the kitchen storeroom. (I remember thinking that a leadership Institute that believes passionately that inclusion and diversity are key to sound management and leadership practice must do better. And we did. We sold Management House).

Anyway, I digress slightly. But only slightly. The concept of resilience has been around for a fair while. Stacey’s talk on the topic attracted quite a crowd back in November 2015 and I dare say it would do the same today. Resilience matters. In fact, it’s become pretty much the No.1 topic in management and leadership circles. We’re all supposed to be made of Teflon. We’re supposed to be able to cope with the crap that the world (and the world of work) chucks at us. And if we can’t cope we’re supposed to pop off to the hot yoga studio to sweat it out. Or colour-in a complex series of geomantic shapes in super bright fluoro colours. Mindfulness has become the talk of the town and the chief chatter in the office.

However, I can’t help but think that all this is missing the mark when it comes to resilience.

Gradually, the increased interest in resilience as a construct in recent years has seemed to shift the focus away from poor behaviour and poor culture and onto the victim of the poor behaviour and poor culture.

The rise of resilience is all too frequently leading to something sinister and something that needs rejecting out of hand; victim blaming.

Instead of the focus being on the poor manager or on the terrible culture and on the toll that these things take on those who experience them, it’s now much more frequently on the way that the staff can learn to cope with these ‘things’. It’s as if the answer to working for a bully or working in a culture that is less than ideal is to pop off at lunchtime to do some Tai Chi in the local park. And breathe. You’ll feel better equipped to cope with your bullying boss in the afternoon.

It’s nonsense.

Resilience isn’t about hardening up; it’s not about accepting the unacceptable.

Back in 2009 I worked for a well-known company in Sydney. The culture was terrible. So terrible in fact that I absolutely hated going to work. I hated it so much that I would sit on the platform at Wynyard Station for hours trying to gather the strength to go into the office. On a few occasions, I failed and hopped back on the train to go home. And I was on the leadership team of the company!

I was eventually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and referred to a psychologist. It really helped. In fact, it was this referral that led to the start of my running ‘career’ (I use the word ‘career’ very guardedly!). And to the development of my own personal resilience plan. (This includes running, writing stuff and watching repeats of The Office and Gavin & Stacey).

But the psychologist said something to me that has stuck with me and it’s something worth dwelling on; resilience isn’t about accepting, it’s about moving on.

So, if you’re working for a bully or if you’re working in a culture that doesn’t align with your personal values and beliefs, no amount of hot yoga, mindfulness or Tai Chi at lunchtime is going to make that OK. It might make it slightly more bearable for a period of time. But resilience isn’t about learning ways to cope with the unacceptable. It’s about identifying ways that will help you move forward so you don’t get ‘stuck’ in places that are detrimental to your overall well-being.

Building resilience is vitally important, but let’s not allow the conversation around resilience to focus exclusively on the individual. After all, if a bunch of colleagues from an office are doing Tai Chi in the park at lunchtime to cope with the poor behaviour of their manager, the issue that needs to be tackled is the behaviour of the manager, not the resilience of the staff!

Here are my top three resilience tips:

  1. Make a personal resilience plan.
    The key word here is ‘personal’. In my case this involves running. I’ve tried meditation (hated it), yoga (found it boring), hot yoga (found it boring … and hot). So, work out what helps you.
  2. Make your personal resilience plan a part of your overall action plan.
    Your resilience plan is designed to allow you to think more clearly more often. It’s not supposed to be there to see you accept things that aren’t acceptable. Try to work out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. If things aren’t acceptable to you then change might well be required.
  3. Speak up, get help.
    Help might mean professional help. In my case this was a GP referral to a psychologist. It might also be a friend or a mentor. Think about who you can talk to and then talk things through. (Remember – the Institute has a great mentoring program).


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