Dr Tara Swart: Because it looks at the difference between heartrate and the variability of the heartbeats and it’s the most scientifically rigorous one that's out there, we can differentiate between physical exercise, psychological load and recovery of resilience.
Philippa Lamb: Well so talk me through it. So if I was going to be part of this what would happen to me?
TS: Because you're a lady I wouldn’t have to start by asking if you’ve got a hairy chest, which I find myself asking.
PL: For the record I’d like to say no at this point. Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart has formulated a way to assess how resilient we are by monitoring our heart levels.
TS: But you wear two gel electrodes with this device attached to it and with some of the men at C-suite level they do have to shave the hair on their chest to put it on. You wear it for three days and three nights so that we can really look at your sleep, your exercise levels, how stressed you are during the day and everything in between. If you really do a lot of exercise we can break that down and say how health promoting or fitness promoting it was. And then overall there's an indication of your bucket of resources, so has that been getting drained over time or are you managing to maintain the status quo or are you indeed building up resilience through what you do.
PL: For individuals resilience is now understood to be fundamental to good leadership and it’s a vital quality for organisations too, helping them adapt successfully in the face of volatility and uncertainty. But what exactly is resilience? Well you can take your pick of many definitions out there but what we are seeing now is some widely recognised key components.
TS: I would define it as the ability to adapt to change, or just to adapt to your circumstances and to be able to reduce your stress levels in the face of change and also to learn from difficulties and then improve yourself going forward. So I think a great example of this, which was given to me by the CEO of this company is that he had the monitor on a nurse that was working in a cancer clinic and basically giving bad news all day and she said, “I dread to think what’s going on in my body at that time,” and actually she was in a flow state when she was doing that because she was so good at it and experienced at it and was so rewarded by her job that she was actually recouping resilience when she was doing that.
PL: It wasn’t stressing her.
PL: It was demanding but it wasn’t stressing her.
PL: A consistent theme in the catalogue of definitions is a blend of confidence, social support, adaptability and the capacity to bounce back from adversity. Andrew Larkin is principal consultant at the Leadership Learning Team. He's a trainer, coach and consultant with a focus on leadership and he thinks we need to modernise our understanding of resilience.
Andrew Larkin: So defining resilience, the classic, is ‘bounce back’. One phrase I even heard today was bounceability which is maybe a new word but I think that that's a bit of a limited definition even though it’s a very pervasive definition of what resilience is. And I think personally that it’s not human enough: it almost makes us expect our leaders to be bulletproof, to be superhuman. Bounce-back is really important but one big area that people are starting to talk about nowadays is not post-traumatic stress disorder but post-traumatic growth.
PL: So this is the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?
AL: I think that's part of it though and I really like someone called Adrian Lock from Roffey Park talks about a much more human definition of resilience and he emphasises on the one hand being human; to feel, to be vulnerable, to care. And I think that's part of resilient leadership as well. Even the greats like Churchill might have wept sometimes, and was known to. The second element of this more human definition I suppose is about living with uncertainty and change. And then the last and third key area of Adrian Lock’s lovely explanation of resilience is growing from adversity.
PL: So for organisations who are looking at that, listening to what you're saying, thinking, ‘This sounds great. This is what we need in our work because we certainly need it in our line managers and we’d like to distribute it throughout our entire organisation.' What can they do?
TS: Well I think the first thing, and I've learnt this by working with some banks where they’ve had a lot of heart attacks and understanding that the reasons for sickness are so strongly connected to employee engagement I think is the absolute foundation of this. So where people are saying, “We’ve had heart attacks, we’ve had people with ulcers and we need to look at that physical stuff on the one hand, and then these are the results of our employee engagement survey and people are stressed and anxious and depressed and demotivated,” those two things mustn’t be seen as separate: they must be seen as absolutely integrated because one leads to the other and both ways round.
PL: So this is wellbeing isn’t it? Where’s the division between wellbeing and resilience?
TS: I would say they’re on a spectrum, you can't be resilient if you’re not well. So I would say wellbeing is the first part and then the icing on the cake of wellbeing is resilience.
