Research Paper By Douglas Hensch
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
When I started my first job over 20 years ago, I did not have a mobile phone, an email address or even a computer. Over the course of 20 years a lot has changed. In fact, the pace of change is blinding. Employers are asking employees to be connected to their work for longer hours with the ever-present smart phone. Reactions to the market place that used to take months now demand results in days or even hours. On top of that, today’s employee is more cognizant of the value of paying attention to family and personal needs. Employees know that a change in the marketplace can lead to re-organization and layoffs. This relentless pressure calls for new skills and ways of thinking that improve performance and lead us to higher levels of well being. The research is very clear that resilience is a foundational skill that is, at once, critical to success in today’s workplace and can be learned with some directed effort.
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, authors of The Resilience Factor, assert that resilience is
…the ability to bounce back from setbacks, learn from failure, be motivated by challenges and believe in your own abilities to deal with the stress and difficulties in life.
This rich, deep definition serves as the foundation for this paper. In our workshops on the same topic, participants often define resilience as the “ability to bounce back,” they stop there. Resilience can do much more for us on a personal professional level.
The sources of resilience, however, require us to look deeper. This paper does not claim to explain all the elements of resilience. It is simply offering up five different elements that, if developed, can lead to higher levels of performance. And, one of the consequences is to achieve more meaning, purpose, happiness and connection.
No battle plan survives contact with enemy
is a quote that can be attributed to several well-known U.S. Army generals. This is not to say that planning is not a critical element of the business world (or that of the military). What experience and conventional wisdom tell us, however, is that how we react when the expectations we have (according to our plan) are not met, we must find ways to remain on the path towards our goals.
In our work with Fortune 500 companies, Federal Government entities, Big Four consulting firms and everything in between, we hear executives asking for their employees to demonstrate more adaptability, more agility and more flexibility to cope with plans that change at breakneck speed. The ability to demonstrate flexibility in the face of change and adversity can mean the difference between success and failure.
In our Executive Coaching practice, we encounter leaders who are certain that their decisions are “right.” In one study focused on looking at how executives made decisions, researchers found that CEOs who were not challenged, received a great deal of praise in the media and held a high level of self importance paid almost 5% more for strategic acquisitions. On a $100 million acquisition, this translates to almost $5 million dollars! So it is with adversity, our self-talk and our beliefs often go unchallenged. We begin thinking about why a certain project went south or why someone sabotaged our efforts to sell an idea to management, yet we tend to accept these beliefs as facts. We do this so much so that we tend to say, “He made me mad.” Or, “She is purposely avoiding me.”
What we have learned from the research is that people who are capable of seeing that they may not be accurate regarding the cause of an adversity and who can generate more reasons for the causes tend to be more resilient. So, for instance, if we say, “He made me mad,” the resilient individual may make this statement out loud or to himself but he quickly adjusts his thinking to explore the accuracy of this statement. And, what he may ultimately conclude is that it was his own choice to be mad based on the circumstances, which shifts the responsibility to the person generating these beliefs which can be incredibly powerful. If another individual says, “She is purposely avoiding me,” we might ask: What is the evidence for this belief? Is there another way to look at this? What are the implications if I am right? …if I am wrong? How does this belief serve me?
One train of thought is that we need to “manage” our emotions. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has spent the better part of three decades exploring how writing about emotions can improve our well being and resilience. Multiple studies found that people who wrote about adversities for just 15 minutes a day for 3-4 days were physically healthier, had lower levels of anxiety and depression, and were more likely to secure jobs after a layoff. They were simply instructed to write about the adversity and their emotions without holding anything back. Pennebaker theorizes that there are a handful of reasons why this process works:
- It reduces inhibition about unresolved issues that comes from rumination.
- We develop new understandings that make the issue more manageable in our minds.
- It promotes self-understanding.
- Writing creates structure for our unorganized, fast-paced thinking that might not otherwise exist.
- We develop detachment from the event or issue which allows us to develop some objectivity to it.
In fact, many of the exercises developed from the research in the field of Positive Psychology involve writing in one format or another. They may not all follow the same journaling techniques but many of the benefits still exist for the same reasons. In the end, arguing and writing allow us develop flexibility in our thinking which, in turn, helps us solve problems with more creativity and open-mindedness.
Could it be that we can predict which team will win the World Series based on how they explain defeats? Is it possible to predict who will win an election by examining the candidates’ speeches for optimistic styles? Does optimism predict sales performance in the business world? Sports, politics and businesses would do well to understand the role that optimism plays in achievement. Dozens of studies point to circumstances where optimism is an important ingredient for anyone looking to reach an important goal.
Martin Seligman, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, runs a Positive Psychology lab that has helped predict election winners and championship teams by assessing election speeches and sports page quotes. Seligman’s research asserts that each of us has an explanatory style. That is, our explanations for good or bad events usually have three elements: personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.
