How to improve your 
personal resilience

31 Oct 12
As the slings and arrows keep coming, how can the public sector keep calm and carry on? Alex Davda and Vicki Culpin explain ten ways that managers can strengthen themselves and their organisations

By Alex Davda and Vicki Culpin

As the slings and arrows keep coming, how can the public sector keep calm and carry on? Alex Davda and Vicki Culpin explain ten ways that managers can strengthen themselves and their organisations

Resiliance: Management developement

Stress-related absences are increasing in today’s public sector workplace as the pressures from organisational change and funding cuts take their toll. To be resilient, leaders need to develop a range of physiological and psychological resources and make better use of those they already have. This will help them not only to avoid stress and burnout but also to meet difficult situations, learn from them and keep pressure positive.

Resilience has often been described as the ability to bounce back from adversity or to turn adversity to advantage. But this definition overlooks people who display resilience by managing well each day. More fitting explanations might be ‘sustainability’ and ‘the capacity to continue to move forward in the face of difficulty’.  

Clearly, people need both kinds of resilience, but sustainable performance seems to have more appealing and long-lasting benefits for the organisations themselves, the workforces that mobilise them and the general public. Research has shown that individuals and organisations can perform consistently and thrive under pressure by creating opportunities to learn and grow. Organisational strategies to achieve this include: providing decision-making discretion, sharing information, reducing uncivil work behaviour and offering performance feedback.

As a leader, you can change your views, habits and responses to pressure by modifying your thoughts and actions and increasing your openness to change. Although some people seem to be naturally resilient, others can learn how to be. Here’s how.

1. Find your sense of purpose
Having structure, commitment and meaning in your life will make you more resilient. A clear sense of purpose, whether related to home or work life, helps you to assess setbacks within the framework of a broader perspective, allowing you to focus on the bigger picture and consider longer-term goals rather than short-term problems. On a personal level this can be achieved by considering ‘who’ and ‘what’ is important to you when you are under pressure. People in the public sector can also benefit from connecting to the purpose of the organisation, often related to improving the lives of the general public. Take time to think about what you do to help achieve your organisation’s purpose.

2. Develop your problem-solving strategies
The way individuals perceive situations, solve problems and manage change is crucial to resilience. Take a step back and think about how you approach difficult issues, the extent to which you follow objective logic,
and how often your judgement is clouded by emotional responses and irrational thinking.

3. Be self-aware
Reflection fosters learning, new perspectives and a degree of self-awareness that can enhance your resilience. Developing a belief in yourself and your capabilities can be achieved through looking back at memorable and challenging experiences (both positive and negative) from your professional and personal development and taking the time to acknowledge that you came through those periods of difficulty. Public sector leaders have some valuable experiences and lessons that can be drawn on and shared to boost collective confidence in the future.

4. Keep on learning
Learn new skills, gain new understanding and apply them during times of change. Seek formal and informal opportunities to learn and develop, rather than holding on to old behaviour and bad habits, especially when it’s obvious that they do not work anymore. Start thinking about what drives your preference towards this old behaviour and whether it is helpful for the context you operate in today.

5. Embrace change
Flexibility is essential in resilience and a necessity in the public sector, with political changes often having a significant organisational impact. Learning how to be more adaptable will better equip you to deal with an unexpected work challenge or large-scale restructuring. This often involves actively going out of your comfort zone and increasing your openness to new experiences, both in and out of work. Resilient people often use an adverse event as an opportunity to branch out in new directions.

6. Understand what you can control
Resilient individuals are often those who are able to focus their time and energy on projects and issues that are either directly under their control or that they have a level of influence over, while letting go of those they have no control over. This might seem difficult to achieve in the public sector, with a lot of decisions feeling very far away from your direct control. However, even if you can’t control the results of a decision that
has taken place, you can still control the way you react internally and externally with your team.

7. Enjoy yourself
In situations of rising work pressure, it can be extremely difficult to still do the things you enjoy. People often focus on solving the challenge at hand, working longer and overlooking other parts of their life to their detriment. You will feel revitalised if you continue to do the things that make you feel good, even when under pressure. Ensure you are using the flexibility available to you in your role. Remember, ten hours at work does not always equate to ten hours of productivity.

8. Get enough sleep
When you feel stressed, it can be all too easy to neglect yourself. Losing your appetite, ignoring exercise and not getting enough sleep are all common reactions to both everyday pressure and a crisis situation. Taking care of your own needs can boost your overall health and resilience and prepare you to face life’s challenges. Poor sleep, diet and lack of exercise can all reduce physiological resilience, making coughs and colds more likely.

9. Manage your emotions
When under pressure, people with low resilience will often demonstrate poor emotional management. You need to raise your awareness of when emotions are appropriate and in which situations. You should also pay attention to both your negative and positive emotional triggers.

10. Build support networks
Resilient people often have strong support networks at home and at work. Take the time to check in with colleagues and start building informal and formal support networks now, so that they are there when needed. In the public sector, managers often have a wide network of colleagues and can share some common experiences with a range of people. For example, everyone is operating under the media spotlight in times of significant cuts.

Vicki Culpin and Alex Davda are respectively research director and psychometrics consultant at Ashridge Business School


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