PL: Managing our physical health is really important here. Tesco flags resilience as one of the five key traits its leaders need to guide their teams. And one of the ways they help them achieve that resilience is by making themselves fit for life. What does that mean? Well it depends on the role they’re in but it might mean walking 10,000 steps for office staff, while for store managers who are already very active in the course of their working day it might mean thinking about diet and eating more energising food. But there's more to this than simple wellbeing because our overall resilience is a combination of learnt skills and personal characteristics. So many organisations are now using practical interventions like training to foster resilience amongst their people and throughout the organisation. Andrew Larkin is a believer and he reckons he can sense immediately if an organisation and the people who work there are genuinely resilient or not.
AL: It’s about the smell of the place. You walk in and you sense that there's a positive energy or a positive atmosphere here. When you walk into a lot of organisations as I do you do get a feel.
PL: Of the good ones and the bad ones?
AL: Absolutely. I think that mentoring relationships happen in healthy, resilient organisations, whether they’re formally organised or not I think that that's one of the hallmarks for me.
PL: So they’re collaborative?
AL: They’re collaborative but also there's a kind of investing in the development of people in not just formal but also informal ways. I think that resilient organisations are really clear about their purpose and every organisation’s got some poster in the lift with their organisation mission statement and vision, but shared purpose is much more rare. And so that's why communicating progress to meaningful goals to refer to Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard is really important.
TS: Meaning and purpose we know from the neuroscience of Buddhism research that gratitude and compassion they massively contribute to our resilience much more than material things which give us a short term reward in the brain and then actually become so meaningless that they don't even give us that reward anymore. And I think that brings us to quite a fundamental point which is that economics is a really big driver of why most people do what they do. But if you have a job that you believe has noble goals the research shows that you will work for lower reservation wages. But I would extrapolate that to say that it doesn’t have such a bad effect on your body or your mental health.
PL: Which is great for people lucky enough to have that sort of role isn’t it? Thinking about a broad mass of people working in offices around the country largely for them if you're a line manager you’re engaging with this idea, you see the benefits individually and organisationally, it’s people management strategies presumably that's going to build resilience in people like that. You can talk about wellbeing strategies, diet, exercise, provide programmes, that sort of thing but largely? Where are the real wins there? What are the things to invest in?
TS: Well I've just thought of a wonderful story, you’re absolutely right, things like diet and sleep and exercise you can go on about that until the cows come home but people have to want to change, there has to be an emotional hook for you to actually sustain that kind of behaviour. And my favourite story around that is the janitor at Nasa story, have you heard it?
TS: One of the US presidents was on a tour around Nasa and he stopped to talk to the janitor and he said, “What are you doing and what do you do?” and he said, “I'm helping to put a man into space.”
PL: More from Tara Swart there and what they’re both telling us is that resilient organisations invest in their people: they communicate well and they’re clear about their purpose. Achieving that kind of resilience though has to start somewhere and according to Tara leadership is where it needs to be rooted.
TS: The leader sets the tone, is the role model, and has to remain positive and transparent throughout lots of change and uncertainty.
PL: On the flipside bad leadership can have the reverse effect, Andrew Larkin.
AL: There are negative forms of leadership that organisations need to be very aware of that can erode organisational resilience.
PL: What sort of things?
AL: Narcissism, amongst senior leaders for example. And the trouble is sometimes charismatic leadership and transformational leadership and narcissistic leadership and destructive forms of leadership can look very similar. Ability to get everyone pulling in the same direction, ability to make people feel like what we’re doing is really important. But I think what the key difference is, is one is a socialised power motive that's about making a difference for everyone and another one is a personalised power motive that's about my selfish interests and I think organisations need to be a lot better at protecting themselves from some of these negative elements that can erode resilience because it’s all good and well us having a campaign around resilience, whether that focuses on health and wellbeing and the physical side of resilience, or managing stress or some of the more intrinsic elements that are related to emotional intelligence. It’s all good and well to promote that stuff but I think if we’re having to do that because there are some very negative elements in our organisations that people have to be resilient towards or against that we could do something about well we shouldn’t ignore that side too.
PL: So you shouldn’t use it as a sticking plaster?
AL: Absolutely right, that's a great way to say it.