Pessimistic thinkers tend to blame themselves (personalization) for adversities. They see the adversity as finding its way into all areas of their lives (pervasiveness) and it has always been there and might never go away (permanence). While any individual event can realistically be explained in this fashion, optimistic thinkers are more likely to see how others may have contributed to an event, how it is isolated to one area of their lives and how it is temporary. This type of thinking, over time, has been associated with the following:
- Greater physical health
- Lower levels of depression
- Higher grades in school
- More productivity at work
- Higher achievement in sports
In recent years, several investigative journalists have tried to prove that higher levels of optimism have actually hurt our country and produced the financial crisis that derailed the world’s economy. Optimism, they say, blinds us to potential hazards and creates a culture of risk-taking that only benefits those at the top of the economic spectrum. In turn, these journalists attempt to blame (in part) scientists such as Seligman for promoting positive thinking. The scientists, however, are quick to say that it is a realistic or flexible optimism that we should be promoting. Unchecked optimism can make individuals less likely to see risk and plan accordingly. We would all be served well to understand when we tend to be optimistic in our thinking and when we tend to be pessimistic. We can employ the help of friends, family members and colleagues to help us identify our explanatory styles and put optimism to work for us in the appropriate context.
In the context of project planning and management, optimism is an active ingredient. If the team does not feel that the objective can be achieved, this ‘hopelessness’ leads to lower levels of effort and commitment. On the other hand, seasoned professionals can spot someone who is overly optimistic and may not buy into this distorted vision. The realistically optimistic manager is hopeful that the objectives can be achieved but does not disregard qualified risks and issues.
A recent Time magazine declared that we are in the middle of a “mindful revolution.” A search on Amazon for books on the subject yields almost 8,000 results. And, psychology labs across the world are looking into why meditation and other mindfulness practices produces lower levels of stress and anxiety. Mindfulness, it seems, is the new fad…
The scientists who study mindfulness may not be experts in societal trends but they continue to uncover evidence that being non-judgmentally aware of the present circumstances leads to better decision-making in leaders, for example. Companies like Google, Apple, General Mills and even Goldman Sachs are offering time and space to meditate as well as classes to help employees learn this cutting edge mixture of art and science.
Practicing mindfulness allows individuals to distance themselves from their emotions. For instance, you might say to yourself, “I’m angry with Tom.” This statment implies that you are “angry” – that you are these emotions. A mindful approach might be to say, “I am experiencing anger.” The difference is at once subtle and powerful. By objectifying our emotions, they cease to have control over us. In fact, we can become curious about them. And, we realize that, just like the clouds in the sky, they will fade away and move out of the picture.
Which brings us to a close relative of mindfulness – curiosity. Research has taught us that curiosity is linked to lower levels of cognitive decline, higher levels of intelligence, greater meaning and purpose, improved relationships and…more happiness! Curious managers are more interested in learning about others than talking about themselves. They are adept at asking insightful, thought-provoking questions. They are less like to be overly judgmental. Curiosity is non-judgmental and helps us gather more information.
So much of what drives our decisions and behaviours comes from below the surface. Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology at Princeton University and Noble Prize winner, argues that this “automatic thinking,” if unchecked can lead us to make decisions that are not in our best interests. In short, practicing mindfulness allows us to access the fringes of our consciousness. It frees us from mindlessness where we are trapped by old categories, automatic behaviour and operating from a single perspective.
I once heard Barbara Fredrickson, psychologist at the University of North Carolina, say that positive emotions were the “seeds of resilience.” Early research in positive psychology focused on positive emotions and figuring out what made people “happy.” It was not too long before people inside and outside of the field started to focus on engagement, meaning and purpose as components of happiness and well being.
Fredrickson stuck with studying emotions and her research has led to breakthroughs in the power of positive affect such as hope, awe, interest, gratitude, inspiration, joy and pride. It is thought that experiencing more of these emotions creates a buffer to extended sadness and crippling depression, in some cases. In addition, positivity can propel us forward. Studies show that it broadens our attention. It allows us to actually see and accept more data compared to when we are in a negative state. Negativity tends to restrict our mind’s ability to see information and creates an almost tunnel vision-like effect. Finally, positivity can create an upwards spiral that expands our behavioural tendencies, leading to more positivity and action.
Daniel Goleman, psychologist at Harvard University, is quickly identified with his writing about emotional intelligence (EQ) but Goleman has also written about the contagiousness of emotions. He declares that leaders must recognize that the fleeting moods they bring to meetings, interactions and even electronic communication can affect others to the point that individuals far from them take on the same mood. Assuming we agree with Fredrickson’s work that points to the many benefits of positivity, it is easy to see why leaders would be wise to express some gratitude from time to time, use hopeful language when addressing their employees and even crack a joke, now and then. Of course, expressing any emotion without authenticity will lead to trust issues and backfire, altogether.
