Be resilient (like Hector the palm tree…)

“People cheer a palm tree named Hector as it stands defiant against Irma”

Image from: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/GsTKqcTdpVs/maxresdefault.jp

This was the headline of an internet article on mashable.com on the 6th September 2017, while one of the worse hurricanes hit the east coast of America.”A solitary palm tree has become a symbol of resistance in the face of overwhelming adversity.  Named “Hector” (like the Trojan prince), the tree stands defiant in the port of Gustavia, the capital of the tiny Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélemy, or St. Barts, a French overseas territory currently being battered by Hurricane Irma”. 

Hurricane Irma was an extremely powerful and catastrophic category 5 hurricane which developed off the Cape Verde islands around 30th August and hit the Leeward Islands (the group of islands where the northern Carribean sea meets the western Atlantic ocean), the Bahamas, Cuba, and the east coast of America (especially Florida) with winds up to 295 kph.  When it eventually dissipated around the 16th of September, it has left 132 people dead and caused damage close to USD63 billion.

Amidst this, the palm tree Hector stood its ground for many hours while being battered by high-velocity winds and rains.  As a matter of fact, the livecam which recorded Hector’s ordeal, did not survive….  It is uncertain whether Hector actually survived the onslaught, but there seems to be evidence that it did indeed…  Either way – this is still a good story, and made people feel good.

Hector became an internet sensation, with between 7,000 and 8,000 people across the globe watching the live video feed from the livecam on the island.

Why is it that a palm tree, standing tall in a ferocious storm, has caught the imagination of so many people?  What is it about “standing defiant” that gets people inspired?

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Human resilience…

How resilient are you?  How well do you cope?  Do you bounce back from life’s trials and tribulations, or do they throw you for a serious loop?

We will all agree that we live in turbulent and challenging times.  As individuals we have to cope with the demands in the workplace (e.g. organisational change, mergers, downsizing, new technology, new systems), as well as the normal stresses of life:  relationships, financial pressures, crime, security concerns, public transport (or lack thereof), illness, death, social media.  Not to mention the political uncertainty (in many parts of the world).

So what is resilience?

Resilience is the quality that allows us to “survive”, and even gain strength from hardship.  It is our ability to bounce back when things don’t go as planned. It’s a quality that we all possess to some degree, but some of us can draw on it more easily than others can. Resilience is important because it keeps us on track until we reach our goals, it allows us to deal with difficult situations, and it helps us to grow by encouraging us to look at the positives and to manage stress.

However, it’s not about trying to carry on regardless of how we feel, and it’s not about being superhuman! Instead, it’s about understanding why we feel the way we do, and developing strategies to help us deal with situations more effectively (from mindtools.com).

Each person reacts differently to adversity – sometimes with ease, and other times struggling just to make it through the day.  Why do some people deal with difficulty with ease, sometimes even thriving?  While others succumb to or become disabled by adversity?

The four elements of resilience…

Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester University, Jill Flint-Taylor, and Michael Pearn proposed a model with four elements of resilience (as published in their 2013 book, Building Resilience for Success).  The four elements are:

  1. Confidence.
  2. Social support.
  3. Adaptability.
  4. Purposefulness.

By addressing these four elements, you’ll find that your resilience levels improve and you grow stronger.

(The following section is taken from mindtools.com):

Confidence

Confidence is doing the “right thing” despite opposition, being willing to take risks, admitting your mistakes and learning from them, and accepting praise graciously. It’s an essential part of resilience, and it’s related to positivity, self-efficacy and optimism.

Building self-confidence isn’t easy, but it is achievable. Resilient people are confident that they will succeed, despite any setbacks that they experience. They have the self-belief to take risks, and they understand that failure is just another step toward success.

One simple way to improve your confidence is to reframe issues more positively. Leading psychologist Martin Seligman says that the way we explain setbacks to ourselves is important.

Thought awareness, mindfulness and Cognitive Restructuring are also essential for resilience. When you fear the future, put yourself down, criticize yourself, doubt your abilities, or expect failure, you’re thinking negatively and you may not realize it. Thought awareness is where you observe your thinking patterns and become aware of this negativity. Once you’ve identified these thoughts, you can begin to challenge them and use positive thinking to counter them. Picking yourself up after a setback will soon become much easier.

Social Support

Cooper explains that social support is about building good relationships with others in the workplace, and seeking support and help from them in dealing with problems.

You can’t face every challenge alone, particularly when they are large or complex. Being able to approach people in a crisis can help to lower your stress levels and produce a more positive outcome.

The people you build these supportive relationships with become your allies, and they can help you achieve your objectives. Anyone in your organization can fill this role, from team members to your boss. You can even form bonds with people outside of your workplace, such as your family members, friends and community members. Any person you can call on when the going gets tough is a potential ally.

