Our co-founder, Professor Ivan Robertson considers how we can respond to pressure and increase their natural resilience

For all of us working in today’s organisations, periods of intense pressure have become a fact of life. Whether you are a police officer working in a climate of terrorist threat, working for a manager who demands everything yesterday or part of an organisation that is downsizing while steadily setting more difficult targets – pressure is a given. But pressure is different to stress and can, when managed well, be a challenging and motivating force. 

When we say to colleagues “I’m feeling stressed out at the moment”, what we usually mean is that we are under pressure. It is only when pressure exceeds your ability to cope that stress occurs. The reality is that there will always be some aspects of work that you cannot control – your workload, who your boss is, the amount of autonomy you have, your job security – but there are always things you can do to manage how resilient you are to these potential sources of pressure. 

When I talk about resilience, I don’t mean the well-trodden path of “working smarter”, prioritising more effectively and having regular breaks. Although these are all sensible things to do, what I am talking about is how resilient you are in the face of the workplace pressures that can erode your supply of psychological wellbeing. It is no good if we only perform in a crisis when everyone is looking at us. Worklife is not like being an athlete where you can use the pressure of the big occasion to perform and then relax afterwards. It requires more consistent levels of performance. 

When things are quiet, we need to stay motivated, when things are chaotic we need to be a steadying influence and in a crisis, we need to be strong and stay on course. And after the crisis, we can’t go missing because the whole thing was too much for us. We need to keep going. That is resilience. 

So where does resilience come from and how can you improve yours? Like the answer to the age-old question about nature versus nurture, the reality is that a person’s level of resilience is determined by a combination of their personality (nature) and their experience (nurture). Their actual behaviour is then a consequence of how the two interact. Research by Judge and others (2002) has established the link between certain personality factors and workplace effectiveness, by showing that the most effective employees are more outgoing, more open to experience and more emotionally stable. And it this final personality factor of emotional stability (the opposite end of the spectrum being neuroticism) that is particularly important in the area of resilience. 

When the pressure builds, those who are able to manage their emotions cope the best. So personality is important, but you can learn how to respond to pressure and therefore increase your natural resilience regardless of your personality. For example, one of the key tests for us all is how we deal with success and failure – not whether we celebrate or commiserate appropriately, but how we deal with it psychologically and whether it leaves us ready for the next challenge. When people fail, a psychological process called “attribution” kicks in, whereby they explain to themselves why failure occurred. Psychologists have identified different attributional styles and the particular style that we adopt has a big effect on how resilient we are in the face of failure. 

Imagine you have just presented to the top team in your organisation and it did not go well. You fluffed your lines, the senior managers were not engaged and you did not have enough time to finish your presentation. There are a number ways in which you can interpret your performance: Think about what happened and ask yourself – was it… 

  • Temporary or permanent? Was it a one-off where nothing felt right on the day or are you just no good at this stuff? 
  • Specific or global? Was there something specific you did wrong like not listen to the brief properly, not practise enough or are you just a poor presenter? 
  • Internal or external? Was it all your fault or were there some external factors that were beyond your control? For example, you were not briefed properly. 

So the way in which you process failure can have a major influence on how you experience and deal with it. The most resilient employees have a positive attributional style for failure where they see its causes as specific, internal/external and temporary. It is also important to adopt the right attributional style for successes, the causes of which are seen by the most resilient people as permanent, global and internal. 

So the message is that pressure is inevitable, but without it most of us would not get out of bed in the morning. Given that pressure is here to stay, the key is to manage it effectively by understanding your natural levels of resilience and adopting effective approaches to coping with pressure and maintaining your psychological wellbeing. This is a significant and important learning process for many of us to undertake, but it can put us in a position to deliver high levels of sustainable performance and, most importantly, to be there, firing on all cylinders when our colleagues really need us.

Robertson Cooper provides a variety of options in how to build resilience in your employees to keep them well despite the pressures they may face in their work, drop us a line if you’d like to chat to one of the team. 

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