• Behaviour

The Psychology of Resilience

CCL’s Frédéric Funck on how performance psychology can help you build the mental resilience to release your full leadership potential

Monday 22 October 2018


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The reality is that in business we tend to have fewer ‘good days’ than ones that aren’t so good. This is not surprising when, for most of us, work is a constant round of trying to get things done in a noisy and competitive context. While we do not necessarily compete with others directly, there is always competition for our attention, and that of others. Can you get time to speak with X, meet with Y and bring W and Z together? This can often take weeks and frequently be frustrated by A (either a client or senior leader) disrupting the schedule.

Those days when everything gels, the meeting happens, the decisions are made and the route forward agreed with the budget funded are few and far between.

So one of the most critical abilities we require to survive the world of work – and to prosper in it – is resilience. The ability to pick oneself up and re-apply effort when things go, if not wrong, then awry. The world of sports has conducted much more rigorous research into the psychology of resilience than the world of business. Sports lends itself more easily to the research; it is much simpler to identify when a race or a game is lost than when a project or product has failed. Injuries and other ‘disablers’ are also clearer in sports than in business, but given that we are still dealing with people in both sectors, there are transferable lessons we can take.

At its root, what differentiates the champion sports star from those that do not quite make it is the mental models they hold. Physically, there tends to be much less of a gap between athletes at the very top level than there is mentally, and when we start to look at mental resilience, we do not have to go very far before it starts to be a question of how we handle emotions.

In business, the difference between good and great can be down to your ability to handle not just disruption, but interruptions as well.

In both sports and in business there are a handful of criteria that play a disproportionate role in dictating our emotional resilience:

  • Metabolism;
  • Energy management;
  • Mental stamina;
  • Confidence;
  • Resourcefulness; and
  • Mental agility.

These elements when brought together in the right recipe delivers someone who says, ‘bring it on’, even when the chips are down.

If we look at these elements through a different lens, we can describe a pyramid of levels that must be fulfilled to move towards a robust resilience ability.

At the first level we have ‘Agility and Performance’. What’s your philosophy of life, what are your mental models? Are these bases drawing on the beliefs and practices we see in Stoicism and Buddhism or do they parallel more with Mammonism and winner-takes-all approaches? Top performers tend to be more mentally agile, adhering to the mantra ‘that which hinders my work, is my work’, rather than seeing it negatively.

The second level is ‘productivity and efficiency’. This is the zone very well covered by David Allen of Getting Things Done fame. It is about mental management, creating ‘headspace’ to allow you to prioritise your priorities.

The third level deals with the ‘concept of agency’, your ability to self-control. Dan Ariely asks his audiences how many of them have, over the last two weeks, procrastinated more than they wanted to, eaten more than they wanted to, or exercised less than they wanted to. He is making the point that, if we cannot even control these basic things, how can we expect to overcome our internal biases to accomplish more complex things like leadership behaviours? We tend to spend much more time doing administrative tasks than we spend on the really productive tasks such as being with customers or making sales.

At the fourth level, we move from mental management to ‘mental games’. Think of a current challenge that you have at the moment that is really vexing you: what percentage of that challenge is mental and what percentage technical? When I ask this question of audiences, the bare minimum ratio I get is 50:50, but much more often it is 80% mental to 20% technical. When I ask them how much time they spend on the mental element, it never equates to that. People always over-focus on the more tangible technical elements, because how to do that is clearer. This is the mental game you have to play with yourself to ensure you are giving appropriate focus where it is really needed. This requires a psychological strategy, and mindfulness has a strong role to play in this.

Once you have these four levels under control, you need to leverage your strengths to achieve. This is the fifth level. You need to ensure that you are not the bottleneck of your own success; believing that you can release your full potential to achieve what you want to, making yourself visible in the organisation, and setting goals to do so.

Fred Funck led a webinar on Performance Psychology and How to Master It, with IEDP on Tuesday 23rd October. You can view the webinar HERE

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