Adaptability

Being adaptable is important for building resilience, as strength rarely comes from inflexibility. Adaptability is understanding your failures, reflecting on them, being open to new ideas and situations, and finding ways to complete difficult tasks, rather than giving up. Learning to become adaptable means trying to identify and deal with any self-sabotaging personality traits, such as a fear of uncertainty or change.

Dr Cal Crow, co-founder and program director of the Center for Learning Connections, believes that resilient people are introspective. He says that they can reflect on their behavior and thinking, and make positive changes where necessary. They are able to ask themselves whether something is working, take corrective action, and learn from their mistakes and failures. So, look carefully at your own behavior, and ask yourself whether you need to make any changes.

Learning how to manage stress is also an important part of becoming more adaptable. When you’re relaxed, you’re able to withstand setbacks and focus more clearly. You’re also less likely to “lose your cool” when things don’t work out. Keeping stress in check starts with how you look after yourself outside of work. Make sure that you get a good night’s sleep (roughly seven to eight uninterrupted hours), try to keep to a routine, and add regular exercise to your schedule.

Purposefulness

You’re more likely to demonstrate resilience if you enjoy your job, you’re passionate about it, and it gives you a sense of purpose. Purposefulness implies having a fixed and clear goal, and focusing on it at all times, no matter what setbacks you experience.

Psychologists Susan Kobasa and Cal Crow say that resilient people are committed to their lives and to their goals, which gives them drive and a compelling sense of purpose. They say that these people also feel in control of their lives, and spend time and energy focusing on situations and events that they can influence, which makes them feel empowered and builds their confidence.

Setting and working toward goals is an important aspect of purposefulness. Goals provide long-term vision and short-term motivation, and reduce the likelihood of problems or setbacks knocking you off course. How you set your goals is important, regardless of their size or importance. Make sure that they’re SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound), and that they match your personal values.

Being committed to your job is a fundamental part of purposefulness. If you’re enthusiastic about what you do, you’re more likely to have the motivation to pick yourself up after a setback. So, if you find yourself struggling and your resilience faltering, ask yourself whether you are in the most appropriate position, or whether a different role in another department might be a better fit.

The principles of building resilience…

Research conducted by Rod Warner (from Building Resilience) amongst South Africans at work, identified seven principles of building resilience.  These are:

  1. Connect to your purpose and meaning in life
  2. Use your unique strengths
  3. Maintain perspective
  4. Generate positive feelings
  5. Be realistically optimistic
  6. Persevere by being open minded and flexible
  7. Reach out to others.

Resilience in an organisational setting enables a person to remain task focused and productive, deal with multiple demands, and stay calm and healthy.  Resilience enables a person to “bounce back” after stressful organisational and life events, and even allows the person to emerge stronger and more resourceful!

Connect to your purpose

This is the same as Professor Cooper’s “purposefulness” element.  This is about the question of what gives meaning and purpose in one’s life.  The day-to-day hum-drum issues can easily distract from the focus of living a life aimed at fulfilling a higher purpose.  In times of adversity, however, this “purpose” becomes very important as it addresses the issue of why a person has to persevere in the first place?  Why not just give up?  Why carry on and put up with the adversity?

Purpose and meaning is typically found in one or more of three categories of significance:  people (showing a deep caring and love for children and partners, provide for them, set an example, not letting them down), causes (for example de-oiling penguins, raising funds for homeless people, adopting an AIDS orphan, environmental sustainability), and faith (from formal religion which gives a personal relationship with a person’s Creator, to less formal feeling of a connectedness with the universe and interrelatedness of life).

“A strong sense of purpose and meaning is the bedrock from which coping, healing, and renewal after adversity is made possible…”

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Image from: http://kwfcs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Purpose4Purpose.jpg

Use your unique strengths

Self knowledge is an important component of resilience.   Often, people can quite easily list their weaknesses or “areas for development”, but they struggle to identify their strengths.  However, developing and correcting one’s weaknesses to a minimum level of competence might at best prevent failure.  On the other hand, developing and using character strengths has the potential to create personal excellence.

“Realistic self insight into one’s own character strengths and vulnerabilities is the basis for understanding one’s capabilities and limits when dealing with adversity…”

Maintain Perspective

This involves the inner world of one’s thoughts.  As humans, we tend to be more alert for the negative than the positive.  Sometimes, the ancient negative bias intrudes into our lives and manifest as strong and persistent negative thoughts.  Often, this continual negative thought pattern can be described as:  “… like in a washing machine … going round and round … then pausing … and then going round and round again – on and on…”

This negative thinking and persistent negative self-talk (also referred to as “mind-spin”) can be reframed by finding alternative ways to think about a problem or event or situation.  Examples are:  how can one learn from it?  How can one accept it?  Change the self-talk statements into questions?  Some people change their behaviour:  exercising, talking to friends, eating a favourite food, shopping, going to movies, reading, etc.  It is also useful to avoid or minimise situations which trigger negative thoughts.  The idea is to create a distraction from the situation, which can also be done by engaging in enjoyable, relaxing, and recharging activities.