PL: So far, so good, but if you’re keen to go down the resilience training route, the CEO or your CFO will have a question, does it work? Well organisational psychologists, Professor Sir Cary Cooper and Professor Ivan Robertson have been asking that question too. They’ve just reviewed every published study on resilience to try and find the answer. Here’s Ivan.
Professor Ivan Robertson: Resilience training is something that seems to be happening more and more. Fundamentally I've spent 20 to 30 years as an academic in the psychology area and I don't like doing things where there's not strong evidence base. So got interested in actually how do we know whether it works or not.
PL: They looked at all the published studies, 150 of them. Then they narrowed them down to those that included both before and after evaluation of resilience levels. And that narrowed the field to just 14 studies. What they found was compelling.
IR: The biggest single outcome that we got was a large effect for resilience training in the workplace for mental health outcomes across all the studies.
PL: Quantifiable improvements if you trained people?
IR: Quantifiable improvement yeah. In terms of the scientific community talks about sizes of effects and there are conventions for that, small, medium and large effects and we found large effect.
PL: And obviously there's training and there's training, was that an appreciable benefit regardless of what sort of training they had?
IR: Well that's a really interesting question actually because the studies that we looked at ranged from a single 90 minute session through to several weeks, I think the longest was about 20 weeks, the 90 minute study was actually as effective as any of the longer ones.
PL: What did you draw from that?
IR: I think that there's something that can be done in a short period of time and one other factor that came out as well most of the studies were group-based so you worked with a group doing the resilience training but the ones which had the best results were the ones where there was some individualised attention as well and that was a stand out finding too. Oh and perhaps one other thing but the single online only study that we had didn’t work.
PL: So it needs to be face to face?
IR: Well certainly it needs an element of face to face, I think.
PL: When to came to the studies there wasn’t any rigorously defined agreement on the actual content of the best resilience training courses, though most of them involved cognitive behavioural techniques adapted for people who were coping with day to day adversity in the workplace. Another strand of the content they found was what might be called adversity training, essentially giving people experience of hardship to train them in how to handle it.
IR: People who have had to cope with adversity tend to have higher levels of resilience later in life. So some of the training was specifically designed to place people in simulated, obviously, but simulated tough situations so that they could then practice how they would deal with it. Almost no doubt they got real benefit for their mental health and their anxiety levels later when the follow up studies were done.
PL: Facing adversity and overcoming it builds resilience and Andrew Larkin thinks that organisations which are bold enough to foster a culture where failure is allowed win here. Their people grow more resilient when they're encouraged to learn from their mistakes and their individual resilience feeds into making the whole organisation more resilient too.
AL: If there isn’t an environment in which I can process, I can learn, and that's very unwise of organisations because our learning capacity, our adaptive capacity, obviously we know that that's crucial to our sustained success, so we’ve got to create that environment. And I think that that leads on to another important area of resilience that's not often noted and that's how organisations deal with critical incidents or when things go wrong and what mechanisms we’re building in. I say mechanisms but really just trained managers to be able to put on their ‘manager as coach’ hat and just coach someone through. That means asking really helpful questions. I think that's really important.
PL: So that's about training line managers isn’t it to not leap to blame?
PL: So imagining yourself as a CEO, sitting in a board meeting thinking about whether to spend the money on this would you say that the evidence suggests that this is something that's well worth looking into and investing in?
IR: I would say 100% yes to that actually. With all things in organisations like that where you have to make decisions about employees and human resource issues there's never absolute certainty but I think there's easily enough evidence that suggests if you improve the wellbeing of employees at the very least you'll get lower levels of sickness absence, you'll get lower levels of presenteeism and almost certainly from the evidence, which is strong, you’ll get better performance as well.
PL: Food for thought from Ivan Robertson there and if you’d like to learn more about fostering resilience visit the CIPD website for more research and ‘how to’ guides. Next month how to recruit and grow the best young talent and how up and coming rocket engineers are just as likely to have nail art as oily hands nowadays. You'll find a brand new podcast on the CIPD site on the first Tuesday of every month, cutting edge insight and expertise from every corner of the HR world. Download and listen wherever you are, in the car, at the gym, cooking up a storm in your kitchen. Don't miss them!