By leaning into discomfort and disruption, leaders can forge a path towards resilience.
It’s no secret that we’ve been working a little differently this year. From all-out lockdowns, half-full offices and myriad other combinations – our ways of working have become increasingly hybrid. But what impact does this have on resilience? Let’s see what Canada-based positive psychology expert Dr Michelle McQuaid has to say on this.
Before we start to think about how resilience might look in this new world of work, the way we understand resilience needs to be clearly established. There’s a common misconception that resilience means bouncing back from adversity, but that requires constant adversity from which to bounce back. If we constantly need something to press down on us in order to activate our resilience, we will eventually run out of steam.
“If you keep pushing down on a basketball so it bounces back, you’re going to lose energy and the ball is going to dribble away,” says McQuaid.
She says resilience should be framed as leaning into rather than away from what’s in front of us.
“At the moment we have choices, particularly when we’re confronted with struggle, uncertainty, discomfort – all those things we’ve been experiencing over the last nine months at a heightened pace. We have a choice whether we are going to lean into those moments or lean away by numbing and distracting ourselves, projecting that discomfort onto others, or burying our heads in the sand.”
With hybridity comes diversity
What’s become apparent this year is that there’s suddenly a lot more diversity in the ways we work, says McQuaid.
“Long term, as we’ve seen in all sorts of studies, diversity is actually a good thing. It generally leads to higher performance and wellbeing in teams. But what we also know is that diversity, at least in the short term, creates more challenge because we suddenly have different needs, perspectives and ways of wanting to do things.”
When those different elements are introduced, it can spark creative conflict in teams and some navigation is required to generate new possibilities in how we work.
McQuaid says that acclimatising to this hybrid workforce model and the diversity of different working situations is going to require a heightened level of psychological safety, which we were already struggling with pre-COVID.
And it’s bound to get messy. Like most change that’s disruptive, there is an eventual period of struggle while we figure out how to adapt to it. But there is much to gain.
“If we can find our way through by being resilient and leaning into the disruption when we navigate, so that we do it together and we’re committed to figuring it out in ways that work for all of us rather than just settling for compliance – then we actually stand to achieve much greater benefits than when we had a far more homogeneous workforce.”
How to approach resilience in a hybrid workforce
Resilience requires psychological safety so that we feel confident in our abilities to problem solve and stay motivated.
If we’re not careful, we can slip back towards learned helplessness – the opposite of resilience. This state of apathy leads people to feel that whatever they say or do isn’t going to make a difference, so why bother.
What can happen when facing disruption, says McQuaid, is that the old style of leadership based on power and control rears its head. In this mode, leaders feel they need to have all the answers and dictate the ways of work – reducing psychological safety and generating learned helplessness.
“At best you’ll get short-term compliance, but you’ll rarely get long-term commitment because their own hopes or wants are not being met. It’s not meaningful to them. If I’m told to do something by a leader and God forbid I’m struggling or it’s not working for me, then I’m seen as the person who’s not being a team player.”
The best approach, says McQuaid, is to let teams find their own way to bring order to this hybrid setup by ‘inviting and inquiring’.
Instead of leaders needing to have all the answers, they can invite their team to identify their different needs.
‘Working from home’ is not a stock standard environment. It will differ for people in terms of how well they’re set up, who else is in their environment, whether they thrive in that format or not, whether they had a choice to be working at home or whether they’re longing to get back into the workplace environment. As working from home isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario, we can’t expect different people to operate in exactly the same ways.
Same goes for those back in the office, says McQuaid. Even though the environment might be a bit more stable and consistent because our work premises set it up that way, there are still variables such as how long our commute is, whether we thrive being around people in a noisy setting, or whether we’d be better off working from home but have to be in the office.
Faced with this diversity, leaders need to get curious and ask their people what works best for them, and be willing to create psychologically safe spaces for them to be heard.
When these needs have been identified, we must inquire as a team how to support those different requirements within the resources and realities available.
Importantly, says McQuaid, both leader and team need to give each other space to experiment and keep checking in on what’s working well, where they’re struggling and what to keep trying.
Resilience-building in practice
To start with, leaders should open a conversation with their team using the invite approach. Acknowledge that the ways of working are now different and ask people what they need to thrive and work together as well as they can in this new environment. This conversation should identify what people need individually, collectively and what they expect from each other.
“I think leaders often fear that this will lead to complete chaos, but the good news is that we likely have more in common with each other than we’d ever suspect because we’re wired for belonging,” says McQuaid.
“We will actually forgo what we need individually in order to be part of the collective good. It’s ok to not fit into that diversity, but it’s good to put it all out there and consider what can be shaped to serve the common good.”
The second step is to get people to take responsibility for how they’re going to work as a team and what they’re going to do individually to support that. To own responsibility as a part of this solution – whether that be turning up to team calls, communicating on chat forums or coming into the office every Tuesday – they need to care enough about it in order to commit, otherwise it will be a matter of short-term compliance. There needs to be a level of inquiry to allow team members to be clear about what responsibilities they care enough about to own.
And lastly, there needs to be some structure around all of that through routines, rituals and rhythm which will shape team culture.
Routines are centred around what the business needs from us to deliver what’s required, such as team meetings and feedback processes. The hybrid team needs to elect the routine that will allow them to function at their best.
Rituals, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more about what people need from the business. Do they want to partake in social Zoom calls on Friday afternoons in lieu of afterwork drinks? How should birthdays be celebrated, new team members welcomed and milestones marked?
After identifying these routines and rituals, the rhythm, or frequency of these elements, should be set.
“It’s a living experiment,” says McQuaid. “You want to review that once a quarter and decide on more or less. What’s the right amount to keep us connected, productive and engaged?”