Resilience in the moment

“A good half of the art of living is resilience.” ~ Alain de Botton.

As companies embark on another tough year ahead in 2013, and a climate of ongoing uncertainty, they are increasingly placing ‘resilience’ as one of the most important qualities they are looking for in their people. But, how do you recognise resilience in people, and how do you help people develop it further?

GlaxoSmithKline have defined ‘resilience’ as: “the ability to succeed personally and professionally in the midst of a high pressured, fast moving and continuously changing environment”.  

Traditional views are reflected in the language often used to describe resilient behaviour:

  • “Bouncing back after being knocked down”
  • “Taking the blows and coming back for more”
  • “Living to fight another day”
source: northjersey.com

source: northjersey.com

These expressions are adversarial and have their roots in war-like and conflict-driven situations. It is arguable that a mind-set of resilience, steeped in this language, is likely to generate more friction than collaboration.

  • What would it feel like to be resilient ‘in the moment’?  Not walk away to ‘re-group’ and then come back re-charged and ready for the fight.  Not retreat in order to re-think your strategy and make sure you win the argument the next time.  
  • But instead, there and then, you were to demonstrate emotional resilience, to really hear what was being said?
  • What if you could ‘flip’ the situation, get behind what was being said, and assess the dynamics objectively and not react?
  • What if you could show genuine curiosity in what’s happening, to hang around long enough to ask questions, to listen deeply, and to hear people out?
  • What might happen once they have been heard?  What different level of engagement might then be possible?

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When conflict works

It seems to me, from reflecting on the Olympics, that truly great performances benefit from having someone else to ‘bounce off’. On occasions this can be achieved by colleagues in the same team pushing each other to ever higher levels, as evidenced by the Jamaican sprinters, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. It may also be achieved by fierce but respectful rivalry, where the standards of excellence set by one player forces the other to have to raise their game to heights they would not otherwise have to. The phenomenal standards of performance displayed by the world’s top tennis players is evidence of this. It is debatable whether Nadal would ever have reached the level of peak performance he has, if he was not asked some extraordinary questions on the tennis court by Federer. Djokovic has since had to take his game to even greater heights to become World number one. Whether friendly or fierce rivalry, in elite sport, the tensions, pressures, and challenges set, help motivate participants to keep raising their game.

But it is not only sport that can benefit from rivalry, conflict and challenge. Used effectively, disagreements and tensions can be hugely important in driving up standards in all walks of life.

This is illustrated most powerfully in this short clip of Margaret Heffernan, describing the inspiring story of Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist who struggled against the medical establishment to prove that x-rays on pregnant mothers were responsible for childhood cancers. During a long, and often lonely battle, to prove her case, Alice relied heavily upon a colleague, who was quite the opposite from Alice in many ways. His job, as a statistician and as a friend, was simple. To try to prove Alice’s data and results wrong. His job was to create conflict around her theories. Subjecting her work to this level of challenge and scrutiny, provided Alice with greater confidence about the validity of her theory, and helped her to find the energy to persist against formidable opposition.

So, how willing are we in the business world to be so open to this level of ‘voluntary’ challenge and conflict? To what extent are we willing to invite disagreement in the interest of true collaboration?  Continue reading

From Conflict to Collaboration

Inter-personal or group conflict is an inevitable consequence of people working together in teams.  In fact, conflict can be a good thing, as it is a sign that people care and are passionate, and, if those energies are channelled correctly, they can be a great source of diverse ideas and solutions.

Too often however, conflict results in negative and damaging outcomes. It can hurt morale, suppress individual effectiveness, and, ultimately, destroy team productivity. Left untreated, it results in a downward spiral of negativity, emotions and blame.

A helpful starting point is to understand some of the theory, and to recognise that people have different (and preferred) styles of dealing with conflict.  There is no one style that will work best in every situation, but once you have an understanding of the different styles, you have the opportunity to step back and think about the most appropriate approach (or perhaps mix of approaches) that will suit the current situation. And, having a raised awareness of your own ‘natural’ style is a good first step to helping you learn and adapt when necessary, so that it does not remain your only style.  (For a deeper treatment of this area, see the work of Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas)

The list of styles identified through their work are:

  • Avoiding – Acting in a  way that does not address the conflict directly. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be a viable style to adopt when the issue and the relationship are of very low importance, but it should be used with extreme caution.  Avoiding a serious issue may make the conflict intensify, possibly damaging relationships further.
  • Accommodating – Involves accepting the other party’s position or interest at the expense of your own.  People who naturally adopt this style are not assertive but highly cooperative. It may be appropriate when the issue matters more to the other party and when peace is more valuable than winning. It can, however, be counter-productive as you may be seen as weak, especially if used repeatedly. Furthermore, constant ‘accommodating’ may lead to increased stress.
  • Competing – Working to have your position or interests take priority over those of the other party.  People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want, usually operating from a position of power (whether position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability). It can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.  It is also not a useful style when it is important to generate diverse ideas or multiple solutions.
  • Compromising – Involves each party giving and getting a little in terms of position and interests.  People adopting a compromising style seek solutions that will to some extent  satisfy everyone. This approach depends on everyone being prepared to give up something. It can be useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. It is unlikely to work successfully for issues of principle and may cut off opportunities for collaborative problem solving.
  • Collaborating – Parties attempt to meet all or most of the interests underlying their respective positions.  Collaborators can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s input is important. This is the most useful style when it is important to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too critical  for a simple trade-off.  It is most effective for generating ‘high-quality solutions’ but requires a very high level of trust between parties, and relies on the use of  considerable interpersonal skills (e.g. it is vital  to confront issues directly without threatening the other party). For some situations it may not be appropriate due to the fact that it can take considerable time and effort to implement.

‘True’ Collaboration is an often misunderstood and overused term.  It has been fashionable for companies to Continue reading