Getting Back in the Driver’s Seat

Stacy Richards | February 3, 2022 | Blog | 4 minute read

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  We’ve all heard and likely uttered those words as we work through challenges in our lives.  It’s cliché, but it’s true, and there are examples all around us almost two years after the pandemic started.  At The Bailey Group, we help leadership teams and individuals on their journeys to become better leaders and sometimes we are asked to assist in “do or die” situations, where leaders will be moved out if don’t make positive changes quickly.  On the flip side, since I joined TBG in mid-2021, I have been struck by how many individual leaders proactively reach out to us because they see opportunity in crisis and chaos.  Organizations of all sizes have been faced with enormous business and staff challenges over the past two years, and many have also thrived and are undergoing rapid growth.  With both, true leaders see the chance to “seize the day” and lead better through all types of change.  They are demonstrating resilience.

Resilience is defined as the strength and speed of our response to adversity.  The pandemic placed a renewed emphasis on this vital human and leadership skill.  In 2015, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, lost her husband suddenly from a cardiac event.  As a public figure facing a very private tragedy and the daunting reality of recovering to continue her career and raise two young children, Sandberg dove into the study of resilience.  Two years later, she partnered with social scientist, Adam Grant, to write Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. In the book, the authors point to the work of renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, who pinpointed the “3 P’s” that can stunt recovery from a significant setback or tragedy:

  • Personalization: the belief that we are at fault
  • Pervasiveness: the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life
  • Permanence: the belief that aftershocks of the event will last forever

When we are suffering, we tend to project it out indefinitely, labeled “effective forecasting.”  Humans overestimate how long negative events will impact us.  I have seen this time and again in myself and in my kids as they were growing up.  When my son got a lower ACT score than he was hoping for in his first try, he was initially inconsolable; in his mind, that number was defining his whole future because he was viewing it as a reflection of limited capabilities.  He cried about all those visions he was creating in his head of a future narrowed by a singular number!  In short order, he was able to recover and focus his energies on how he could work to improve his score on the next test, and indeed he did.

The pervasiveness of misleading images that we are bombarded with daily, primarily through social media, intensifies the initial overwhelm when bad things happen in our lives.  Sites like Facebook portray a carefully curated “highlight reel” of people’s lives and when someone of any age compares themselves to the experience of others during a time of hardship or tragedy through the lens of social media, it can be a huge setback to their recovery.

So, how can we avoid the pitfalls and focus on building the critical skill of resilience?  The human spirit is remarkable, and it is important to remember, especially during low times, that our personal resilience is not fixed; we can build it throughout our lives.  In her TEDTalk, “Three Secrets of Resilient People,” Lucy Hone reflected on her own personal tragedy that occurred during her career as a resilience expert and researcher.  Hone’s 12-year old daughter was tragically killed in a car crash along with two close family friends.  She realized that she had a unique opportunity to focus on herself and her family’s recovery from the tragedy to further her research and help others.

Hone concluded that resilient people:

  1. Know that bad things happen to people (the first noble truth of Buddhism is that all life involves suffering)
  2. Realistically appraise their situation – they focus on what they can change and accept what they cannot, and
  3. Continue to ask themselves the question: is what I am doing now helping me or harming me?

In Option B, Sandberg and Grant quote sociologist Megan Devine who said, “Some things in life cannot be fixed, they can only be carried.”  The ability to discern the distinction is critical to resilience. 

Hone emphasizes in her TEDTalk that the third point has the biggest impact, according to her research.  The ability to reflect on that question and pivot your mindset and behavior puts you back in the driver’s seat of your life.  When asking that question and determining what a person can do to help themselves and build their resilience, Sandberg and Grant described strategies to grow after trauma or significant setback.  These include: gaining appreciation for the good things in your life, forming deeper relationships with others (connecting to community), seeing new possibilities, and discovering new meaning in life.  As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment if finds meaning.” 

Resilience is a rich and complex topic.  So how can we boil it down and work to build this critical skill in our professional lives?  Working as a team can provide a perfect setting for building resilience to recover quickly from setbacks at work together and move forward.  As Sandberg points out, we can fuel our “collective resilience” by openly discussing our shared failures, experience, and narrative, and then focusing on our collective power to act and move forward.  Instead of hiding failures under the rug we should celebrate, discuss, and learn from them.  In fact, teams that focus on learning from failure consistently outperform those who do not. 

On a personal level, to be more resilient we can practice self-compassion.  As humans we are all imperfect.  We must focus on mistakes or failures as taking the wrong actions versus having a bad character.  Talking to ourselves with that internal voice as we would talk to our loved ones in the same situation allows us to recover from hardship faster.  And as my favorite singer Bono famously said, “Joy is the ultimate act of defiance.” Focus on the good, work on our joy, and we will build our resilience.