Resilience: The Essential Skill to Avoid Burnout

Resilience in Leadership

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So far in our Core Leadership Competencies series, we’ve considered the proficiencies of emotional intelligence and time management. This month we’re going to look at resilience.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” 

Resilience is increasingly highlighted as an essential leadership skill, due largely to the fast pace and ever-changing demands of today’s workplaces.

Leaders with high resilience are not only equipped to respond effectively to changes and obstacles as they arise but are also personally insulated from burnout. This insulation stems from their ability to consistently return to a baseline of well-being after stressful situations.

Unless you’re in the field of psychology or mental health, you may not have heard of polyvagal theory.

Polyvagal theory is one model that is used to represent the way the human nervous system constantly seeks safety or equilibrium, moving between states of survival or stress and states of calm, creativity and connection.

What does this have to do with leadership in the workplace?

The immediate relevance is not hard to see.

  1. Polyvagal Theory helps us better understand our responses to our own inevitable stressors at work – whether  meeting a deadline or navigating conflict with a client or coworker. Being able to flexibly move between a stress response and your baseline of calm and creative productivity can feel like a superpower.
  2. Polyvagal theory also offers actionable insight into how we can cultivate resilience for ourselves and our work teams.

Polyvagal theory can serve as a sort of an analog to resilience, a physical parallel to the pyscho-emotional competency.

The more flexibly your nervous system can respond, the more capacity you have for practicing flexibility in your thoughts, emotions and behavior, thereby cultivating resilience.

For example, polyvagal theory identifies three elements that we are constantly seeking: context, choice and connection. (Remember, this is often happening subconsciously on the level of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that controls your heart’s beating, digestion, and all those physical processes you don’t consciously control). 

Let’s look at each of these three elements and how you might use them to cultivate resilience.

#1: Context

Something as simple as requesting more context at work can often take the stress down a few notches and avoid unnecessary conflict. And certainly, good leaders understand that providing context, particularly for change, is a powerful way to foster cooperation rather than resistance.

Sometimes working with context will require digging deeper, reminding yourself of the big picture of your life and values and evaluating work stress in light of the bigger context.

You might find that from this zoomed out perspective, what previously felt overwhelming now looks miniature.  Or you might discover that you need to make some changes in light of the context of your values and goals.

#2: Choice

Which leads us to choice. Choice is a powerful element of resilience since it is a human tendency to feel trapped when choice is restricted.

As a leader, valuing choice may look like giving your team options and agency whenever possible, which contributes to their sense of self-efficacy.

As Albert Bandura, psychologist and Stanford professor, said, “In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.”

Or it may look like doing some self-talk when you feel backed into a corner, reminding yourself that you always have a choice, even if it is only the choice of how you respond to what is beyond your control. 

 Author and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

#3: Connection

The third element of resilience is connection. Seeking out trusted friends or advisors when overwhelmed is a powerful way to alleviate stress, find support, and ultimately allow you to bounce back more quickly.

But you don’t have to wait until you’re on the verge of burnout.

Effective leaders who last, choose to proactively make time for human connection in their lives, at work and beyond. Similarly, resilient leaders prioritize genuine, human connection as a cultural value because teams that feel connected to each other and their leaders are better equipped to avoid burnout.

No matter where you and your team are at in your leadership journey, the HPA team is here to help. If you’re looking to strengthen your own resilience or that of your team, we hope you’ll check out the resources in our June 2024 Newsletter. Of course — as always — let us know if you need more support in the art of resilience!

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