2020 Resources – Five Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work

Five Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work by Rich Fernandez

There is a burgeoning phenomenon of ‘quick fix’ articles and books that promise nirvana with lists of the “5 ways to make your life better” or “3 things you need to do to achieve perfection” and other unsustainable or unrealistic ‘promises’. Life is just too complex to be reduced to five things. However, I am still curious about what is being suggested and from time to time I find useful nuggets such as this Harvard Business Review article by Rich Fernandez. What I appreciate is that it is evidence-informed (drawing on the emerging neuroscience research and offering lots of great links) and imminently practical and applicable to our VUCA worlds in social care (i.e. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity).

Fernandez first sets the stage by discussing data on the prevalence and impact of work-related stress, and distinguishes between ‘good stress’ and debilitating stress. He then goes on to discuss the concepts of resilience and how it can be intentionally built and fostered both individually and organizationally. So what are the five strategies? 

  • Exercise mindfulness – Great suggestions for further reading and mobile apps to support mindful practice.
  • Compartmentalize your cognitive load – Emphasizes the benefits of ‘serial mono-tasking’ rather than distracted multi-tasking.
  • Take detachment breaks – Honours the peaks and valleys of our physical and cognitive energy and the importance of pushing the ‘pause’ button even for a few moments every few hours to detach from the pressured work and do a small restorative act.
  • Develop mental agility – Mentally ‘decentre’ stressors by taking a step back and observing from a neutral perspective. Although not mentioned in the article, the practice of The Work that we use in Leadership 2020 is a powerful mental agility-supportive practice.
  • Cultivate compassion – Including self-compassion and compassion for others.

Although the focus is on individual actions, Fernandez also speaks to ways in which organizations can foster resiliency amongst staff. He provides evidence that it is good not only for the workers but also for productivity, effectiveness and it offers high ‘returns on investment’. In our world, I suspect that all this translates into better care and services for the people we serve too—seems like a great topic for discussion in our teams and agencies.

2020 Resources – Chief Dr. Robert Joseph: My Vision for Canada

Presentation to Pathways for Reconciliation Conference, June 2016

I strongly urge you to listen to this extraordinary presentation by one of the great leaders of this time in history. Let’s start with who Chief Dr. Robert Joseph is.

Chief Dr. Robert Joseph is hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation. He is currently the Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council. He was formerly the Executive Director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and is an Honourary Witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As Chairman of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation and Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation with the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IFWP), Chief Joseph has sat with the leaders of many countries to learn from and share his understanding of faith, hope, healing and reconciliation.

In this wise 1-hour speech, Chief Dr. Joseph urges us to “Make reconciliation a core value as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a Nation”. He says, “My vision… includes a Nation with all of its people, governments and institutions embracing reconciliation as a core value.  This is not just a one-time discussion, checking off things that we ought to do and thinking it is done…When we embrace reconciliation as a core value we will recognize it for all time – generation to generation to generation. And if we don’t do that, we will always return to these places of marginalization and separation, back to hatred from love…This is not a project and one-time initiative. This is what you can do for the rest of your lives contributing to the wider society and the world, about how we should treat each other and how we should live together.”

He goes on to say that the process of reconciliation is a journey and that it will be imperfect as this is the nature of our world – but that this should not hold us back. He also speaks of the need to have many, many people and programs involved to “Create all the reconciliation we can,” wherever we can.

His story of being removed from his family and community at the age of 6, and being placed in the very harsh world of residential school – with the consequent life impacts and loss of dignity and connection to self and others – is very moving and inspiring. His journey through shame is illuminating and called me further into my commitment to live into reconciliation.

Chief Dr. Joseph calls us into reflection and action, “We have been drawn to this moment… because of our harmful attitudes and treatment of Aboriginal peoples now and in the past. It has become hard to bear. We know it is wrong. It bothers us that we have treated people in this way…So let’s take stock for a moment. I see a future ahead that is breathtaking…We stand in an unparalleled moment of hope and promise like never before…fuelled by a shift of national consciousness.” He speaks to the distressing data about child, youth, and family outcomes and urges us to practice in a way that fosters the re-building of family and community and “contribute to the greater idea of reconciliation” as a core value. At minute 39-40 you will be touched and inspired by his emotion and passion for children and youth.

Leadership Action

Chief Dr. Joseph reminds us that reconciliation is not a program or set of to-do tasks, but a core value and way of being in the world. Consider the following (perhaps in a team meeting):

  • What does reconciliation mean to you?
  • In what ways can the value of reconciliation be more intentional in your practice?
  • How might your team, agency, organization embrace the core value of reconciliation?
  • What are you doing now in the spirit of reconciliation?
  • Where could this go?
  • Who can you work with?
  • What might you learn? How might you become more knowledgeable, aware, understanding? How might you uncover the implicit/unconscious bias that holds you back from this reconciliation work?
  • What conversations and actions can you nurture?

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

Simple Habits for Complex Times – Powerful Practices for Leaders (2015), by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. Stanford Business Books: Stanford, CA.

“Damn!” is the first word in Simple Habits for Complex Times. And with this, we are ushered into the world of Yolanda, the CEO of a child welfare agency, and her team of dedicated and passionate social care staff, as they face yet another tragic outcome for a child in their care.

