Resilient Leaders Build Resilient Teams

By Anne Grady, resilience expert, best-selling author, entrepreneur, and two-time TEDx speaker

Are you a tired leader, tired of leading tired people? In my work with hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, school districts, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, I have seen leaders, teams, and organizations struggling to manage the competing demands on their time, attention, and resources.

The world we find ourselves in calls for a new set of leadership skills. These skills will determine which teams thrive and which languish. This skillset is resilience.

In addition to spending over two decades helping the talented leaders at organizations like Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, ADP, Mastercard, Dell, and many others and to build a culture of resilience and high performance, I have been on my own resilience building journey.

By the time my son Evan was three, he tried to kill me with a pair of scissors. By the age of four he was on his first antipsychotic, and by the time he was seven, I was living at the Ronald McDonald House while he underwent inpatient psychiatric treatment for two months. Living with the constant stress of raising a child with severe mental illness, Autism, learning disabilities, and developmental delays wreaks havoc on your nervous system.

During Evan’s second hospitalization in 2014, I was diagnosed with a tumor in my salivary gland that resulted in facial paralysis, a scratched cornea, eye surgery, and radiation, but not before a fall down the stairs breaking my foot in four places. Yes, I am not only the president of the resilience club, but I am also a member. And I, along with the hundreds of thousands of people I speak to every year, are proof that you can not only survive difficult times but build and cultivate the skills of resilience to rise stronger as a result.

Resilience is nothing more than a muscle and just like any other muscle, it must be tested in order to grow. And whether we like it or not life gives us plenty of chances to practice.

The Challenge

Seventy eight percent of adults say that COVID-19 has been a significant cause of stress in their life, and over 40% of Americans report diminished mental health since the beginning of COVID. Poor mental health is predicted to cost the global economy over sixteen trillion dollars by the year 2030, and US businesses lose up to $300 billion annually due to workplace stress.

With 77 percent of employees experiencing burnout and employee engagement at an all-time low, organizations and leaders are scrambling as they try to do more with less, stretch limited resources, address burnout, create a culture of inclusivity and engagement, and balance employee mental health in the process.

The Solution

Fortunately, there are scientifically proven, brain-based strategies to build resilience and help maximize well-being and performance in your personal and professional life. I have developed a simple framework, one that has helped thousands of people build resilience. It’s time to develop a resilient mindset, skillset, and the ability to reset.

Mindset

Your brain is a 3-pound melon sitting on top of your shoulders. It is incredibly powerful, more powerful than the world’s fastest super-computer, but your brain could care less if you’re happy, and unless you train it, it will sabotage you every step of the way.

Your brain has one job, to keep you alive, and to do this, it has evolved to be a threat detection machine. Your brain is constantly on the lookout for anything that could hurt you. Unfortunately, as you have evolved, your brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat or a perceived threat. Your brain literally cannot tell the difference between a global pandemic or a snarky email. And to make matters worse, uncertainty and change are the greatest threat of all to your brain. In fact, your brain would rather have an outcome that it hates than one that it doesn’t know.

To protect itself, your brain has developed something called a negativity bias. This means, regardless of how positive or optimistic you are, your brain is wired to be much more sensitive to negative experiences than positive ones. When you have a negative experience, it immediately encodes itself into your neural network to protect you from it happening again. Unfortunately, when you have a positive experience, it flows through your brain like water through a colander. Your brain doesn’t need to hold on to it to survive.

If you’ve ever received a performance review where you are told you’ve done nine things exceptionally well but have one “opportunity for growth”, you know it’s not the nine things you’ve done exceptionally well that you ruminate about as you fall asleep at night.

Fortunately, your brain is constantly changing based on your experiences. This experience-dependent neuroplasticity means that the more you think and behave a certain way, the easier it is to think and behave that way. This is great if your thoughts and behaviors are those that help build resilience, but your brain can’t tell the difference between the habits that are supporting your physical and mental health or those that sabotage it.

You can build mental habits that shift the way your brain reacts and responds to stress and the world around you. For example, simply turning on the news, looking at social media, or checking email is enough to trigger your brain into a threat state. When we do this within the first 30-minutes we are awake, it’s like flipping on our brain’s negativity bias switch, priming us to search for everything that is wrong throughout the course of the day.

You can offset this “threat” response by being deliberate about the way you start your day. Engage in activities that allow you to look for what is right, instead of what is wrong. In addition, you can make small shifts like getting direct exposer to sunlight within the first 30 minutes, which resets your circadian clock, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and increases happy hormones like serotonin.

In my work with executive leaders, I provide simple, actionable strategies that can transform you and your team’s mindset into a resilience building machine. Your mindset is the foundation, it is your resilience toolbox, the place where resilience is built.

Skill Set

If your mindset is your resilience toolbox, your skills are the tools that fill it. Skills like emotional intelligence and cultivating a growth mindset are ones that can be taught, practiced, and cultivated to not only build resilience, but to build engagement and well-being in the process.

