Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex and Ambiguous, or VUCA for short, has been talked about for decades. It is only in recent years that VUCA has touched nearly every stratum of society. COVID19 severely impacted the lives of everyone around the world.
Lives are lost. Businesses close. People lost their jobs. In a short time, COVID19 has had a devastating effect on global health and the world economy, with its lingering effects for many years to come.
According to the UN’s Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to the COVID 19 Crisis1
The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis: it affects societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale, making the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even more urgent.
In facing VUCA unprepared, at best, people will feel a sense of discomfort. At worst, the physical, mental and financial health deteriorates until it becomes difficult to recover. We need to do all we can to support each other in these highly disruptive times. One aspect we can focus on is developing our ability to be resilient in times of adversity.
Resilience consists of three aspects which are: external support, internal support and existential support. To improve one’s resilience, we need to understand its definition, importance, and how it works. We then need to take decisive steps to develop resilience in our teams by developing psychological safety, identifying stresses and support for each person, defining a common language and regularly following up on each other.
Developing resilience is incredibly challenging if the team member is going through a difficult time. As team leaders, your team's resilience might not be easy to assess because it requires honest and possibly emotional conversations. With this knowledge at hand, we can then work towards developing and strengthening the resilience of our diverse teams.
What is Resilience?
The Latin word for resilience is resalire, which means to jump back or to rise again. There are many types of resilience. Below is a sampling of how other domains use the word Resilience.
- Ecological Resilience – the ability of an ecosystem to resist damage, respond to disturbances and recover quickly.
- Urban Resilience – the ability of communities and cities to evolve and respond to changes
- Architectural Resilience – the ability for a building or infrastructure to remain intact and functioning despite disasters
- Cyber Resilience – the ability for IT systems, business processes and many others to continue to deliver their services despite cyberattacks or disruption
- Psychological Resilience – ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly
As we can tell from the various examples above, the word Resilience is the ability of individuals, materials or systems to return to their healthy state after a stressful, disruptive and potentially damaging event, such as disaster, crisis, catastrophe or even a change. Resilience is an essential capability of an individual, team or organisation to survive and thrive in our interconnected and constantly changing world.
To demonstrate the importance of resilience, let’s take a look at the life of a young girl living in Pakistan. In 2012, the Taliban, a fundamentalist terrorist group, imposed strict rules on women and girls, including attending school or receiving any education. At the tender age of 11, a young girl secretly blogged about her life and perspectives on the Taliban rule. Eventually, she bravely spoke out openly about girls’ right to access education, defying the imposition of the Taliban.
On her way home from school, a masked gunman shot her in the head. Ten days later, she woke up in a hospital in the UK. It took months of surgery and rehabilitation before she could walk or talk again. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued work in advocating for girls’ education and surviving the traumatic event. Recently, she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her name is Malala Yousofzai2. Malala’s story of adversity and resilience spoke to the hearts and minds of many around the world.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time, we fall. Confucius
Why is it important to develop resilience?
Resilient people have psychological, behavioural and social capabilities to remain calm in times of chaos and uncertainty. They are also able to return to their normal state after the chaotic incident. Here we discuss some of the many reasons why developing resilience is essential.
Researchers have also found that resilient people learn and grow from the crisis, making them stronger and more adept at handling future emergencies. People who persevered through difficult times gained personal strength, obtained a greater appreciation for life, and experienced spiritual growth. Post-traumatic growth is the positive change to the individual who experienced disruption, crisis or traumatic events. If these individuals encounter similar events in the future, they are more likely to manage them better than before.
Thich Nhat Hanh3, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and peace activities, once said
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.
Buddhist teachings espouse that all conditioned things are impermanent, and the root of all of humanity’s suffering is our attachment and fear of these things. Through experience and wisdom, we realise that we cannot control our circumstances. We can only change ourselves.
Our ability to adapt to change is a marker of our resilience. When we truly accept that change is a constant and that nothing is permanent, we gain greater clarity of ourselves and the situation and become flexible in our responses.