Yolanda’s journey towards ‘thinking anew’ is a narrative through which the authors describe and help us understand the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and how to navigate it in these uncharted waters. One of the first concepts they tackle is the human need/drive for predictability, structure, patterns and safety:

Our minds love categorizing and learning from the past in order to keep us safe into the future. And that has been great for us. Without this capacity to predict and determine risks, we’d just be a stunted branch on the evolutionary tree. We carry with us a kind of bell curve of possibilities, and depending on our background and knowledge…we are constantly making decisions about risk and reward. That internal judging system has done pretty well to protect and keep us for tens of thousands of years, but it is beginning to short out now. And one of the key ways our system misfires is as it considers the difference between the probable and the possible.” (p. 10)

If we look to the past to predict and order the future (probabilities), we constrain the array of options available to us (possibilities). This is great if we are facing a knowable future as we can be efficient with our decision-making time and resources. However, as we are in an increasingly VUCA world, the past can’t always help us predict the future—it is simply unknowable. Complexity then is about wrapping our mind around what is possible, rather than what is probable (based on past experience). 

This is easier said than done. Brain and behavioral research suggests our “general pattern is to prune and simplify” (p. 12). In the social care field, that translates into looking at what we know from prior experience, what the risks are, what outcomes we want, what directions we have received (from legislation to policies) and weighing it all to formulate a plan that will result in a specific outcome. 

However, there are so many variables that we can’t possibly know anything for sure. When faced with complexity, we have to intentionally nurture new ways of thinking and acting that stretch us into the realm of more possibilities… and this can be uncomfortable. Further, there is a dissonance between what we are often expected to do as leaders (predict, plan, direct, be in control) and the reality of the VUCA world. The authors suggest three ‘deceptively simple’ habits that can help grow more complexity of mind:

  1. Ask different questions
  2. Take multiple perspectives
  3. See systems

I am going to focus on asking different questions. This is a place that we can start working right now and it relates to my previous post on fixed and growth mindsets. Think of this as yoga for the mind. The first thing to be aware of is that not all questions are equal. We already know that it is helpful to be curious and ask questions. However, our sneaky brains want to generate questions that will lead us towards more familiar destinations and confirm our hypotheses so as to reduce discomfort and perceived risk. 

Because most leaders get stuck when they’re dealing with intractable problems, or with problems so murky that every answer leads both somewhere and also nowhere, they tend to find themselves…asking simple questions about solutions and next steps.” (p. 16)

We need to ask new and different questions that we don’t know the answers to. These are ‘mindset-shifting’ questions. Consider what mindset you are bringing into a particular situation: a mindset of scarcity or abundance, of threat or opportunity, of curiosity and openness or focus and action? It is not that these mindsets aren’t helpful, but that we benefit from stretching out into new mindset territories when dealing with complex situations.

For example, if you notice that your mindset and questions are focussed on threats and the need to make a quick decision and act, you may want to open up to explore different ways to understand and act in the face of the threat. Instead of “What needs to be fixed?” or “Who is at fault?” consider “What else could go wrong?” or “What would happen if I acted/didn’t act in this way?” Or you could ask questions about the opportunities we have in the face of the threat: “What is the very best move to make here?” or “If I had one bet, where would I place it?” To really stretch, you might shift from the narrow focus on the threat to a wider exploration of possibilities: “How could we take this tragedy and create a better future?” or “What are other ways of looking at this?” (see p. 17)

Sometimes (well, often) we have mindsets about the people that we are working with and for (e.g. he is disruptive, she is too challenging, they are unfocused, she is hard-working, he is creative, they are calm under pressure, etc). The authors suggest that we benefit from noticing these mindsets and then shifting them to consider: “What if this person wasn’t a problem for me to solve, but a key knowledge holder for me to understand?” and “What is it that this person knows about the situation that could shift or change my mind and how might I find this out?” (p. 65). In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings/reactions and impact.

In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings, reactions, and impact.

Asking new and different questions can also help us when we are evaluating the different possibilities for action. In the VUCA world, we need to get better at innovating. With that comes the likelihood of missteps, failure, and learning. In a predictable world, we would ask questions such as, “Did this work before?” But in the VUCA world, we need to create a safe-to-fail space so we ask questions that help us understand the risks and rewards (as we don’t want to be reckless), such as, “How might this fail and how bad would it be?” and “What could we learn from this whether successful or not?” (p. 154) and “What processes can we put in place to listen well to what is going on?” (p. 170).

Being open to failure and learning takes us to another set of new and different questions about ourselves, which relates to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets that I spoke about in an earlier post. People with a growth mindset are more orientated to their own growth (and the growth of others) and are much better at learning and recovering from failure than people with a more fixed mindset. As such, they do better in the VUCA world. Like most leaders, they will ask themselves, “Who am I and what am I good at?” but they will go beyond this and ask, “Who have I been and who is the leader I want to be next?” (p. 177). 

These questions fuel a growth mindset that helps leaders become self-transforming “who handle complexity with the most grace because their openness to learning and to questioning their most fundamental assumptions gives them the largest set of possibilities… seeing new options where others are hopeless, finding areas of commonality where others see only opposition” (p. 182). Research also suggests that these are the people who can effectively lead organizational change. 

The good news is that by asking new and different questions we can nurture our own growth mindset and development, while also becoming more skillful leaders now and supporting the growth and development of the people that we work with. Given that we are in a VUCA world, that seems like a pretty good combination.

You may also want to check out…

The authors’ consulting website which includes a number of articles and blog posts that tested out the ideas in this book, as well as their research, podcasts and videos.

The article, Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs by Elizabeth Doty. When we ask new and different questions, we have to be prepared to listen to whatever arises.