Tactics for leaders: how to build resilience at work

Balloons with smiley faces drawn on them.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace; nothing is static, certain, or predictable. While change can often be for the better, boosting efficiency and productivity, it can also be a scary and tough time that causes major anxiety for some employees at their place of work.

When the challenges and context are unknown, the resilience of your people to withstand setbacks, pivots, and changes that require constant agility and adaptability becomes paramount to success.

In the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in, adaptability in the workplace is a key differentiator. Organisations have never had a greater need for leaders who are resilient, change-ready, and who have the right mindset, skills, and capabilities to support others to effectively work through times of change and uncertainty.

In this article, we’ll define resilience, explore why it is so valuable to organisations, explain how to build resilience at work with some strategies for leaders to develop resilience and look at discuss drivers of resilience.

What is workplace resilience?

As an individual, being resilient requires approaching challenges or setbacks with the appropriate mindset, as well as being skilled in behaviours that help to manage disruption. Resilience requires agile thinking and optimism, perseverance through changing contexts, and activation of effective coping strategies.

Resilient people can be recognised by not only how they deal with stressful and difficult situations, but how they learn from it and hone their ability to cope and become better at adapting to stressful setbacks in the future.

The good news is, as with any skill that helps your career, resilience can be practised and learnt. Leaders need to support and guide their people in improving and growing their resilience at work. In order to enable leaders to build resiliency in teams, the onus is on organisations to equip leaders with the skills, tools and capabilities necessary to become resilient themselves.

Further reading: how to lead a team through change

The value of building resilience at work: improve performance, promote mental health, manage stress & reduce burnout

Just as individuals face adversity, teams also bump up against real-world challenges in the workplace. Such challenges could include poor interpersonal interactions, ineffective communications, rapidly shifting priorities and projects, and poor organisational culture at work.

The value of resilience to organisations is far-reaching across many measures of an organisation’s success, employee wellbeing and productivity levels.

In 2012, Google went in search of the ingredients of a high performing team. Code-named Project Aristotle – a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (as the Google researchers believed employees can do more working together than alone) – the goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?”. Assuming they’d see markers such as capability, experience and diversity as key indicators, they instead discovered how the team members work together and that psychological safety were key requirements for high performance. These two indicators, both being led and role modelled by the team leader, led to higher levels of trust, safety and resilience at work.

2015 research by Rees et al showed how resilience is intertwined with workplace stress and employee mental health. Rees et al found that workplace stress correlated with high levels of depression, anxiety and burnout.

Similarly, 2017 research by Andrew Shatté et al. that surveyed 2063 individuals suggests that higher levels of resilience have beneficial effects on a worker’s perception of stress, their psychological responses to stress, and job-related behaviours related to stress. The research also highlighted that in difficult work environments, workers with higher levels of resilience were able to avoid absences and be more productive than workers with lower levels of resilience.

Burnout (resulting in absenteeism and presenteeism) and related mental health issues (like anxiety, depression and stress) take a huge toll on Australian businesses. A report by PwC estimated that the financial cost of Australian employers not taking action to manage mental health conditions in their businesses was around $10.9 billion annually. And with around one in three workers suffering from a mental illness (Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-In) taking action to build more resilient employees is an issue businesses can’t afford to ignore.

Research in 2004 by Tugade and Fredrickson found that resilience is associated with the positive emotions commonly used to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Positive emotions like optimism, curiosity and openness fostered by the trait of resilience are of immeasurable value to workplaces in terms of driving innovation and creative problem-solving.

recent UK study shows the high-value employers are placing on resilience at work when hiring. Survey results found that 57% of employers view resilience as a key skill for candidates and 71% rated the ability to adapt to change (a core aspect of resilience) as the most important skill in a potential hire.

In uncertain or quickly changing work environments, resilience is the key factor to whether an organisation is able to move beyond basic survival to a focus on thriving. For individuals and organisations, building resilience requires significant shifts in mindset and behaviours. Through our work to develop resilience within organisations, thousands of individuals across the globe and within our own team, we have seen first-hand the innumerable benefits of building resilience at work:

  • Resilience improves employee wellbeing
  • Resilience increases flexibility
  • Resilience improves communication
  • Resilience leads to innovation and greater collaboration
  • Resilience reduces burnout

Further reading: How to improve culture at work

Drivers of organisational and personal resilience

In our experience, we have found that one of the most important factors in building resilient teams is having highly resilient leaders that foster a culture of resilience.

Resilient leaders drive resilience across their team through role modelling resilient practices and sharing these with individuals in teams from the top down. There are many advantages resilient leaders have directly over their teams and the organisation more broadly, including teams that have greater agility and performance, and reduced rates of burnout.

Three key drivers of individual resilience are:

  • Emotional regulation. Techniques to help you to remain calm and collected directly impact your resilience and how you react when challenges come up.
  • Self-compassion. The greater your ability to treat yourself with kindness, the greater life satisfaction and resilience you’ll be able to experience.
  • Cognitive agility. How you can adapt and shift your thought processes when changes or challenges occur influences your productivity and well-being.

