I doubt I need to summarize the events of the last couple of years to illustrate how or why operational resilience came to reside at the top of every business leader’s list as they look to 2023: the multiple “once in a lifetime” events that have dominated headlines and fed anxieties across every company, community and family around the world. We’ll be feeling the effects of these events for a while.
As all of that bad news was unfolding, executives moved quickly to insulate their organizations from the effects, transforming business models, revisiting supply bases and digitizing operations to increase agility and improve resilience, almost overnight, in some cases. In 2021, the “Great Resignation” threw another challenge at them, elevating employee experience (EX) on the list of priorities to its rightful place alongside customer experience (CX).
Desperate to retain fleeing talent, leaders improved the work environment (or eliminated the need for it entirely), provided additional education and training, increased health perks (gym memberships and wellness app subscriptions) and focused on work-life balance (hybrid WFH, more mental health days).
Some would argue that these necessary shifts were a long time coming, and most would agree that they drastically improved operational resilience. So why aren’t we feeling any better?
Fast approaching the New Year and robbed of any notion that “next year will be easier” (since 2021 and 2022 proved otherwise), our best bet-as leaders, contributors and humans-is to buckle up and take what comes. Operational resilience, however, constitutes only part of the safety net we need.
Emotional resilience is far more important, yet seldom discussed in the workplace.
Optimism And Emotional Resilience
I remember a conversation I had with a board member at my first startup. It was 2010, and we were struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Things looked bleak, and I felt like I was walking blind with no real options. Personally, professionally and emotionally, I was overwhelmed. I began to cry; I couldn’t help it. It felt awful. The board member got up, walked around the table and gave me a hug.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s a long series of decisions that rest squarely on your shoulders and must be made with only 5% of the information. Sometimes, it feels like everything is falling apart, but you keep going because you believe in the mission, you care about the people and you see the opportunity.”
I learned a lot from that interaction. I learned that it’s okay to show you’re human and that by doing so, you encourage other people to be human in their responses. As Laurel Donnellan wrote in Forbes earlier this fall, compassionate leadership fuels positive change by inspiring and influencing people so they can inspire and influence others. That’s what that board member did for me that day.
That interaction also taught me that emotional resilience is strengthened by realistic optimism. This was validated by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney’s 20-year study of some of the most resilient people out there: prisoners of war; Special Forces instructors; and survivors of illness, abuse and trauma. In their book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, they identify ten of the most common traits among the resilient elite. Optimism was number one.
But it isn’t the kind of optimism that concerns itself with circumstances or even the state of the world. “Next year will be better” won’t serve us very well when next year comes and feels like 2020, or 2021 or 2022 all over again.
Instead, to be resilient, you need not wear rose-colored glasses or live in denial. We can’t control the world, but we can control our response to it, and we should be very intentional about that response, both externally and in the privacy of our thoughts. As Viktor E. Frankl is often credited with saying, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Realistic optimism then is a dogged belief in yourself, despite everything happening out there. You don’t have to know how you’re going to get through something; all that matters is that you know you will.
That’s what every startup founder quickly learns. It’s the refining fire of that first precipitous dip in the J-curve. You make mistakes, gain negative knowledge and either scratch and claw your way out, or else you punch out.
Emotional resilience will help ensure that you don’t do the latter-unless it’s really time.
How To Build Emotional Resilience
It didn’t take long for me to find my way out of the trough of disillusionment at that first startup. Were there additional hardships? Absolutely, but I kept going because I believed in what we were building, even when no one else did. Eventually, everyone else saw it, too.
That’s another lesson in emotional resilience. As you get older, you become intimately familiar with the law of impermanence, for better and worse. As the writer Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his poem, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
All that matters is that you keep showing up to do the work. When you inevitably hit a wall, take a breath, make the hard decisions and keep going. Emotional resilience will ensure that even if you fail, the fall won’t be quite as hard.
To cultivate emotional resilience at home and work, try the following.
1. Be optimistic, especially when it comes to yourself and others.
2. Remember that nothing is permanent. Nothing.
3. Control what you can and learn how to control your response to everything else.
4. Act genuinely and with compassion. Support those you can as often as you can.
We might not be able to control what happens in the world, but it’s in the one-to-one interactions of life that we often make the biggest impact. Cultivating emotional resilience doesn’t always feel productive or efficient in the moment, but trust me, it always pays off in the end.