Increasing Organizational Resilience

By Leah Fessler

As part of Chief's three-part leadership development workshop series with LifeLabs Learning, we spoke with leadership coach Megan Wheeler to better understand what resilience means, and how to cultivate it within our organizations. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q. How do you define resilience, both personally and organizationally?

Megan Wheeler: When we talk about resiliency, we’re talking about increasing bump tolerance — which is a term that comes from aviation, and is actually a part of pilots’ training. Within resiliency, there are five major strands, which concern our behavior under sustained stress: 1. Emotional resilience (how well can you calm yourself or regulate your emotions); 2. Attentional resilience (how well can you stay focused on tasks); 3. Procedural resilience (how well can you make good decisions); 4. Rotational resilience (how well can you pull your head up and innovate, looking for new opportunities); 5. Relational resilience (how well can you help others get calm).

Our research shows that resilience is not binary. It's not that people are resilient, or they aren't. There are different ways that we can show up as resilient. None of us are going to be a 10/10 on all five strands of resilience, but it’s important to think through where your strengths are, because even a 10% improvement on one strand can make a huge difference. As leaders, our goal is to help people develop both their resilience and their adaptivity — adaptivity being the ability to change quickly, whereas resilience is the ability to make that change again and again.

Q. When confronted with sustained stress, what are the different coping styles we lean on?

As humans, our brains evolved to be hyper aware of possible threats. That’s how we’ve survived, and it’s why we’re so adaptive. It’s no longer the saber tooth tiger in the woods that jolts our adrenaline, but it may be an off comment in an email, or a terrible meeting. When stressful moments continue happening in close succession, our stress becomes more chronic, and that adrenaline starts to turn into what’s called allostatic load. Essentially, we’ve surpassed the amount of space that we can tolerate for fight or flight in our operating system. When this continues in the long-term, tunnel vision is the result. We lose our peripheral vision and perspective, and become hyper-focused on anything that might be a stressor.

When we’re experiencing this tunnel vision, there are six primary coping styles leaders rely on. First is freezing — you slow down or stall out, finding yourself paralyzed by the stress around you. Second is flight — you become aggressive about problem solving, debating all potential solutions, and becoming domineering. Third is rabbit holing — you go unnecessarily deep on one single topic. Fourth is spinning — you jump from idea to idea, conversation to conversation, not making any real progress. Fifth is robot-mode — you simply detach from your emotions and lose empathy. And sixth is helper-mode — you over-lean on giving advice to everyone else rather than dealing with your own responsibilities. It’s important to identify your default style, and to know that we all have the ability to shift into a new way of processing information.

Q. What are some strategies we can employ to overcome this tunnel vision, and hone resiliency?

The first strategy is called “pause,” and the goal is simply to regain homeostasis. Pausing is the simplest thing that we can do as humans when we are distracted, stressed, or overwhelmed, but it’s also the first skill that goes out the window because we get so hyper-focused. This is a tactic professional mediators are trained in — they strategically insert pauses between negotiations, encouraging participants to get a drink of water, or a bathroom break. When emergency responders arrive at a scene, they’re also trained to stop and look around before they jump into action. To regain homeostasis within our organizations, we too need to focus on pauses: micro breaks (a quick stretch or breath), mezo breaks (logging off by a certain time each day), or macro breaks (modeling the value of actually taking PTO).

The second skill is called the “two hander,” and it’s extremely effective in organizing ambiguity and increasing sense of control. It’s simply us as leaders saying, we have only two hands, here’s what we can control, here’s what we can’t. Here’s what we will focus on, here’s what we won’t. Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t. This language is particularly important for leaders right now as we navigate such intense uncertainty. The third skill is reset questions — asking yourself and your team questions that help you stop spinning and get out of the rabbit hole. Some of our favorites include: What does success look like? What problem are we trying to solve? What’s the highest priority here? How should we best go about this [conversation, decision, meeting]? Should we set time limits for each section? Should we take a break? What are our decision criteria? What’s another angle we can look from? What’s the first smallest step that can be taken? How can I help?

The final skill for increasing resilience is scenario planning. It’s as simple as putting boxes around ambiguity, and it’s especially helpful for risk assessment. Take the example of going back to the office. Rather than spinning on a million different scenarios, put boxes around similar options: Let's say return to the office in two weeks is scenario one. Return in six months is scenario two. Return end of 2021 is scenario three. And stay virtual forever is scenario four. Once we have these boxes, we can hold helpful and conductive conversations, actually analyzing the likelihood of each scenario happening, and our readiness for each. These scenarios allow us to zoom out, which makes for a more objective conversation.

Read Next: Triaging Invisible Work at Home: An Interview with Eve Rodsky

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