How can I become more resilient?

True story: I was invited by the CEO of a medium sized engineering company last year to offer some coaching to Steve, his Finance Director, a bright and successful man in his mid-thirties. The business was basically sound, but there had been a fairly tricky accounting glitch at the end of the previous half year, and for about three weeks into the new half Steve had been on sick leave. He had just returned, but the CEO remained concerned that he seemed withdrawn and anxious. The CEO had complete faith in Steve, and he just wanted him to return to his normal happy and efficient self, although he did also want him to learn from the experience so that it wouldn’t happen again.

I started a programme of coaching with Steve, and it began to emerge that he still wasn’t sleeping well, was drinking more than he normally did, and was continuing to feel anxious and unhappy.

As he talked he described how stupid he felt, how responsible he felt, concluded that he had let the CEO and the company down, and expected to be sacked at any moment.
At that stage he wasn’t really listening when I told him that the CEO retained every faith in him.

As the sessions progressed, it became clear that Steve had enjoyed a steady and progressive rise to his current position over fifteen years in finance, which had included a series of promotions and good passes in his accountancy exams.

He finally disclosed that he felt that he had never really “failed” before, even at school and university, and was finding it difficult to come to terms with the events of the past few weeks, so much so that he was actually finding it impossible to even analyse what had gone wrong in order to learn.

I find I am coaching significant numbers of managers in situations similar to Steve’s. There seems to be a very understandable culture of positivity in schools, universities and on entry level work such as graduate schemes, but it is not always helpful in equipping employees for the inevitable bumps in the road. These may occur a few years down the career track, when they have genuine responsibility for accountable areas of business.

The key tool they seem to be lacking in their career tool box is…..resilience, and this leads to the challenge of whether resilience at work can be learned, improved, built upon?
Well, from my reading and experience in this area, I think there are four elements:

The first element is to fail yourself: to understand the warning signs, to know what it is like to lose control, to appreciate the feeling of not seeing a way out, so that you put all the safeguards in place to ensure that it never happens again.

But there are other measures you can take to build up resilience:

The first is good maintenance, especially when things are particularly tough: this includes sleeping well, eating well, exercising enough and not indulging in too much drink and too many drugs. But it also includes all those things that put work in perspective: a supportive family you can be honest with, friends who will give you candid advice, hobbies, interests, and a home you’re happy to return to every night.

The second element is the development of what I think of as a “balanced work persona”: someone who has obvious expertise but is also willing to learn, who has some of the answers but not all of them, who is able to acknowledge their weak areas and lack of knowledge, who is very corporate and co-operative, but is assertive enough to say “no” if the work burden is becoming too much, who is friendly to everyone, but doesn’t get drawn into cabals and factions.

Finally, (and this is the most difficult for someone in Steve’s position), there are exercises you can do, either on your own or with the help of a colleague, a friend or a coach, to search for perspective on the bad things that happen to everyone at work from time to time.

When I first met him Steve genuinely thought he was going to sacked, and that it was just a matter of time. Eventually I got him to confront this belief with a series of challenging questions: Has the CEO said you are going to be sacked? Has anyone else? What would you do if you were the CEO? What would you advise if this happened to one of your friends? Slowly, Steve built some perspective, was able to analyse the accounting issue itself and put in safeguards to prevent it from happening again. H began to see that, from time to time, bad things will happen, he will be held responsible and he will have to deal with it, or move to another sort of job.

So, a lack of resilience often stems from a loss of perspective of a difficult event. We catastrophise, like Steve, or we exaggerate the effect of the event in our minds so that it dominates everything else going on; we blame ourselves totally and unequivocally or, equally out of perspective, we blame everyone else totally and unequivocally. We take the failure utterly personally so that we become obsessed and lose the ability to separate the event from our entire personality.

None of these responses helps us to analyse the event coolly and objectively and come to a rational decision about the course to take to right the wrong.

Admitting serious error and being clear about putting it right takes genuine resilience, and resilience breeds even greater resilience.

Trouble with resilience is clearly nothing new: Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher who lived in the 1st century, is reported to have said: “It is not events, but our beliefs about them, that causes us suffering”
………….. we can improve the quality of those beliefs, by building our resilience.

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I’ll get over my problem with procrastination………tomorrow

It’s a bit of a joke, isn’t it……..mañana….mañana….mañana………. don’t do today what can wait ‘til tomorrow………..blah blah blah……..kicking the can down the road……ha ha ha………..but really putting stuff off: procrastination, can have serious consequences for the organisation, the team and, most importantly for the procrastinator themselves.

