Prosilience #6: Leader Resilience is Contagious
Creating healthy ripples in your organization or community
In this article I will discuss four ways in which the resilience of leaders has the potential to help the whole world become a more resilient place.
Resilience is about flourishing—maintaining/regaining higher levels of effectiveness and well-being—in the face of turbulence and challenge. I think of it as a verb—the application of a set of actions, perspectives, and skills to work through challenges—rather than as a personality characteristic.
In my company’s research, we have found a correlation between organizational level and several “resilience muscles”1. This suggests that there may be a relationship between the ability to master challenges and the criteria used to select people for more senior roles in organizations. However, right now I’m more interested in a different question: How can leader resilience elevate the resilience of others?
In working with leaders, I often use some version of this graphic to help them visualize their potential impact. Can you think of a time when you have seen a leader’s effective response to a challenge begin a ripple effect that helped others engage in more resilient responses?
Here are four ways leader resilience creates this type of impact:
We often look to people in leadership roles for cues about appropriate ways to act: students look to teachers; citizens look to political leaders; employees look to supervisors, managers, and senior leaders. In challenging times, which are often characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty, this is even more true. When we see a leader identify and try a creative course of action, reach out to others for advice and support, or leave work early to make time for a workout, it increases our comfort with doing the same.
When we are in a leadership role, we often underestimate how many eyes are watching us and taking their cues from our actions. Intentionally modeling resilient responses, managing our own energy effectively, and becoming more aware of how we respond to challenges so we can consistently and deliberately engage our resilience muscles will increase the likelihood that we serve as helpful guides to action.
My point of reference for the elements of resilience that can be modeled, taught, and supported is the Prosilience framework, which outlines four building blocks that help people deal effectively with a wide range of challenges.
Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s own behavior, emotions, and thoughts when dealing with disruptive emotions and impulses. It involves being able to pause between feeling and acting—taking a moment to think things through, wait patiently, and make a plan instead of yelling, throwing a tantrum, or giving in to unhealthy impulses. It is developed over time, starting in infancy and childhood, and can be practiced and strengthened in adulthood.
When leaders are well-regulated rather than dysregulated, they are better able to choose effective responses to model. However, there’s an even more important role for regulation. It turns out that in addition to self-regulation, humans can co-regulate. A dynamic interplay between the emotions of two people who are interacting unfolds beneath conscious awareness and, when working in a healthy way, operates to reduce distress and bring the individuals into greater states of calm.
Here’s a really interesting short video demonstrating this process with a mother and infant as they participate in the “still face” experiment.
When we are feeling disrupted, the mere presence of a well-regulated individual can begin to help us regain a state of calm. Can you think of a time when another person’s level of calm had an impact on your own level of regulation? In addition, researchers have studied specific actions people can take to help others increase their emotional regulation. While most of this research has taken place in educational, family, or therapeutic settings, there is growing body of work that looks at the impact of emotional regulation on trust, empathy, and other elements of psychological well-being in organizations.
Here’s a scientific article that describes the psychological and neural processes underlying the social regulation of emotion.
3. Coaching and Mentoring
In addition to modeling and self-regulating, leaders can play a more direct role in supporting the resilience of others as well. They can provide suggestions and strategies for working through specific challenges—dealing with a difficult co-worker, moving into a new role, balancing work-life demands, etc. They can also support and encourage the development of skills and mindsets that support resilient responses, including mindfulness, collaboration, creativity, and physical/emotional well-being.
Leaders in a wide range of settings have an opportunity to coach and mentor others. Community and religious leaders, fitness instructors and coaches, teachers in a wide range of fields, and many others are in positions to help others learn how to master challenges and build resilience. When leaders have a clear understanding of how resilience works, and experience in building and applying it themselves, they are more able to be effective in helping others grow.
4. Climate and Culture
The climate of an organization or other system is the “emotional weather” people experience on a day-to-day basis. Do people feel engaged? Supported? Stressed? Safe? Excited? Frightened? Curious? Climate plays a big role in organizational outcomes such as engagement, trust, psychological safety, and productivity. It can vary from one place to another within an organization. Have you ever seen an organizational “micro-climate,” where the weather in one part of the organization was quite stormy, while it was sunny and warm just down the hall? How much of this was related to the leaders in each area? When an organization’s climate is healthy, it’s easier for people to engage their own resilience muscles. In addition, people are more able to build strong supplies of energy that they can draw on to deal with challenges, and to have the resources they need to replenish energy in the presence of ongoing difficulties.
The culture of an organization is the enduring set of values and norms that guides people’s thoughts and behaviors. For example, some organizations have a culture that is focused on collaboration, while others emphasize individuality and competition. Some cultures place a high value on status differences, while others are more egalitarian. While culture can shift, it is more stable and pervasive than climate in its impact on the system. There is no one “perfect” culture, but some elements of culture are more supportive of resilience than others. For example, a culture that punishes mistakes is less likely to encourage people to try new approaches to unfamiliar situations than one that rewards experiments and learning from failures.
How does leader resilience influence climate and culture? Not surprisingly, both climate and culture can be intentionally shaped and built. Policies, practices, systems, and structures all play a role in creating environments in which people find it natural and easy to operate with resilience. Leaders who have developed high levels of resilience capability themselves, and who have achieved “conscious competence” (that is, they know what they are doing to achieve resilient outcomes, and they have good mental models of how that works), can serve as architects of organizational systems that nourish resilience.
Every one of these elements has the potential to expand in larger and larger circles. When people operate in more resilient ways as a result of leader actions, they support and encourage resilience in their clients, suppliers, and colleagues. They model resilience, create co-regulation, teach what they have learned, and build environments and systems that enable resilient action. As these ripples spread, they touch families, schools, communities, and society as a whole.
I invite you to think of the ways you are leading with resilience, and the ways in which the leaders around you are nourishing resilience in the organizations, teams, families, and communities they serve. What is one thing you might do to highlight, strengthen, and/or encourage one of these practices?
The Personal Resilience Profile is a developmental assessment used to help people understand a set of “resilience muscles” they apply as they work through challenges. The database for this tool is the basis for the research findings described here. If you’re reading this newsletter and would like to complete a complimentary profile and have me walk you through the results, hit “reply” and send me a note.