There are dozens of skills that can help your team beat burnout and build engagement. At the heart of this skillset is psychological safety. Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A two-year extensive study by Google found that psychological safety is the number one predictor of high-performing teams. While risk taking used to be limited to sharing an “out of the box” idea, it has taken on a whole new meaning in our new world of work. Now psychological safety comes in the form of being able to talk candidly to your leader about mental health and burnout. Psychological safety breeds trust, and employees in high trust environments reported 74% less stress than low trust environments.

Here few simple ways to build psychological safety:

Have Honest Conversations

CEOs and executives are not immune to anxiety and depression; in fact, 50% of all CEOs are in therapy. Many leaders resist sharing their own personal struggles or challenges for fear of being perceived as “weak”, but leaders that share their own personal struggles teach their team it is safe to do the same.

When these discussions begin at the senior level, it creates a cascade throughout the organization. Leaders who facilitate these conversations and model sustainable work have teams that are 75% more effective as a result.

Build Connection

Strong social connection decreases anxiety and depression and increases cognitive ability, engagement, loyalty, and a sense of belonging. It is also the number one determinant of how long you will live, how happy you will be, and how satisfied you are at work, and in a complex global, hybrid environment, those connections can be few and far between.

The highest performing teams spend 25% of their time talking about nothing work related. Connect with team members on an individual level, letting them know it is okay to let their guard down. Make time for personal check-ins, as well as status updates.

Practice Gratitude

Over 11,000 research studies have confirmed that gratitude improves mood, sleep, decision making, immune function, and so much more. Sharing gratitude and appreciation for the people on your team has been shown to increase productivity, engagement, stay with the company, safety records, and customer satisfaction scores.

No one finishes a long day and says, “I wish my manager would stop appreciating me so much.” Gratitude is a simple practice that makes a big difference. People who receive praise and gratitude are also more likely to pay it forward.

Reset

Now that you have started to cultivate a resilient mindset and skill set, it is time to reset. Your autonomic nervous system’s job is to regulate stress in the face of danger, and in order to do that it’s divided into two main parts: Sympathetic (fight or flight) and Parasympathetic (rest and digest).

Your nervous system does essentially the same thing when you are scared or excited. If you’ve ever tried to change lanes in traffic only to realize there was someone in your blind spot, you know the power of your nervous system. In a split second, your heart races, pulse quickens, mouth gets dry, and your body takes over. You’ve probably experienced a similar feeling while reading an email. While the email isn’t an immediate threat, your nervous system has the same response.

Your brain and body are amazing and are designed to protect you. Being able to tell the difference between danger and safety is necessary for survival. When facing a threat, your autonomic nervous system kicks into high gear, setting off a neuro and biochemical reaction, preparing you to deal with threats. Just as your nervous system cannot tell the difference between a real and perceived threat, it also can’t tell the difference between real and perceived safety. Every moment we spend in fear takes energy from our emotional reserves to cope. Every cue of safety replenishes these reserves to help us deal with challenges as they arise. This is great news because it means that you can signal safety for your brain and nervous system at any time.

You can learn to train your nervous system with a skill called mindfulness. Most people associate mindfulness with sitting in a full Lotus, eating tofu, and finding your Zen. Mindfulness is simply brain training, restoring grey matter density damaged by chronic over production of cortisol, and training your attention. This creates a sense of control and safety for your brain and nervous system.

Mindfulness has been shown to lower inflammation, improve mood, sleep, and decision making, reduce anxiety and depression, manage chronic pain, and reverse stress-related changes in the brain. Mindfulness activates the vagus nerve, carrying sensory information between the brain and internal organs, providing primary control of the parasympathetic nervous system. When you learn to mindfully focus your attention on what you are experiencing in the moment, including your breathing and other sensations, you reestablish the calming connection that becomes frayed when stress triggers the fight or flight reflex.

There are dozens of techniques that work to quell anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve cognitive ability, sleep, mood, decision making and immune function. The best part is that these skills are teachable and work immediately.

Conclusion

The changing world of work requires that we change with it. What once worked to motivate, engage, attract, and retain great talent is no longer sufficient, and “the way we’ve always done things” can no longer be the way things are done.

To find and retain great talent, foster diversity and inclusion in new and different ways, and reshape the employee experience, we will need to up-skill, re-skill, and revamp the way we work.

As leaders scramble to create inclusive, engaging, collaborative environments, these are the skills that are mission critical. Unfortunately, you can’t manage something unless you can measure it. This means that employee well-being is no longer a luxury but a strategic imperative.

Regardless of industry, employees, leaders, and teams are going to need greater resilience, grit, and agility to navigate it all. While it’s not always realistic to decrease the demands on your time, energy, and attention, you can combat burnout and overwhelm by creating psychological safety and increasing the number of positive experiences people have at work.

I’ve seen the difference great leaders can make in their team’s ability to manage stress and beat burnout. What systems do you have in place to measure employee well-being and cultivate psychological safety? Four-day work weeks, flex time, and unlimited PTO may have benefits, but these strategies often miss the mark.

It’s time to build a comprehensive resilience strategy, and it starts with your mindset, skill set, and the ability to reset.

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Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.