I coach execs and senior managers and procrastination is a theme that recurs frequently in a number of different guises. See if either of these examples is familiar to you from the behaviour of some of your colleagues, or even from your own behaviour.

One of my clients, Brian, is Operations Director for a high street retailer. He’s been in retail all his life and he knows his stuff, but recently the numbers have not been good, and he has been put under a bit of pressure by his new CEO, who thinks Brian is letting things slip and is not quite on top of his game. The CEO himself has recently found out about a couple of fairly major issues that Brian should have kept him abreast of.

Chloe has been HR Director of a large government regulator for about six months, having come in from the private sector and was still coming to terms with her difficult portfolio when she told me that she had taken on responsibility for estates to add to HR, Learning & Development and Internal Communications. I was amazed when she was obviously still struggling with the labyrinthine nature of HR in the public sector.

Helping my clients develop insight into the psychological processes at work is the first step to developing a thorough understanding of what is going on and it turned out that Brian and Chloe were both suffering from different variations of procrastination.

Once Brian had considered his performance and his relationship with his new CEO in some depth, he was able to understand that he was putting off giving difficult news to his boss. Every morning when he made the decision to put off the “difficult” conversation for one more day he felt a sense of genuine euphoria. He had done it! He had put it off! It wasn’t going to debilitate him for another entire day, but as it got towards the end of the day anxiety crept back in, every day more powerful than the last, as the unspoken conversation loomed larger than the previous day until, just as he was ready to go home, it was back at the top of the “to do” list, making him feel ashamed and angry, until the following morning, when he enjoyed the very short term delight of putting it off again.

Chloe soon started to understand what was going on. By showing willing, by being a good corporate citizen, she was hoping for appreciation from her boss so that he would be less concerned about her struggle with her core portfolio and, by spreading the awfulness more thinly, she might not get called out on any of it.

So, what to do? Well it may appear obvious to you, the reader, but genuinely changing behaviour, particularly within the very context which is making individuals procrastinate, is really challenging

Brian had to break the cycle. From any rational standpoint, it was obviously to his advantage to come clean as soon as possible get the pain over with, re-set his relationship with his CEO and get on. So, “cognitively” (ie in his thoughts), it was easy: be decisive and don’t let it happen again. But Brian had been behaving like this for years, so he needed, in every instance of impending procrastination, to do something very deliberate, like write down the “thoughts impeding action”, and match them in a parallel column with “thoughts promoting action” and then, very bravely and decisively, follow the promoting thoughts through to action, with a plan, which he had to follow precisely. And that is hard!

And Chloe? If she carried on like that the whole edifice was going to tumble, so now that she could see clearly what has been happening she had two choices: she either had to go back and tell her boss that taking on estates was a terrible mistake, or she draws up a plan of what can be realistically achieved across her entire portfolio, and seek some agreement. But again in this case, the cognitive insight is the easy bit. The “coming clean” and making fundamental changes to behaviour that has in some way protected her in the past, is very difficult.

In both cases (as in all cases of procrastination) the first step is to really understand, on a psychological level, what is going on; the second step is to develop an achievable plan to overcome the current procrastination, and the third step is to implement the plan, which is by far the most difficult as it entails confronting one’s procrastinating behaviour with the very people who were causing you to procrastinate in the first place! The fourth is to spot the warning signs in the future, in order to stop being a procrastinator!

Finally, I do think a distinction needs to be made between “last minute crammers”, and you know who you are: those people who are stimulated by a deadline and do their best work up against it, and genuine procrastinators, who are fearful of the task, put it off, and then do a very bad last minute job. The former need to be understood and supported; the latter need help!
There are some broader themes here too.
• Someone who has a good relationship with their boss and their peers is more likely to be able to give and take bad news and respond constructively
• Someone who is confident in their role will be able to take decisive action without worrying too much whether it is right or wrong.
• Someone with a strong support network outside the workplace is less likely to linger over decision-making

And, of course, some procrastination is good; no job should be rushed at, and reflection, consultation and deliberation are all to be encouraged. Allowing all of that to linger and hang around and fester and end up becoming procrastination is, well…not good!

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“The problem is…………I’m a perfectionist”

I am coaching an increasing number of millennials, as they make their way up the corporate ladder, or as their start-up begins to grow and flourish, and I am often confronted by a variation on the assertion that:

“Well, the problem is, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and it is making me anxious and unhappy”

Often the statement is dropped in to a conversation, as a bald declaration of fact, and something that they, and everyone else, is just going to have to live with.

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