But, aren’t negative emotions useful, too? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” In fact the labels we use (“positive” and “negative”) do not really do us justice. Emotions are simply markers for us. Expressing anger or anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing for us. Allowing anger to influence our decisions about personnel and budgets is not effective. Letting anxiety control us limits our ability to take risks and push ourselves to greater heights. What the research has shown is that we need to be aware of negativity and in what quantities we express them.
Still, one meta-analysis of studies looking at the effects of positive emotions pointed to positivity as being as much a cause of positive outcomes as an effect of these outcomes. That is, being promoted at work can be a source of joy and pride. And, experiencing joy and pride can contribute to the success that led to the promotion. Dozens of studies have helped us understand that feeling love, pride, hope and joy produce healthier, more productive outcomes. And, while it may not be the critical ingredient in resilience it is hard to see how one can be resilient without a little laughter, a touch of gratitude and some connection to others sprinkled in.
The late Chris Peterson, psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, was quoted as saying, “Other people matter,” when asked about the many secrets to happiness and resilience. The research is clearly in Chris’ corner – close, supportive, intimate relationships can prove comfort, confidence and different points of view, to name a few.
Gallup’s employee engagement survey asks twelve questions. One of them asks respondents, “Do I have a best friend at work?” Another asks, “Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?” Why ask these questions? Isn’t work a place where we are supposed to be focused on meeting objectives, increasing profits and supporting strategic goals? While focus on these areas is important, disregarding the answers to Gallup’s survey questions can indicate how well an organization is performing.
In several studies conducted by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, it was determined that employees who feel loved are more likely to perform better. One of their studies showed that a caring culture not only improved employee performance, it led to better patient and family outcomes in a long-term healthcare facility. Another study conducted in seven different industries ranging from financial services to real estate found employees who were able to express affection, tenderness and compassion were more satisfied with their work, they were more committed and held themselves accountable for their work outcomes.
Connection, it seems, multiplies the abilities of employees and provides the protection and safety net that all humans crave. Investing in short conversations where we simply listen without judgment and celebrating successes of our colleagues can pay big dividends. Expressing appreciation recognizes individuals for their efforts and being vulnerable builds trust.
The characteristics mentioned above, if developed, can lead to higher levels of resilience which, in turn, can generate improved performance at work. These are not the only elements of resilience but they offer a starting place that is teaming with academic and business research by qualified individuals.
In addition, there is crossover among these topics and many of these elements build on each other. Investing in a meditation can boost your expression of positive emotions. Higher levels of positivity can lead to more flexibility, and so on. And, with short concentrated practice, individuals, teams and organizations can increase their resilience and enhance performance in ways in which can only be imagined.
Abramson, L. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1978), “Learned helplessness in humans: A critique and reformulation,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 97(1), 49-74.
Amabile, T. & Kramer, L. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Barsade, S., & O'Neill, O. (2014, January 13). Employees who feel love perform better. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/01/employees-who-feel-love-perform-better/
Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
Davidson, R., & Begley, S. (2012). The emotional life of your brain: The emotional life of your brain. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Emmons, R. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Fava, G.A. & Tomba, E. “Increasing Psychological Well-Being and Resilience by Pscyhotherapeutic Methods,” Journal of Personality, 77 (2009): 1903-34.
Frederick, S., Kahneman, D., Mochon, D. (2010). Elaborating a simpler theory of anchoring. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20(1), 17-19.
Fredrickson, B. L. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. In F. A. Huppert, N. Baylis, & B. Keverne (Eds.) The Science of Well-Being (pp. 217-238). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hanson, D. (2012, October 24). Spotting toxic emotions before they infect you at work. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/drewhansen/2012/10/24/spotting-toxic-emotions-before-they-infect-you-at-work/
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. New York, NY: Crown Business.
Howell, R. T., Kern, M. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes. Health Psychology Review, 1, 83-136.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York: HarperCollins.
King, L. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2005). “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” Psychological Bulletin 131: 803-55.
Langer, E.J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press.
Langer, E.J. & Moldoveanu, M. “The Construct of Mindfulness,” Journal of Social Issues, 56 (2000): 1-9.
Langer, E.J. & Weinman, C. “When Thinking Disrupts Intellectual Performance: Mindlessness on an Overlearned Task,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 7 (1981): 240-243.
Lovallo, D. & Sibony, O. (2010). The Case for Behavioral Strategy,” McKinsley Quarterly 2: 30-45.
Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274-281.
Pennebaker, J.W. & Traue, H.C. (1993). Inhibition and psychosomatic process. Emotion, Inhibition and Health (pp.146-163). Seattle: Hogrefe & Huber.
Pennebaker, J. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Pickert, K. (2014, January 23). The mindful revolution. Retrieved from http://time.com/1556/the-mindful-revolution/
Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life's hurdles. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Free Press.
Sweeney, P., Anderson, K. & Bailey, S. “Attributional Style in Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 (1986), 974-91.