Prosilience #22: Muddy Roads
Contextual factors that affect individual "challenge landscapes"
No matter what kind of car you have,
some roads are easier to drive on than others.
I talk a lot about resilience as a verb—the way we work our way through a wide range of challenges in life. From this standpoint, we can identify tools, skills, and muscles that people use, and can intentionally build, that enable them to take on larger challenges and achieve better outcomes.
I think it’s also important to pay attention to the environment in which people are “resiliencing” and think about how that plays a role in the process. Here are some of the factors that I believe can make the road rougher or smoother.These influence both the nature and severity of challenges people encounter and the ease with which they are able to navigate them.
One of the biggest contextual factors in resilience is the level of financial (and other) resources a person can draw on to resolve challenges. An individual who has money in the bank, access to a credit card, or some other source of resources they can draw on is in a much better position to deal with many kinds of unexpected challenges—a car accident, a medical emergency, a layoff, etc. They are also better able to arrange circumstances to avoid or minimize potential challenges and to increase their readiness for predictable challenges.
If I can afford insurance, invest in an education, and live in a home that offers safety and privacy, my resilience road is likely to be smoother than it would be for someone who lacks the necessary resources.
A second major factor in people’s ability to work through challenges is the level of support they receive from the people around them. Family, friends, and community members can provide emotional and practical support—a listening ear, a place to stay, a pair of hands, a warm hug—that makes the difference between being overwhelmed by a challenge and being able to move through it with relative ease.
If I have people I can reach out to for help and support, my resilience road is likely to be smoother than it would be for someone who feels isolated and alone.
In every organization, society, and community, there are formal and informal status hierarchies, including the presence of formal or informal “in-groups” and “out-groups,” defined by a variety of characteristics including job level and title, age, ethnic background, gender, socioeconomic standing, lifestyle, and more. In general, people who possess higher levels of status have greater access to resources and higher levels of situational influence. In addition, they are less likely to experience challenges such as discrimination, exclusion, overt and subtle diminishment, and biased judgments that are often an ongoing part of the landscape for people who are seen as having lower levels of status.
If I come from a prominent family or hold a high-level job, and I fit into categories that are judged as desirable by those around me, my resilience road is likely to be smoother than for someone who is seen as an outsider or a member of a less-valued group.
The surrounding physical and psychological environment influences both the challenges we face and the freedom with which we can use our resilience muscles. From a physical standpoint, environments can be more or less hospitable depending on space, noise, temperature, weather, potential for harm, and a wide range of other elements. From a psychological standpoint, environments can feel more or less safe, and they can make it easier or harder for people to engage their resilience muscles.
If I am living in a war zone or an unusually turbulent climate, working in an environment in which feel I can’t speak up or set personal boundaries, or feeling a sense of threat or danger, my resilience road is likely to be muddier than it is for someone in a calmer and safer setting.
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While many kinds of experiences can make us stronger and increase our readiness for larger challenges, some of the life experiences people encounter can create scars and tender spots. When we encounter challenges that are beyond our capabilities, especially at a young age, the experience can increase our sensitivity and reactivity to a range of challenges. Even as adults, highly stressful events that create a sense of horror, helplessness, and/or include the threat of serious injury or death can lead to short- and long-term impacts that influence our response to other situations.
If I was abused as a child, have survived a traumatic experience, or have recently experienced challenges that significantly depleted my energy, my resilience road is likely to be muddier than it is for someone whose history has had less severe impacts.
Because of the important role of energy in fueling resilience, physical and mental health issues can affect our resilience above and beyond the immediate challenges they present. When our energy is depleted due to physical illness—and/or from the side effectives of the treatments we employ in our efforts to regain health—and when we are suffering the effects of various types of mental illness—it is more difficult for us to engage our resilience muscles and apply them to other challenges as well.
If I am experiencing depression or anxiety, or am suffering from cancer or another medical issue, my resilience road is likely to be muddier than it is for someone who is in better mental and/or physical health.
Because many of my readers work in organizational settings, I wanted to share a few ideas about the implications of these thoughts for the workplace; they may be helpful in non-work settings as well.
It’s important to be aware of these issues in organizational life. When we introduce change, or when other events take place that are potentially disruptive to us and those around us, we don’t always know the circumstances that might be affecting the people we lead and/or support. Taking the time to understand these contextual issues will enable us to be more effective.
When working to introduce new technology to a school system, it was important for the planning team to recognize that one of the schools had just suffered the unexpected death of a beloved principal and could benefit from some extra time, attention, and support.
It’s also important to recognize the things that might be influencing our own responses and sensitivities to the challenges we encounter—this allows us to inform others and equip them to better help us, and to separate the true impact of organizational initiatives and the intentions of those who are implementing them from our own responses.
As one employee read the announcement of a departmental reorganization, they found themself feeling very angry at their boss and felt like quitting. Upon reflection, they recognized that they were feeling lonely and sad due to some other events outside of work, and that this was affecting their reaction to the change. They were able to discuss this with the boss and felt a strong sense of affirmation and support.
All of us have traveled muddy roads at times. By remembering what it is like to be in a situation where resilient responses feel difficult, we can increase our empathy for others who appear to be struggling. In addition, it’s important to think carefully about our words when talking about resilience and change, as people may hear the message that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t feel able to rise to the challenges they are facing.Simultaneously helping people strengthen their own capabilities and providing the support needed to help them succeed with new challenges is important.
By understanding the contextual elements described here, we can begin to identify ways to build better roads. For example, making sure people have access to emergency resources, creating a climate of psychological safety and increased social support, reducing the impact of discrimination and bias, and recognizing where extra care and attention may be needed to help people whose history, health, or other factors are creating more difficult circumstances are all actions that serve to increase the ease with which people can engage their resilience.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of the Prosilience newsletter! See you in a couple of weeks for the next installment.
Each of these is worth a much longer discussion; I hope to dig into them further in future posts.
Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak freely, raise questions and concerns, and express your feelings without fear of retribution or rejection.
Research on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) presents compelling evidence of a link between childhood neglect and abuse and later-life health and well-being.
I became even more sensitive to this issue recently after hearing from a participant in a resilience class who articulated the ways in which a mental health issue made it more difficult for them to apply a number of the resilience muscles being discussed. I am still thinking through the best ways to make sure that people feel supported—wherever they are—while also being invited to learn about and strengthen their resilience muscles.