How can leaders strengthen the resilience of employees and what does the right leadership have to do with it? Here are the 5 elements for resilience-promoting leadership.
The coronavirus pandemic has created huge challenges for company management in many respects. Whole industry sectors have had to adapt instantaneously to new market conditions, resulting in a massive acceleration of digitalization – forcing us, more or less overnight, to radically alter our usual habits and implement new methods for virtual management. All of these changes and new challenges – together with a considerable increase in levels of uncertainty – have taken a particular toll on employees.
The feeling of “stress” that we refer to so often arises from our psychological and/or physical response to an external stimulus. This is known as the fight, flight or freeze response. Once triggered, this ancient physiological process is predetermined, and almost irreversible. This is why it is important for our long-term wellbeing, especially given the challenges we face every day at work, not to switch to survival mode every time we sense danger. Instead, we need to learn how to deal with stress in a more conscious way. Above all, this requires us to recognize that the way our brain evaluates potential stress triggers is unique to each of us – in other words, we all find different things stressful.
Stress can sometimes lead us to develop greater resilience – or it can have the opposite effect, by depleting and exhausting our physical and mental resources. The outcome depends on a number of different factors: whether the stressful situation is permanent or temporary, embraced voluntarily or imposed without a choice, whether it is meaningful or meaningless, sudden or gradual, severe or mild – and all of these factors are influenced in turn by the experience and level of training of the individual concerned, and the support that is available to them. But even if we can’t directly change our own stress response, at least we can try to prevent chronic stress by raising the threshold at which this response is triggered.
A stress survey carried out by Swiss Life in 2020 (German Report) shows that this trigger threshold was frequently exceeded during the pandemic:
- 80% of the survey respondents complained about stress. In the nursing and healthcare sector, stresses associated with the coronavirus pushed this figure up above 90 percent.
- Many stress factors were attributed to the home office situation. These included: time pressure (55%), heavy workloads (47%), working environment (35%) and fear of being made redundant (21%).
This is why, as a leader, one of your most important tasks is to understand the levers that can have a positive effect on your employees’ wellbeing – and to keep these levers in focus and apply them. To this end, we have identified five elements which, applied consistently over time, will increase the resilience of your employees (Figure 1). We will go on to look at these in more detail.
1. Leading by example
By far the greatest influence we, as leaders, can have on the behavior of our employees is by setting an example. Employees can see the difference between leaders who model the desired ideal behaviors, and a management whose actions clearly contradict shared values and agreements; the latter has a an even greater impact, albeit a negative one. There should be no contradiction between words and actions; this is an important condition, and generates even greater impact if also placed in the context of clear leadership. There are two aspects to clear leadership: first, you must make your expectations clear. And second, when dealing with resistance, you must be willing to engage constructively in conflict. By leading as a role model, you make it your highest priority to protect and promote the well-being of your employees – a value more important even than productivity. At this point, it is instructive to take a look at your own behavior. Ask yourself: am I permanently on the go, rushing from meeting to meeting, or do I consciously take time out to recharge my battery and share experiences with my colleagues? Does work rule my life, or do I sometimes cut myself some slack? Do I take time to regularly pursue sport or other hobbies?
2. Creating alignment and a shared point of reference
When our view of our work is shaped predominantly by our understanding of its purpose, this helps create clarity and provide guidance – not only for ourselves, but also for the people around us. In order to adopt this perspective, not only do we need to be aware of the purpose of our work and the contribution we are making, we also need to internalize this understanding. If a company’s purpose is firmly rooted in its culture and values, this creates added value not only be fostering a shared understanding, but also by forging a shared alignment. Again, it is the case that the more your employees find you, as a leader, to be open, empathetic and guided by a sense of purpose, the more you will generate the trust that is needed to encourage your employees to go on their own quest for meaning, and to connect more closely with their own sense of purpose. To this end, it can be helpful to create opportunities for the team to openly discuss and share their values and visions. Also, as a leader, you can encourage and empower your employees to try out ways of fulfilling their personal sense of purpose. This has the desirable side effect that employees who discover a high degree of purpose in their work are also much more resilient against external stress factors.
3. Fostering connections and familiarity
Isaac Stern’s famous quote: “Music is what happens between the notes” can be translated here into a different context: “Building trust and relationships is what happens between official meetings.” Given that the pandemic has put an end to the type of casual exchange that traditionally took place at work, in the canteen, for example, or by the coffee machine, this means we need to come up with new platforms to enable interaction and exchange. In response to this need, a whole series of tools have been developed, on top of the usual virtual platforms such as Teams and Zoom, to better support collaboration, interaction and informal exchange. Examples of this are SpatialChat.com and topio.io. However, in the current setting, informal meetings and social exchange in the virtual space don’t exactly happen spontaneously. This is why it’s a good idea to make a conscious point of offering regular informal events – or to plan meetings so that, as well as working through the agenda, you also take time to check in with each other on the personal level. For example, you could start each meeting with a question like: “What’s on your mind at the moment?” or “What was the best thing that happened in the weekend?”, and invite each participant at the meeting to give a brief answer in one or two sentences. If you, as a leader, can make this a part of your daily routine, you will be in a better position to be notice changes in the mood of your employees, and to pick up on signs of stress overload at an early stage.
4. Setting boundaries
A feature of the new, virtual working environment is that the boundaries between work and leisure, between our professional and our private lives, has become much more fluid, and the distinctions become harder to maintain. This is why, as well as setting an example (e.g. establishing a clear time to clock off at the end of the day, making a point of not working (or even emailing!) on weekends), it is important to develop a better feeling for how much your employees can cope with, and support and encourage them to make sure they take the breaks and holidays that are owing to them – even if this is contradictory to the performance culture that prevailed pre-covid.
5. Developing your self-efficacy
Looking to the future, to ensure that you will be able to keep a calm hand on the tiller even when difficult situations arise, it is important to strengthen your self-efficacy (which goes hand in hand with your self-confidence). To this end, there is a series of levers that you can make conscious use of. For example, you can define your own “circle of influence” more clearly, i.e. focus more on the actions and behaviors that you are able to influence directly, and make a clear distinction between these and the circumstances that fall within your “circle of concern”. Because, while the latter may have an impact on you, you do not have any possibility of influencing them within a useful timeframe. The universal metaphor for this is the way that we respond to an unexpected cold rain shower – either we can get annoyed and complain about the rotten weather and the incompetence of the weather forecasters (circle of concern), or we can consciously plan in advance for this kind of adverse event, for example by taking an umbrella to work or wearing a raincoat (circle of influence).
Self-efficacy also includes enhancing or expanding your own competencies. This can be done by referring to and learning from similar problems or challenges that have been resolved in the past. To this end, it can also be helpful to call to mind situations from the past in which you dealt successfully with setbacks or failures. Remembering how it felt to pick yourself up and carry on despite all the adversities can help generate the motivation and the perspective that you need.
One last thought to finish with: while in the pre-corona era we put a lot of emphasis on consciously leading employees into the “learning zone” so as to spark innovation and encourage them to adapt to new market and customer requirements, in today’s era of uncertainty and new challenges, we need to be more concerned with assuring a relaxed atmosphere within our organization, and helping employees to find their way back into their “comfort zone”. Although “comfort zone” is actually a misnomer, because this zone doesn’t stand for comfort, but for what is known and familiar – allowing the employees some time and breathing space to recharge their batteries and reflect on what they have learned.