In challenging working environments, resilience is increasingly an essential competence. People, who are resilient, are better able to cope with unexpected change, with setbacks and disappointments, with high stress environments and with periods of excessive workload. The signs of low resilience are generally easy to spot. They include inability to make decisions, frequent minor physical ailments, reduced self-confidence, feeling overwhelmed, lower tolerance and short temper.
Coaches and mentors can help in two main ways:
- Enabling the coachee or mentee to cope with current situations (resilience in the moment)
- Building their overall level of resilience (resilience capacity)
In the first of these two situations, the primary focus is on reducing the stressors that are causing them to feel that their work life is out of control. The simplest way of doing this is to develop with them a list of all the things that are putting them under pressure, then to work through each item examining what they could do practically to ease that pressure. Frequently, the solution lies in a mixture of conversations they have so far avoided with other people (about the level of stress their expectations or behaviour are causing) and with themselves (for example, having greater clarity about when and how to say no).
It’s also helpful to refocus their attention on what is good about life. When we feel overwhelmed, we tend to be aware only of the negatives. Useful questions include:
- What can you be grateful for?
- Where can you still find joy in your life?
This subtle shift of attention can be remarkably effective in increasing resilience in the here and now.
When it comes to helping them build resilience, a good starting point is to clarify the characteristics of highly resilient people and explore with them how they might absorb some or all of these characteristics into their own way of thinking. A helpful overview of resilience characteristics comes from Proctor, who describes them as:
- Optimism – expecting change to have positive outcomes, as long as you look for them
- Self-assuredness – a strong, realistic view of their own capabilities to manage new or difficult situations
- Focus – being able to establish and work to clear priorities, even in the midst of uncertainty
- Openness to ideas – they look for and are positive about applying new thinking
- Willing to ask for support – they are not afraid to ask for help when they need it
- Structured – they step back from problems or changes and envision flexible plans to address them (for example, with alternative scenarios)
- Being proactive – they prefer to initiate change rather than be overtaken by it.
Even a very brief conversation can establish which of these characteristics are least developed and which the coachee would like to work on. Simply clarifying these concepts is a first step towards building resilience.
Developing optimism requires a shift in attention, from noticing all the problems and barriers around them to noticing more of the pleasures and opportunities. Keeping a “joy diary” – a daily record of things you are grateful for – is one practical method. Also helpful is choosing to associate with people who are optimistic – pessimists tend to attract pessimists and repel optimists. Seeking out situations and surrounding oneself with things that amuse also promotes optimism – environments with laughter tend to be more optimistic and more creative.
Self-assuredness comes from a justified self-belief. Regularly recording accomplishments and learning can help here, though seeking praise from others can have the opposite effect. On simple technique is to establish at the beginning of each day, each week and each month one small but meaningful thing you will accomplish that will make you respect and/or like yourself more and to invest effort in making that happen. Another is to ensure that you do at least one act of kindness every day.
Being focused can be difficult when you are under stress. It helps here to step away from the stress-causing environment (preferably literally by, for example, taking a walk) and having quiet contemplative time to work out what is really important and why. Meditation works in a similar way for some people. And of course, the coaching conversation is a safe and protected environment where this kind of constructive , purposeful thinking can take place.
Being open to new ideas requires yet another mind shift that can be helped by simple tools, such as the three layers of learning. Most intentional learning tends to happen by focusing on knowledge or skills needs directly related to the job role a person has. But there is also great benefit to be derived from acquiring peripheral learning that widens understanding of things that impact the core role; and ad hoc learning that has no immediate connection to the core role. The most significant new ideas and insights come from these two latter areas. To access these, we can widen the network of people we interact with and the range of topics that we read about. A useful coaching question here is: How many conversations have you had this week that have given you significant new insights?
Willingness to ask for support is often a matter of confidence. If we are afraid to be vulnerable, or to look stupid, we often try to struggle on, on our own. The secret here is to start by giving support to others, which makes it much easier to ask people to reciprocate. It’s like building a bank of helpfulness – the more in credit you are, the easier it is to get a loan when you need it. The coach can help the coachee recognise the real or potential support networks they have, then to plan how to both expand and strengthen these.
Structured thinking and planning. For most people, careers are a series of unmanaged and unconsidered changes. Careers happen to them, rather than happen as a result of their imagination and intentional action. The coach can help the coachee create and work with a flexible plan of strategic opportunism, reviewing it frequently against the coachee’s personal development and evolving opportunities in the world around them. Knowing that you have a fall-back plan (or several) increases confidence in the face of threatening change – you simply start to invest more energy into paths that you have already mapped out.
Being proactive. Coaches can’t easily teach coachees to become more proactive – that stems from a deep internal motivation. But they can help the coachee develop the habit of anticipating change and looking for ways to meet it with innovative changes of their own that give them more sense of control over what is happening. Simple tools, such as a personal SWOT analysis, start the thinking process, and lay the ground for imagining different futures, which in turn can create a stimulus for proactivity.
Seeing clients grow in resilience is one of the most gratifying parts of being a coach. In short-term assignments, we don’t often see the full impact of these changes, because they can take a while to bear fruit. But when we keep in touch over the longer time, we frequently find that the coachee has gradually learned to embrace and thrive on change that would previously have stressed or diminished them.