How Resilience Works


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I was reading Sheryl Sandberg's very beautifully written post on grief over the weekend. In it, she references Adam Grant's teaching on Resilience. (Adam is her colleague and an Organizational Psychologist and Professor at Wharton. He writes a great monthly newsletter.)

This year, in particular, I've been working a lot with clients on the idea of resilience and change. To talk about change, culture, and leadership, we have to talk about resilience. We can think about resilence as the overarching term for the skills, tools, and capabilities necessary to cope and thrive well in environments that have an operating system of constant change. This includes any company growing, shifting, re-defining, and existing today - and the leaders and teams running them. It also includes the mere experience of being human and living in this era of heightened, fast, and perpetual change. We're all being asked to build deeper skills in resilience.

When I've been talking about resilience, I've been contextualizing it as "building muscle and capacity to function well in an environment of change in order to lead from that place." As well, I talk about how building resilience requires a context of trust. One part of that trust comes from inside - trusting yourself, trusting your capacity, trusting your abilities, trusting that you know, and trusting that you will overcome. The other part comes from the outside - building a foundation that you can trust will support and hold you as you interface with constant change. Those supports are structural e.g. vision, purpose, values, roles, processes, culture, communication, and leadership ethos as well as emotional e.g. surrounding yourself with the right people who help to hold and support, execute on, and healthfully challenge within the environment of change and as a part of a context of resilience.

In her post, Sheryl said "I have learned that resilience can be learned." Yes, most of us are learning different levels of resilience and discovering new tools to amplify and embed our resilience muscles daily. It's a practice, rather than a destination. She then mentions that Adam's three criteria for resilience are personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness.

1. Personalization. Change isn't about fault or blame. Change happens - unexpectedly and without warning quite often - and resilience is about rising to the occasion to deepen your capacity. It's about learning, discovering, growing, and expanding. Don't spend a lot of time apologizing or finding fault e.g. personalizing the experience. Instead, spend more time seeing where are the opportunities for growth, learning, and understanding at a new level. Acknowledge the change, identify where the fall-out is/was, if any, and then commit to learning.

2. Permanence. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes the feelings (fear, sadness, anxiety, pain, excitement) that come with change. They will pass eventually and the situation will morph and shift too. Change and resilience are constant cycles and wherever we are in them and however regularly, a key element of building resilience is appreciating and working with the idea of permanence/impermanence. It will get better. It will shift. It will change again.

3. Pervasiveness. Any change - no matter how huge or small - does not have to affect every area of your life, your company, or even society. The ability to compartmentalize is a very healthy coping mechanism when used consciously. Compartmentalizing is an antidote to overdramatizing or stemming off a dark, armageddon narrative in the face of change. Building resilience means being able to see and appreciate what is good, where there is opportunity and "light" in the context of change. Resilience helps us from going to the dark side and taking everthing down with us.

We talk about building resilience in organizational life because we live in an era where change is the operating system, the context, and the mechanics to do our work. This requires an entirely different narrative to contextualize, understand, and then actually behave "how to do change" and "how to be resilient" as we lead teams, build companies, and innovate new ideas. Sherly Sandberg is demonstrating building a whole new level of resilience in the face of unprecedented change for herself and her family- and kindly and beautifully sharing as she goes.

Resilience is about recovery time. The more we learn and practice skills in resilience, the better we recover as we face the changes happening all around us. It's not about fault, forever, or armageddon. It's about the practice of building muscle to respond, recover, learn, see new opportunity, and grow with the unexpected, unforseen, and sometimes... the unwanted.

Take an inventory. Where is your narrative around personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness as you and your organization experience even the smallest change? How can you begin to shift it to build and embed a culture of resilience?

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