Exploring the Resilient Mindset

An FDA union’s survey on working hours (Civil Service World,2018) revealed that 82% of Civil Servants were working excessive unpaid hours. Reasons for this were suggested as increasing workloads, under resourcing and expectations that delivery dates will be met ‘no matter what. This was leading to a high stress culture and having a detrimental impact on health ranging from breakdowns and depression to soaring blood pressure levels.

Most of us would accept that when our organisations face challenging times it is not unreasonable to expect us to up our efforts to get through the crisis. After all, if the organisation fails we lose our jobs. In fact short term challenges can be motivating, releasing creativity, a sense of purpose and achievement. However, when high stress becomes the ‘norm’, it can be immensely damaging. This is where we cross from ‘eustress’, a positive stress which motivates us, is energising, exciting and can bring about increased performance, to ‘distress’ which causes anxiety, feelings of being overloaded and an inability cope. It is this distress that can lead to serious physical and mental health problems.

Whilst we cannot always control the environment from which stressors emerge, we can control how we choose to respond to those stressors. I have coached over 100 leaders and a common factor in those who experience ‘distress’ is an internal belief that they have a duty to get things done, they cannot say no to unreasonable demands, to not succeed would be a reflection on their ability and if they can just get to a certain point in time, get this one thing done, or to a particular event, all will be well. More often than not though ‘goal posts change’ and that elusive stop point is never reached. Meanwhile the distress continues and health problems emerge.

In my experience, it is rarely the organisation that changes, nor does stress cease, in fact change is a constant these days bringing a constant stream of challenges, hurdles, issues and problems. So if we cannot control these external factors we need to start looking inside ourselves for resources to help us cope. This starts with developing our own resilient mindset.

What is Resilience?

Resilience can be used to describe several ‘states’: coping with ongoing adversity, or returning to an original state as you bounce back from adversity, or indeed growing from an adverse experience (post traumatic growth or ‘bouncing forward’).  Whilst adversity can feel very negative at the time, by enduring it we may gain insight and emerge psychologically stronger, with a changed perspective.  Often our resilience is related to context and we may find ourselves more resilient in some contexts than others and that is normal.

What Makes us Resilient?

What are the characteristics that make someone resilient? Some suggest the importance of intellect, self-efficacy and problem solving skills. Others point to adaptability, purposefulness, conscientiousness, perseverance, emotional self-regulation, hardiness and grit. Many experts highlight the importance of good support mechanisms. Interestingly, whilst autonomy may be considered helpful in some cultures, community coping is seen to be of more value in others. Pemberton (2015) harnesses a lovely term for people’s ability to be resilient which she calls stretch-ability. This goes beyond being merely flexible to mean we are also prepared to reach beyond our comfort zone to access effective solutions.

Many of these characteristics map to the four resilience factors which Robertson and Cooper focus on in their I-resilience model which are confidence, social support, adaptability and purposefulness. However, being resilient is not just about having these resources available to us but it is about being willing to adjust our mindset so that problems become surmountable, manageable and within our capability. How do we do this?

What are the features of a resilient mindset?

a) Don’t Catastrophize

People with a resilient mindset are able to harness the resources they need because they refuse to catastrophize. Whilst others look for the worst case outcome, and blow problems out of proportion, people with a resilient mindset break problems down into manageable chunks. Focus less on what they cannot control and more on what they can influence. Focusing on what we can affect gives us a sense of control and purpose, increasing our confidence in our ability to cope and enhancing our resilience.

b) Don’t Generalise

People with a resilient mindset avoid using the language of generalisation. This means avoiding using words such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘no-one’ and ‘everyone’. Rather they focus on specifics such as when exactly does something not work, who exactly is against the idea and when precisely has this event occurred. Specifics help us identify cause and effect, exceptions and possibilities.

c) Don’t be a Hero

Whilst personally we may feel driven by an internal need to prove we can cope with all that is thrown at us, unfortunately this mindset can be counterproductive. The worry and pressure of feeling we should know the answer, far from helping our brain to be creative, can have the opposite effect. Anxiety works by stimulating our amygdala and shutting down our prefrontal cortex where our executive thinking occurs. This makes us more disposed to adopt a fight or flight response. Whilst this can be helpful if we are facing immediate physical danger, it is rarely helpful if we are trying to find solutions to complex challenges in a business environment. Rather, a willingness to reach out and seek to harness the creativity and resourcefulness of others is crucial to our resilience in a business context. Also, the positive emotion we encounter from having the support of others and feeling we belong, keeps our executive brain functioning well, enabling us in turn to be more creative and innovative in our thinking.