Our comfort zone is the very place where we feel safe, familiar and complacent. It’s the very place where we can blindly follow our routines, live a life predictable, tackling only issues we are confident that we can overcome. The problem with living in the comfort zone is that we cannot discover the limits of our potential, the heights of our possibilities.
When adversity strikes, it shakes us out of our comfort zone, forcing us to the edges and helping us discover our potential and possibilities. Disruption leads us to uncover our blind spots, challenge our limiting beliefs and pushes us to respond in ways that are beyond our familiar. When we are at the edge or even out of our comfort zone, we discover our capabilities, depth, and resilience.
Discover our Sense of Purpose
As we encounter adversity, we discover our why, our sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist, wrote an inspiring memoir of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp. The biography is called Man’s Search for Meaning4 He discovered the difference between those who had survived the camp and those who didn’t; that difference is the individual’s sense of purpose.
In developing our resilience, we may discover our motivations and reasons for living, our why. Our why is our life’s compass, our guiding North Star as we sail the tumultuous seas of life. As Frankl wrote,
When a man knows the ‘why’ of his existence, he will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’
Undoubtedly, developing personal resilience will bring many more benefits than what this article can cover. If we take the time to build resilience, not just for ourselves but also to support our peers, a resilient and diverse team will be able to overcome any obstacle and come out stronger than before.
How does resilience work?
According to Prof. Arve Gunnestad5, resilience consists of three protective factors: external support, internal support, and existential support.
External support focuses on the strength of one’s social connections and network: family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. The power of the network depends on the responsiveness and the effectiveness of support rendered by others. A person can have many connections, but they may not respond or be slow to extend help when needed. Or a person can have a small and close support network who knows how to react quickly in times of adversity.
Internal support involves the individual’s capabilities in adaptation, confidence, determination, perseverance and ability to bounce back from adverse situations. Internal support looks into a person’s abilities and skills when in times of hardship. Abilities are the capacity to do or act in a way that helps to overcome difficulties. Resilient capabilities can include physical strength, mental agility, emotional stability, calm temperament and many others. Resilient skills refer to a person’s ability to communicate, problem-solve, build relationships, support others and many more.
Existential support refers to a person’s values, faith and beliefs in facing adversity. The values, faith and beliefs, shapes our view of hardship and how best to respond to them. We learn and adopt these values, faith and beliefs from our upbringing, education, media, community and most importantly, family.
These three factors play a role in overcoming adversity. But how these factors work together and their extent depends on the person and the situation. For example, suppose a natural disaster strikes in your community. In that case, the people’s immediate response is to rely on external and internal support, using one’s physical strength to carry valuables and having positive self-talk to make sure you get to the nearest evacuation centre.
However, suppose you are an expatriate that had recently migrated to another country. In that case, the accessibility to external support might be limited, and you might need to rely on internal and existential support.
How does resilience differ across cultures?
When we develop our resilience, we become more robust, be more adaptable, gain greater clarity, discover our purpose and real potential. However, culture shapes our resilience is through the three factors.
External factors: Culture influences how we make connections and relate to people within our social network.
Internal factors: Culture identifies the abilities and skills that are required and valued.
Existential factors: Culture defines the meaning of adversity, the beliefs in overcoming them, the appropriate actions and behaviours that are valued as well as one’s faith in their religion, spirituality or life.
Thailand has always been a relatively peaceful society. However in 2015, a bomb exploded near the famous Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand6. While most of the shrine was still intact, religious statues and some infrastructure were damaged. Unsurprisingly, the locals were distraught and devastated.
Many prayed at temples to ease their anxiety and fear. As authorities searched for the bomber, people reached out to friends and family to share eye-witness accounts and updated news.
The famous four-faced Buddha statue at the shrine was untouched, except for a chip on the chin. When the authorities found the bomber, he had a scar on his chin. Such coincidence led the locals to believe that a higher being or religion gave them a sign.
📸 by Wikimedia Commons
Let’s look at another example. In 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a nationwide referendum on whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union (EU). The vote to leave won by a small margin. People who voted to stay in the EU were devastated. Frustration, anger and anxieties started pouring out in all levels of society. The media was in a frenzy. Families tore apart for their different votes. Protests on both sides took to the streets and marched along with strangers in solidarity.