Strategies leaders can use to boost resilience and build resilient employees

In Inkling workplace training courses and resources, we often draw on Dr Martin Seligman’s PERMA-H model to develop strategies for leaders to boost their and their teams’ resilience at work. Research by Seligman tells us that the PERMA-H Model antidote to anxiety and stress caused by uncertainty that creates psychological well-being and happiness. We find this model particularly crucial when assessing and facilitating organisational programs to help drive innovation and support teams through difficult workplace change and uncertainty.

What is the PERMA-H model?

The PERMA-H Model contains six factors that can help leaders build resilience and wellbeing. To share some tips for how leaders can help build organisational resilience, we spoke to Mike Newman, Inkling Senior Manager Client Delivery and learning leader with demonstrated success in designing and delivering organisational leadership and transformation initiatives across the private and public sectors.

1. P – Positive Emotion. Feeling pleasurable emotions such as joy, excitement, interest and peace.

Tip for leaders: Leaders can lead their team by example, maintaining a positive attitude and optimistic future outlook when faced with obstacles, adversity and moving on from failures. Role modelling a future focus in the workplace, when balanced with strong acknowledgment of current issues, builds trust through empathy.

2. E – Engagement. Absorbing yourself in the task at hand.

Tip for leaders: Leaders can promote mindfulness programs and give instructions for different mindfulness exercises (such as deep breathing and meditation) that are proven to help improve work engagement and build resilience in the workplace.

Quote: Many of our clients and team members have spoken about being more productive while travelling in aeroplanes due to lack of contactability. Let your team know that it is OK if they need to turn off Outlook, Teams, and other alert tones for periods of time so that they can reduce distractions and maintain a deep focus on tasks. – Mike Newman

3. R – Relationships. Creating and connecting in healthy relationships that enrich your life. Recent research by Cross, Dillon and Greenberg using in-depth interviews of 150 successful leaders suggests that a well-developed network of relationships is key to becoming more resilient at work.

Tip for leaders: Encourage your employees to participate in team engagement activities, and events and join in as the leader to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Regularly our clients tell us that trust and relationships are built quickly and with greater strength via 1:1 conversations. Leaders should ensure they add a regular cadence of 1:1’s where an agenda item is ‘how are we working together?’ – Mike Newman

4. M – Meaning. Pursuing or experiencing a sense of connection and purpose that goes beyond yourself – with another person/institution/or the larger universe.

Tip for leaders: By encouraging others to contribute and participate in everyday team meetings, work functions, town halls or even volunteer days, leaders can assist their team to feel a sense of purpose, social support and kick their inner drive into gear which contributes to becoming more resilient.

5. A – Accomplishments. Reaching your goals, finding success through benchmarks, awards, or achievements in one or more domains of your life.

Tip for leaders: Leaders need to acknowledge and offer rewards for good work to help keep their team motivated, feel appreciated and increase resilience. It is equally important to celebrate work struggles and setbacks, which promotes collaboration and psychological safety within teams.

6. H – Health. Experiencing physical health and wellness that feels good in the body and mind. Health is more than simply ‘the absence of disease’, it is a feeling of vitality regardless of whether or not you are disease-free.

Tip for leaders: Leaders should ensure their team knows that work support services (both mental and physical) and coaching are available so that they feel taken care of. As employees suffering from poor physical health or mental illness are less likely to be resilient at work.

Extra techniques for leaders to develop resilience

Some additional ways to build resilience based on Alliger et al’s 2015 study:

  • Make checklists and guides to give employees somewhere to go when faced with a challenge at work. These can be built together with a team drawing on the collective wisdom and resulting in group ownership.
  • Team resilience training will help the team to bond and create positive team coordination in the workplace.
  • Post-challenge debriefs to encourage reflection about the experience, encourage team discussion, where employees learn from each other’s coping mechanisms while doing their jobs and can create an action plan for next time to deal with and feel better equipped to deal with future obstacles. Mike noted that “when reflection is framed as ‘ learns’ or process ‘improvement insights’ it lessens judgement and blame and invokes a tactical future-focussed response”.

Further reading: The importance of connection in the workplace

Getting started: build resilient teams with workplace training

Building a more resilient team in the workplace is an ongoing process that leaders need to continually follow up, work on, maintain, and explore new and inventive ways to develop it for themselves and within their team. With such high stakes as employee health and wellbeing, innovation and productivity, the rewards of a highly resilient team are far too great for any organisation to pass up.

Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to boost your and your team’s resilience at work and find out more about our workplace culture training, preventing workplace burnout and how our programs will benefit your team.

Don’t forget to connect on LinkedIn with Mike Newman. He would love to hear your thoughts on the article and is passionate about sharing research, resources, articles and insights with our leadership community.

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