d) Don’t Panic

When we face uncertainty or adversity, our brains first reaction is to try to get us away from the source of our discomfort - fast. However, often our anxiety comes from how we choose to see things. Anxiety and excitement are very similar feelings, if we can tell ourselves we are excited rather than anxious, it opens us up to facing the challenge rather than fleeing from it. If we accept that ambiguity is the starting point of solutions to all complex problems we can acknowledge that what we currently feel is just part of a process and it will not last. Rather than seeking to resolve ambiguity, what would it feel like if we chose to embrace it for a while? What would it feel like if we chose to view ambiguity as the fertile ground for growing many different ideas from which a creative solution will emerge rather than viewing it as a negative state? Having trust in our own ability to solve problems enables us to say to ourselves ‘we may not know the answer yet but we have a track record of finding answers and coping in the past, by pooling our resources with others we trust we will get there’. We can choose to be anxious, to worry about not knowing the answer, to doubt ourselves and to panic, or, we can get excited by the opportunity, be curious about the possibilities and open ourselves up to being bowled over by others ingenuity.

Why Mindset Matters

The challenge in organisations, especially if we lead others, is that we are role models and our response is observed and ‘contagious’ to those around us. Therefore, it is important that we spend time developing our own resilient mindset, otherwise the repercussions for those we interact with can be significant. This is especially important for leaders, after all, anxiety and distress increase if we find ourselves working for a leader who is not coping, we think ‘if they can’t cope, what chance is there for the rest of us’.

Our mindset can help or hinder us in times of stress. Dweck (2012) suggests that individuals can often fall into one of two mindsets,  either a ‘Fixed’ mindset or a ‘Growth’ mindset. In short, 'fixed mindset' individual believe that talent and ability are innate, you either have them or you don't. In contrast,  'growth mindset' individuals believes you can stretch or grow your brain so your ability to learn potentially has no bounds! 

As a leadership coach I encountered the fixed mindset frighteningly often. These fixed mindset people often sabotage their own career success by refusing to subject themselves to things they might fail at, hence their resilience was compromised through fear of failure. People with a growth mindset are different wee beasties. These curious folk see failure as adding to the knowledgebase which helps them to grow and do better next time. Hence those with a growth mindset are better equipped to cope in times of uncertainty and stress as they believe that whilst they may not have the answer to the problem ‘yet’, they will, through a process of exploration and learning, arrive at a solution. To learn more about this I recommend viewing The Ultimate Guide to a Growth Mindset by Namaste Nourished.

Can I assess how Resilient my mindset is?

Yes you can! The Change Efficacy Questionnaire assesses your change mindset capability by looking at 6 resource areas which our research identified as fundamental to successfully navigating change and enhancing coping during times of extreme uncertainty.  These resources are, purposefulness, openness, resilience, efficacy, optimism and support.

As well as being free to use, you get a downloadable report with questions for reflection and ideas for improving your capability in each of these areas.  It was developed for use in an organisational setting and is versatile enough to be used by individuals, groups, coaches, facilitators, change managers, project managers, HR and well-being specialists to name but a few. You can also download ideas on how to use the CEQ in individual and group settings and discover more about ‘The Science Behind the CEQ’.


Useful References

Bonanno, G.A., (2008). Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events? Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, Vol S. (1), p101-113


Bossons, P., Riddell, P. and Sartain, D. (2015).The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Civil Service World (2018, 7th December). Civil Servants Reveal Health Problems Caused by High Workloads. Accessed at https://www.civilserviceworld.com/articles/news/civil-servants-reveal-health-problems-caused-high-workloads

Covey, S.R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd

Fredrickson, B.L., (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, Vol.1 (3), P300-319

Helgeson, V.S. & Lopez, L., (2010) Social Support and Growth Following Adversity, in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press

Kent, M. & Davis, M.C., (2010), The emergence of capacity-building programs and models of resilience, in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press.

Mills, H, Reiss, N and Dombeck, M (accessed 2019, 23rd January ) Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress) Mentalhelp.net (https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/types-of-stressors-eustress-vs-distress/

Masten A.S, (2001). Ordinary Magic: Resilience Process in Development. American Psychologist. Vol 56 (3), p227-238

Masten, A.S., (2014), Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development, New York: The Guildford Press.

Ong, A.D., Bergeman, C.S. & Chow, Sy-Miin, (2010), Positive emotions as a basic building block of resilience in adulthood. in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press.

Pemberton, C.,(2015). Resilience: A practical guide for coaches. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Reivich, K. and Schatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor. New York: Random House

Robertson and Cooper (2016). I-resilience scale

RobertsonCooper (2016) Development of the i-resilience report. Available direct from RobertsonCooper on request.

Skodol , A.E. (2010). The resilient personality in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, p112-125, New York: Guildford Press.

Werner, E.E., (1993), Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Development and Psychopathology, 5, p503-511

Zautra, A.J., Hall, S.J. & Murray, K.E.,(2010) Chapter 1: Resilience: A new Definition of Health for People and Communities, in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press.