Bob’s Ramble: Resilience, When All Else is Lost…

We all have resilience and it is an important quality in the workplace. In start-ups and small businesses, many argue that it may be the most important employee quality. It can be argued that resilience is just as important in large organizations.

Let’s start with a definition: resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. Sounds right. Can you think of someone who has suffered real hardships without faltering? I recently lost my father-in-law to complications from surgery. He was 86, had fused ankles in both legs for most of his life, had two knee replacements, one kidney because the other was removed due to cancer, a pacemaker, had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. And somehow, you never, ever, saw him as anything other than “a force.” When he walked into a room full of people, his head was on a swivel sizing up the group, seeing who he might already know and evaluating who was who. As direct as sunlight on a blue-sky day, he was well known for telling it like it was. Living with some pain or having a “chip” provides many high achievers with an edge.

As a “novice” student of human nature, it makes me look at people who have overcome adversity in a very positive light. Why is it that two people with similar severe hardships can react so differently to those hardships? Attitude is a common answer, but it doesn’t hit the root of the issue: the key is what makes attitude different for different people? Of course, there are thousands of factors at work to create someone’s attitude and propensity for resilience but are there a few things which we can observe that highly resilient people have that others may not? Yes, according to the Emotional Intelligence book, Resilience published by the Harvard Business Review. There are three building blocks that are common among those who have shown great resilience:

  1. Facing down reality – It is a common belief that resilience stems from an optimistic nature. This is true to an extent but not if optimism distorts one’s sense of reality. In a meeting between Jim Collins (renowned business author) and Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held prisoner and tortured by the Vietcong for eight years, Collins asked Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out of the camps?” Stockdale responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we’d be out by Easter and Fourth of July and then it was Christmas again.” Stockdale turned to Collins and said, “You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.”

For me, this points out the importance of facing the true realities of our situations, particularly the downside possibilities. We have a simple saying around Invoice Cloud, “May all your surprises be happy ones.” This speaks to our philosophy to try and prepare for the worst and accept positive events as the serendipity they are. Patting ourselves on the back takes time we could be using to prepare for the next storm. Celebrate the wins – quickly – and move on to prepare for the next challenge.

  1. The search for meaning – Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, in the midst of staggering suffering invented “meaning therapy,” which helps individuals make the kinds of decisions that will create significance in their lives. In Auschwitz, he was on his way to work one day, worrying if he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup. He was going to work for a new foreman whom he knew to be particularly sadistic. He was suddenly disgusted at how trivial and meaningless his life had become. He realized that to survive he needed to find some purpose. He did so by imagining himself giving a lecture after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp, to help outsiders understand what he had been through. Although he wasn’t sure he’d survive, he set some concrete goals for himself. In doing so, he was able to rise above the sufferings of the moment. As he later wrote in his book, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation…”

Wow, certainly makes my struggles seem pretty small. Guess we all should be finding meaning in our lives because we are definitely going to find adversity that meaning can help us overcome.

  1. Ritualized ingenuity – This is the ability to make do with what is at hand, over and over again. Does it ever drive you crazy when someone says, the system cannot provide reporting on that data? Or, that’s not information that we currently collect? Let’s not forget that not long ago, we did everything with pencil and paper and have the ability to do it again. Not as elegant maybe, or as accurate probably, but still useful. For example, we shouldn’t need a computer to know the number of calls someone is handling or making a day. The person handling or making the calls can count them and write them down if there is no other way to accommodate the request. “Bricolage” is a term used to describe inventiveness, the ability to improvise a solution to a problem without proper tools or materials. Bricoleurs are always tinkering, trying to solve problems with the materials and resources (including people) on hand.

When something needs doing, resilient people get after it, with the tools at hand and in collaboration.

Hoping that you, your family and your teams recognize and nurture resilience in whatever ways make sense to you!