If we’ve learned anything from the upheavals of the last few years, it’s that businesses need to be resilient. In today’s unpredictable environment, your organisation simply won’t survive if it can’t weather a few shocks.
As Harvard Business Review noted back in 2011, by modelling certain behaviours, leaders can “change an entire culture of an organization as others replicate the resilient characteristics that they have observed.”
So what “resilient characteristics” should you as a leader be developing? I’d start with the three habits of thought Dr Lucy Hone lays out in her TEDx talk, which she explains helped her cope with the tragic loss of her daughter. As one of TED’s top 20 most-viewed talks in 2020, it clearly struck a chord with people looking for psychological tools for getting through the pandemic.
So what does Dr Hone identify as the three secrets of resilient people? And how are they linked to Stoicism?
Suffering is part of life – for everyone
According to Dr Hone, when something bad happens to resilient people, they don’t waste time thinking “why me?” and “this is so unfair”. They understand that everyone experiences suffering.
But it’s very easy to forget that. Centuries ago, the Stoics noted that some people fixated on their own problems, as though they alone suffered. And today we have things like social media to contend with too, tempting you to compare how messy your life feels to how perfect someone else’s life looks.
Next time you suffer a professional setback, pay attention to how you think about it. Does seeing someone else’s promotion on LinkedIn spark thoughts like “why do they deserve that instead of me”? Do you quietly fume over the unfairness? Or do you see if there are any useful lessons, and move on?
This doesn’t mean you should never feel upset – being resilient isn’t being a robot. It means you process your feelings rather than ruminating on them. To return to the Stoics, I love this quippy line from Epictetus: “I’m not saying that you can’t complain, only don’t complain with your whole being.”
You can accept the bad, while still focusing on the good
Dr Hone observes that resilient people “have a habit of realistically appraising situations”. They “focus on the things that they can change, and somehow accept the things that they can’t.”
This is tricky, because we’re hardwired to notice and remember potential threats. This negative bias makes sense from an evolutionary point of view – if you’re so distracted by pretty flowers that you don’t notice the sabre-toothed tiger… Well, you’re not passing on those nice optimistic genes!
Focusing too much on the negative, though, also harms us. Let’s suppose you start a new project at work and it doesn’t pay off. You might feel embarrassed, disappointed, frustrated. If you only listen to those negative emotions, you’ll never take a risk like that again – even if circumstances demand change.
But we can develop new skills. You can learn to tune into the good – something psychologists call ‘benefit finding’. A 2005 study outlined some tools to help promote happiness, including the Three Good Things method, in which you ask yourself: what three things went well today? Why?
In tough times, many leaders feel like showing positive emotions will alienate their team. And yes, wandering around whistling while others are in crisis mode would be tone-deaf! But modelling benefit-finding behaviours, and finding the good by doing exercises like Three Good Things with your team, can actually help you all get through difficult periods and increase resilience.
Ask whether what you’re doing is helpful or harmful
Resilient people, Dr Hone notes, tend to notice whether or not their responses to adversity are helping. She would find herself looking through photos of her daughter late at night, and ask – is this actually helping me? Or is it making me hurt more?
The answer can be different for different people, and at different times. That’s why you need to build the habit of checking in again and again.
Perhaps your team is racing to hit a tight deadline, you’re stressed, and you find yourself eating lunch at your desk. You check in with yourself, and decide that right now it’s helpful. Everyone is working overtime, and there’s a clear end point after which you’ll reassert boundaries around your breaks.
An alternative situation: you’re working through lunch because you’ve had to make some people redundant, and feel stressed and upset. You check in, and find that this isn’t helping – you’re simply punishing yourself for not being able to prevent the redundancies. In the process, you’re making yourself more tired out and less able to support your team.
These three habits of mind capture the essentials of the Stoic worldview: suffering is part of life; we should improve what we can and accept what we can’t; we can change our own habits and thought processes. Keep doing this, and you’ll become a more resilient leader, and help shift your organisation’s culture in that direction as well.