You may find this article stressful. At least, I hope you will. Because stress isn’t something to avoid or flee: it’s a sign that we’re challenging ourselves, learning and growing.
Humans are antifragile: we need stressors to become strong. Astronauts must exercise daily or they lose muscle tone and bone density, and it’s the same with the mind: if we don’t practise, we rust. The right amount of stress builds our capacity for resilience and enables us to cope with new and bewildering situations — like the one we’ve been dealing with this last year.
But too much stress can have the opposite effect, sapping our resilience and ability to cope. No organisation should model itself on the pressure-for-its-own-sake mentality of some City firms, where workers are expected to put in 95-hour weeks and still ask, Twist-like, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
Neil Young sang that it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. It’s better to do neither. Instead, we need to find the perfect amount of beneficial stress that keeps teams constantly engaged, learning and growing.
Good stress, bad stress
What does resilience mean to you? For many people, it’s the ability to “stick it”: to cope with pressure and not come unstuck. But what’s often missed is the sense of recovery and recharging in the face of adversity or change.
Experiencing the right kind of stress builds this ability to recharge our ability to perform under pressure. We call this the challenge state, where our minds are perfectly prepared for whatever’s thrown at us. When we’re challenged our thinking is far more likely to be creative, logical, clear-sighted and strategic. What’s more, a heightened state of alertness and vigilance makes us more consistent in our behaviours and performance.
Compare this with the threat state: the defensive, fight-or-flight response that comes when we’re overburdened and struggling to cope. Threat makes us freeze or flee from challenges and make us prone to bad decision-making, emotional reasoning, and catastrophising.
Threat state is particularly damaging in team contexts. A break in the chain can send out ripples that disrupt other individuals, tipping them out of challenge and into threat, damaging the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the group.
To foster resilience, we need a way to absorb shocks: the unexpected grenade lobbed into your already-busy working day, or what Harold MacMillan (supposedly) called “events, dear boy”. When the unexpected happens, we need to draw on the resources of the entire team, so stresses are spread evenly according to each individual’s resilience.
Drains and gains
It’s fair to say that buying a new vacuum cleaner wasn’t a priority for most people when the pandemic struck. So Dyson could easily have gone into the threat state, halting operations and slashing costs in a bid to survive the coming crisis.
But the Dyson team did exactly the opposite. They went on the offensive and applied their skills to solving one of the biggest challenges facing the country: the shortage of ventilators for seriously ill Covid patients. Working around the clock, Dyson developed a new ventilator in just 30 days, to the eternal gratitude of the nation. This is a great example of an entire organisation operating in challenge state. But how did they get there?
Think of resilience as a battery. Just as it can be discharged by negative stresses, we can also recharge by identifying positive practices and mindsets. Examples of these “gains” are having a clear and shared sense of purpose, alignment on goal priorities, a collective identity and the ability to review and change goals rapidly. Conversely, a lack of common values, clear leadership or a focus on defensiveness and the short-term are examples of “drains” on our resilience.
Dyson clearly don’t see themselves as mere manufacturers: they identify as problem-solvers. This subtle yet profound shift in thinking is used by everyone from businesses to top sportspeople to give them a crucial competitive advantage. Ask yourself whether your teams have coped with the crisis as effectively as Dyson did, or whether they’d have responded better had they been better able to maximise gains and minimise drains.
The stress toolbox
Shared purpose, common values, collective goals: these are words beloved in the boardroom (and rightly so) but you can’t wish them into existence. Creating a culture of resilience starts with building a toolbox of techniques for fostering mutual support while enabling leaders constantly to assess whether employees are in the challenge state.
The first tool is the buddy system, which is not just a one-to-one relationship but a safe space for anyone to vent, raise questions and concerns, and support one another. But the buddy system isn’t just about self-care: done right, it provides the opportunity for everyone to gain a perspective that’s different from their own. This is especially important when we’re tipping over into the threat state, our judgement becomes clouded, and our thinking becomes defensive and self-defeating.
Secondly, implement a daily check-in system. Don’t just ask people how they’re doing; most people answer with “I’m fine”, but especially when they’re not. Instead, ask everyone to give themselves a score out of ten. Not only will this elicit more honest responses, it also enables leaders to predict how well each person is prepared for the rigours of the coming day, and help them identify who may be vulnerable and need support. This is the system used on many Covid wards, where team leaders also score workers at the end of shift.
Businesses thrive on data, so why eschew the most valuable information imaginable? Something as simple as tracking people’s resilience over time enables you to identify when people need to be pulled out of the frontline to recuperate, while the rest of the team picks up the slack.
The third tool involves building a sense of personal empowerment within each worker. This might sound vague, wishy-washy even. It’s anything but. Empowerment is all about self-awareness, a quality that’s not constant but which waxes and wanes depending on one’s mental state.
At times of uncertainty, we’re apt to be self-critical and forget the value we bring to the team.
Empowerment rests on helping people build and retain an understanding of their skills, behaviours, knowledge and attitudes: how they contribute, and what they need from others to perform at their best.
You shouldn’t expect to build a culture of resilience overnight, nor should you try. After all, you can’t institute a workplace revolution before teams are ready to respond well to sudden change. But a small investment can have a massive impact, and what starts as a fairly alien process will soon become a natural part of people’s approach to work: an attitude, not a workflow. You will quickly see the benefits as teams begin to embrace stress and achieve mastery of the mind.
So if you’re feeling a little stressed at the task that lies ahead, good. It means you’re serious about developing a competitive advantage that will benefit your business for many years to come.