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Image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/93/71/70/937170364c41fadafca67bd29710bb9c.jpg

Generate Positive Feelings

Adversity typically involves strong negative emotions.  These have the potential to hijack rational thought, thereby reducing resilience.  Negative emotions like fear, anger, guilt, and grief are associated with surges in adrenaline and cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) which prepare the body for the life-preserving “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze” responses.

Although these negative feelings are not bad, in excess they can lead to substantially reduced mental and even physical functionality and capability to deal with the situation.  Thinking and decision-making become impaired, and sleeping, eating and relaxing become difficult.  Strategies to deal with strong personal negative emotions include:   deep breathing, taking time out, positive self-talk, and meditation.

Controlling negative feelings is the first step, and then generating strong, positive feelings follows.  One can create positive feelings by connecting to one’s purpose, using one’s innate strengths, reaching out to others.  Also, reflecting daily on the three good things that one has done each day and the impact of this on others, and writing a journal of the best possible outcomes in the future, can both enhance feelings of excitement and joy.

Be Realistically Optimistic

This is the principle of choosing to live with a positive attitude.  However:  “this positive attitude should be realistic, as being over optimistic or not having the optimism based in reality, usually results in unrealistic expectations and ultimately disappointment when they are not fulfilled.”

At the core of this principle is the strong belief that one can to a large extent influence the direction of one’s life and that the problems encountered along the way can be solved.  Viktor Frankl’s famous thoughts on this:  “… everything can be taken away from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”  Resilience thus has a lot to do with choosing to be positive rather than negative.

Some people are born more optimistic than others, but realistic optimism can be enhanced.  One way to do this is to reframe the adversity.  This allows you to change the story you tell yourself, thereby creating a more balanced and positive outlook on life.

By reflecting on the good that has happened to you over the past 24 hours, and reflecting on what you are really grateful for and why, can enhance optimism, positivity, energy, and connectedness.

Persevere by being Open Minded and Flexible

In order to deal with adversity, inevitably requires some action of some change to cope with the circumstances.  For this:  perseverance is the key.

Too little perseverance might result in succumbing or becoming disabled by adversity.  Too much, might result in a bull-headed approach:  fixed mindset, minimal listening, tunnel vision, and brute force to deal with the difficulty.  This can lead to poor decisions, with negative consequences.

When faced with adversity, it is therefore important to have an open mind and think creatively in order to solve problems.  If not, adversity can easily overwhelm a person’s thinking and natural optimism, resulting in poor decision-making.  In times of stress, mediation and centering can help create inner calm, enabling open-mindedness and flexibility.

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Image from: http://www.theemotionmachine.com/wp-content/uploads/open-mind-meditation.jpg

Reach Out to Others

“Other people matter”.  This concept especially applies to dealing with adversity.  There are two components to this:  to ask for help, and reaching out to others to offer help.

Asking for help is often difficult, as it can be seen as a weakness.  Especially for males.  And the higher in an organisation a person is, the more difficult it is to ask for assistance.  On the other hand, offering help and giving support and assistance to other is usually a lot easier.

How resilient are you – psychometric tests…

There are a number of on-line psychometric tests to determine your level of resilience, but these should be used with caution as not all tests are scientifically designed, tested, and verified.  One example of such a test can be found at https://www.psychometrictest.org.uk/resilience-test/.

Closing…

Nobody will choose to experience tough times and adversity.  But yet, we have all experience adversity and difficult times – some more than others, and some adversity a lot worse than others.  But we all had to deal and cope with this in our own way.

Personal growth and development happens when one is in unfamiliar waters.  When you are typically outside your comfort zone.  When you are out of your depth and are struggling.  Adversity creates this environment where one’s resilience are not only tested, but also developed.

Without trials and tribulations, one will not grow to become strong and better.  Hector the palm tree would not have been able to withstand the immense power of nature, if it wasn’t exposed to strong winds, rains, and storms in the past.

Although you cannot always choose what life will through at you, these adversities will test you, grow you, and make you stronger.  Resilience is a skill that can be learnt and developed.  And there are many tools and techniques to assist with this.

How resilient are you?  How resilient can you be?  How resilient do you need to be?

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Further Reading

The dark side of resilience…

Beyond Adversity…

Resilience is about how you recharge – not how you endure…

Developing resilience…

Resilience is the secret to success…

Other articles by Rod Warner on the topic of resilience, can be found here:

Staying the course:  building personal resilience for successful organisational change…

Coping with resilience in tough times…