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True grit

Jo Maddocks, Chief Psychologist - JCA Global

Most high flyers are not best equipped to cope when things go wrong. They perform well in ideal conditions, but crash and burn under stress. Many high performers move from job to job to avoid serious challenges or bail out when things get difficult.

Most companies recruit based on talent and experience without measuring individuals’ levels of resilience. But a study by US-based Westpoint Naval College on the dropout from 1000 top applicants found that its endurance test success rate had no correlation with the most talented recruits. The high flyers, always used to doing well, cracked under more serious pressure as they’d never been truly challenged before and had little or no resilience. It is those who persevere under difficult and arduous circumstances that differentiates the resilient individual, and those who can be counted on during constant change or when times are tough. I first became interested in the concept of resilience 20 years ago, when I was asked to identify why there was such a high drop-out rate from modern apprenticeship schemes. My investigations led me to discuss this with a wide range of people including; employers, trainers, parents and the young apprentices themselves.

In contrast to my expectations that the reason for drop out was due to lack of skills, poor learning or personal circumstances, the single most significant factor was the individual’s attitude or mindset. My research identified five key attitudes missing from individuals failing to complete what they started and giving up when things got difficult i.e. lacking resilience. These attitudes make up the acronym, ‘MAAPS’. Motivation is a vital ingredient for anyone wishing to achieve what they set out to do, is to put in the hard work and effort required. Innate ability will only get you so far, a consistent theme from high achievers in work, sport and personal life is that they all work hard to succeed regardless of their natural talent or limitations. Ambition, knowing what you want and having a passion for achieving this is essential to resilience. Having a clear ambition, purpose and positive outlook will help a person sacrifice short term gains – i.e. not be distracted by more immediate opportunities – to achieve their longer-term goals.

Adaptability is key, with life realities such as; redundancy, illness, accidents, divorce, bereavement are some common yet unpredictable life events that people can and must adapt to. Coping with such uncertainty and our own vulnerability requires resilience, acceptance and maturity. Perseverance is a part of resilience and overcoming adversity are closely related to the attitude of ‘grit’, ‘stickability’ and ‘never giving up’. Successful people are those who learn from mistakes and keep going when times are hard. Set-backs are inevitable, what matters is how we respond to them. Self-esteem, confidence and self-belief is underpinned by high self-esteem, a vital attribute for coping with life’s challenges in a positive manner. Under stress, people with lower self-esteem may become rigid and defensive, such as being aggressive, blaming others, feeling victimised and demonstrating helpless. resignation. A classic experiment that exemplifies the importance of attitudes to resilience is known as the “Marshmallow study”. Children as young as five were given a marshmallow and told they would receive a second marshmallow if they didn’t eat the first when the researcher left the room.

The interesting finding came when these children were followed up later in life to see how successful they had been. Remarkably, on average, children who had resisted the initial marshmallow had also achieved more in many aspects of life. This was attributed to their ability to defer gratification i.e. giving up on something immediate to gain something in the longer term. This simple attitude, which can be learnt at a very young age, is obviously an important element of perseverance. In my experience all of the MAAPS attitudes need to be present for a truly resilient mindset. People are often motivated and enthusiastic at the start of a project but lack perseverance when things become difficult or boring. An individual can have all the ambition in the world but if they don’t adapt their goals to changing circumstances, they won’t succeed. Long term, sustainable resilience also requires an underlying sense of self-esteem to cope with the cumulative effects of stress. The good news is that the resilience mindset can be learnt. Having identified the cause of drop out from the apprenticeships, we set about developing a programme to develop all five attitudes. This proved successful and led to reduced drop out, increased retention and higher employability.

Under the label of developing Emotional Intelligence (EI), I have used similar programmes to build resilience in employees ranging from board directors to graduates. Resilience is particularly relevant in today’s demanding workplace to prevent leaders from derailing when under pressure, support team members in conflict situations, enable managers to cope with constant change, and help employees cope with ever increasing workloads. A useful metaphor is to consider resilience as a see-saw. At one end are an individual’s resources for coping with stressors – emotional, physical and environmental – and at the other end are their stressors, that cause stress. So long as the individual has sufficient resources to cope with life’s demands they will be in equilibrium, resilient. If they are not coping well and have insufficient resilience they can either reduce the causes of stress or learn to increase their coping resources. Resources and stressors are individual, what causes one person stress, e.g. time pressure, may be fun and exciting for another, and what one person finds easy, another person may find stressful.

Rather than listing all qualities that build resilience, it is far more efficient and realistic to identify personal resources and probable stressors using a psychometric measure. This way the individual can use their resources to manage their specific stressors. For example, a person who has difficulty with conflict, but is highly flexibile (resource), could use their flexibility to try out different ways of dealing with conflict. Even though resources and stressors are important elements of resilience, of even greater impact is the pivot point on the see-saw. Imagine the pivot point being over to the left, it would only take a small stressor to tip the scales into not coping. Alternatively, the individual would require very little resources to cope with huge stressors and remain comfortably in balance. The pivot point represents our resilient mindset, which is largely determined by the five core attitudes described previously. While it is much easier to build resilience as a child, a resilient mindset can be developed in the workplace. Below are some suggestions for developing each of the five resilience attitudes.

Motivation comes from taking action. For example, rather than waiting to be inspired before writing your blog, start writing, don’t judge it, and the creativity will begin. Rather than waiting to feel energised before going to the gym, stand up and start moving to raise your energy levels. Rather than feeling over-whelmed by too many tasks, just do one of them to get the ball rolling. Create a compelling vision for the outcome you want to achieve. Draw it, tell people about it, and do it! Take one specific action each day for three weeks that relates to this goal and turn it into a habit. Balance your ambition with recognition that life is also uncertain. Think of times in your life when you had to adapt and coped successfully with change. Identify what is most important in your life and let go of perfection. Try doing something differently in your life that changes your routines. Practice and rehearse doing things you may find uncomfortable, threatening or difficult, such as conflict, presentations, or learning something new. Firstly, in your imagination rehearse it going well several times, then role-play it preferably with a colleague, and finally treat the real event as a learning opportunity where mistakes are useful feedback. Start by building your self-esteem when things are going well such as recognising and using your strengths, and pushing yourself slightly outside of your comfort zones. Gradually extend this to building more resilience when under pressure, such as being compassionate to yourself, rather than self-critical, practice relaxation techniques, and find a mentor to share concerns and problem solve together. Encouraging the recruitment and development of individuals with the above attitudes will result in better equipped, better motivated and more resilient employees. But if the organisation develops a culture of resilience where the five attitudes are engaged at an individual, team and organisational level, then the entire company will be able to thrive and not just survive in a challenging, changing world.

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