We usually think about resiliency as a skill or quality people can develop to navigate tough times. However, organizational leaders can play a major role in the ability of their direct reports to build and sustain their resilience in the face of adversity.
In a 2016 study published in Group and Organization Management, the researchers polled people working in several Canadian healthcare organizations that were faced with a significant crisis: a hospital bed shortage in 2008. The situation grew so severe that it began to affect the quality of healthcare for patients and create the potential for dire impacts as a result of the need to delay or cancel surgical procedures. Participants were members of clinical teams and their managers. The study found that transformational leaders, by virtue of their behavior, evoke positive emotions in their followers. Positive emotions are linked to greater levels of resilience. The positive emotions experienced by the employees are believed to contribute to greater levels of creativity in solving tough problems in the crisis, resulting in enhanced self-confidence. Among the behaviors used by transformational leaders that trigger these positive emotions are a positive vision of the future, confidence in subordinates abilities to tackle the challenges created by the crisis, and reinforcing core values.
The findings of this study are consistent with an intervention I recently completed within a federal agency. The agency was experiencing a significant amount of change at the senior leader level which resulted in frustration, disillusionment, and disengagement among middle managers and staff. The training intervention consisted of three parts: (1) an electronic survey of staff attitudes about the challenges they faced and factors that helped or diminished their ability to remain resilient, (2) a training session for the managers in the department on resiliency and exploration of the survey themes, (3) a training session for staff in the department on resiliency-building strategies and concepts. Among the factors that staff identified as having a detrimental effect on their resiliency were a lack of clarity and direction, inefficiencies in core work processes, and overwhelming work load. The primary theme associated with sustaining the resiliency of staff was the support provided by managers and role modeling (managers modeled resilience for their direct reports).
Both the study and my client intervention align with the theme of leaders playing a critical role in shaping the resilience of their staff from two perspectives:
Increasing the experience of positive emotions through transformational leader behaviors including supporting their teams and modeling resilient behavior.
Decreasing the experience of negative emotions by identifying and eliminating their sources, such as eliminating confusion about goals, improving the efficiency of core work processes, and recalibrating the work load of staff.
While the role of leaders in sustaining the resiliency of their followers is becoming clearer, more research needs to be done to better understand various factors such as the impact of gender, the role of peer relationships, and the nature of the challenge or adversity that people are experiencing.
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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 20 years of experience developing resilient leaders and is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies. Together with Dr. Lynn Schmidt, he wrote Shift Into Thrive: Six Strategies for Women to Unlock the Power of Resiliency. Kevin resides in Palm Springs, California, and Washington, DC.
(c) 2017 Kevin Nourse