Innovation Cases & Models, Leadership, Reinvention and Reconfiguration

Building Personal Resilience

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What is Resilience?

  “In an era where business keeps moving faster, it is no small wonder that resilience has become the new must-have executive skill” writes Srikumar Rao in an article on personal resilience. He goes on to proposes a method based on an old Sufi tale. In it, a man is alternately, and repeatedly, confronted with bad luck and good fortune. Neighbors cluster around to commiserate over the former and give congratulations on the latter. Each time, the man retains his poise and poses the same question: “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”

In one of the ascetical treatises for monasticism in Eastern Christianity (around AD 600) a monk is taught about detachment and dispassion by his spiritual father. He is first asked to lavish praise on a tree at a distant field.  He is puzzled but obeys. The next two days, following his master’s instructions, he alternately curses, kicks, ridicules and humiliates the same tree in anger. What did the tree do in response to your relentless assaults and praise? the spiritual master wants to know.   Nothing,” the monk answers. He immediately realizes that “nothing” is the answer. Indifference to praise or scorn frees you from being tossed up and down in the wind, depending on others’ praise or criticism. It is the foundation of detachment and inner stillness.

Whether you live in the 7th or the 21st century this type of detachment is the source of resilience. It is echoed by several researchers and put in practical terms.  Here is my take on what it takes to become resilient:

 Focus on results rather than approval

It is easy to blame setbacks for being thrown off your game. Being Passed over. Undermined. But the need for external validation can be even more destructive. Does your desire to please divert you from what truly matters to you? How vulnerable are you to being unsettled by praise or the expectations of it? Do you need praise and approval to feel good and does your desire to hold on to them make you vulnerable to grandiosity and lack of perspective?   According to an article in  Forbes, Sears’ Chairman Ed Lampert was so driven by his need for confirmation of his beliefs and values that he lost sight of his primary goal of increasing shareholders’ valuation, thus “reducing intangible value from the $4 billion at origination in 2004 to under $2 billion” and causing Sears’ demise.

Trust & Empower others.

Do you have a hard time letting go of control?  Do you measure performance of duties or results? Do you see your role as ensuring that staff performs their work correctly or enabling them to tap the best of themselves and empowering to make decisions that will bring results? Sear’s chairman, Ed Lampert used micro-management in lieu of strategy.  “Daily morning phone calls with staff, and ridiculously tight controls that eliminate decision making by anyone other than the top officers.  Additionally, every decision by the officers was questioned again and again by the Chairman.  Explanations took precedent over action as micro-management ate up management’s time, rather than trying to run a successful company.” 



Free yourself from fear of failure or criticism

 Are you afraid of failure or disagreement?  In my research, I noticed that organizations that experienced decline in revenue, market-share, reputation and/or retention and growth were defensive and adapted poorly to changed circumstances.

Growing, innovative organizations were open and, thus, resilient. They tried to uncover negative responses, rather than hide them. They sought to understand complaints, rather than dispute them, in some cases inviting critics to help them with solutions. They thrived by using any opportunity to learn and, as a result, adapt and innovate.

The same holds true for individual. Sears’ Ed Lampert “had no time for staff who did not see things his way.  Mr. Lampert wanted his management team to agree with him – to confirm his Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies — to believe his BIAS. …By forcing agreement, rather than disagreement and dialogue, Sears lacked options or alternatives, and the company had no chance of turning around.”  

Replace fear and protectiveness of your turf or status with empathy.  

Stephen Covey used to say: “First seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” It is amazing how much of the fear of criticism or failure evaporates when, instead of being preoccupied with yourself or organization’s interests, you put yourself in another’s place and seek to understand rather than look for an immediate defensive retort…    

 Own it.

Establish your own criteria for success. Sure, you do not exist in a vacuum. You cannot establish athletic fitness as a criterion for success in a company that sells professional services or manufactures faucets. Yet you can establish a sense of ownership within a larger framework by going beyond compliance with the board or your job description to determine your own brand of contribution; one that expresses your values, taps your strengths and provides you opportunities for learning that translate into transferable competencies. 

Learning is one of the components identified as major contributors to one’s happiness at the workplace in an article in HBR.  Nothing is as energizing as looking at every event as an opportunity for learning and constantly converting lessons learned into new tools, products, strategies, actionable insights, publications, conversations etc.

Successful innovative organizations are learning organizations at the core. Design Thinking captures and systematizes this mode of thinking into an approach for problem-solving, product development and conducting business.  Design Thinking begins, not with a review of data, but with the in-depth, empathetic understanding of customers.  Instead of launching finished products and pushing sales, it sets up a learning process in which imperfect prototypes of ideas are launched in the market and adapted through customer feedback.

Viewing business as the constant application of lessons learned frees them from the paralysis of the fear of failure and criticism. Conducting business as a series of lessons learned from experimentation eliminates the paralysis of the fear of failure and expands innovation.  

The same principles hold true for individuals. Looking at oneself as a fixed entity whose turf and ideas have to be protected at all costs creates a type of rigidity that will break at the first gust of wind. Resilient leaders are travellers on a colmmunal rather than solitary journey, open to uncover destinations they have not yet visualized.