People found innovative and creative ways to express their views. Podcast shows7 dedicated to the Brexit discussion mushroomed almost overnight. A campaign called Led by Donkeys8 crowdfunded billboards and public exhibitions to expose the lies, lunacies and hypocrisies of their politicians.
📸 by Paul Harrop
In both examples, culture has shaped the way people choose to overcome adversity.
Thais reached out to their friends and family for emotional support, which required empathy and supportive communication skills. In comparison, the Brits were comfortable speaking with strangers about the issue and used their creative skills to advocate for their side.
Most strikingly, each society accessed and expressed its existential support using different ways and based on different values. In the Thailand example, the locals held firmly to their Buddhist beliefs and sought refuge in temples. In the UK example, the locals believed strongly in freedom of expression and chose to exercise their right in creative ways.
The examples given are not to say that the Brits did not reach out to close ties; neither does it mean that Thais did not publicly advocate for better safety and security in their country. These examples are intended to demonstrate the common occurrences in each society.
Steps to develop resilience in your diverse team
As a leader or a manager, you can take a few steps to develop resilience in your team. We have outlined four steps below.
Ensure there is psychological safety
To help your diverse team develop resilience, you need to determine if there is a sense of Psychological Safety in the group. Psychological safety refers to the ability of a person to express their thoughts, views, opinions without being criticised, humiliated or penalised in some way. If your direct reports do not feel psychologically safe, they will not be open to discussing failure or mistakes, let alone how to develop resilience.
There is a multitude of resources available to assess psychological safety. Set aside some time to learn and develop a psychologically safe space for your team.
Determine each person view of adversity and the support required for each individual
A task or a situation might be challenging for some but a breeze for others. Take the time to identify tasks or situations that are energising or stressful for each person.
For example, if customer service or public speaking is stressful for some, ask your team member what kind of support they require. Be prepared to provide or facilitate access to the necessary support, such as coaching, mentoring or even reassigning the task to another. Your team member will know best what help they need.
Facilitate a team session to define a common language for resilience
Most often, it is not apparent that a team member is overwhelmed or stressed. Help your team determine common terms or phrases to signal stress and specify the required support.
For example, your team might decide to use the words “coffee time” to break from a tense or toxic situation. Or if a team member is overwhelmed, they can indicate by saying, “I need a hug”.
Regularly follow up and give feedback to each other.
Developing resilience in your team is not a one-time effort. Regularly check in with your team member on their progress. Set aside time to exchange feedback so that everyone can better support each other.
Start developing resilience today!
Developing resilience in your diverse team can help bring a sense of ease, confidence, energy and motivation. Most importantly, you will have the confidence that your team will be able to overcome any challenge and any difficulty. However, developing resilience cannot be done overnight. We need to do all we can to support each other and thrive despite these highly disruptive times.
- A UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-economic Response to COVID-19 (UN Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG) Policy Briefs and Papers No. 6; UN Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG) Policy Briefs and Papers, Vol. 6). (2020). https://doi.org/10.18356/420812ce-en
- Malala’s story | Malala Fund https://www.malala.org/malalas-story/
- Nhat Hạnh, T., & McLeod, M. (2012). The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh (First Edition). Shambhala.
- Frankl, V. E., Kushner, H. S., & Winslade, W. J. (2006). Man’s search for meaning (I. Lasch, Trans.). Beacon Press.
- Gunnestad, A. (2006). Resilience in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: How resilience is generated in different cultures. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 11. https://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr11/gunnestad.htm
- Bangkok bombing aftermath: 18 August 2015 as it happened. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-asia-33970237
- Dale, I. (2019, February 6). The best Brexit podcasts reviewed. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/the-best-brexit-podcasts-reviewed/
- Led By Donkeys show their faces at last: ‘No one knew it was us.’ (2019, May 25). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/25/led-by-donkeys-reveal-identities-brexit-billboards-posters