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“Resilience” isn’t something you do alone

These articles have been written by the second cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

A relationship-based framework for turning hardships into generative experiences

By Molly Cox, executive director, client partnerships, The Atlantic

It was 2018 and I was exhausted, dragging an uncooperative rolly bag through the rainy streets of midtown Manhattan, scrolling through my social media while simultaneously in search of a coffee shop with wifi so I could fire off twenty emails in as many minutes in between meetings. Then somewhere between Lexington and Park, I got punched in the face with an Instagram post:

“YOU CAN’T YOGA YOUR WAY OUT OF BURNOUT.”

It stopped me in my tracks. I read it and felt exposed, and also a little bit ashamed. Like all those hour-long vinyasa classes I was fastidiously taking back home in D.C. were simply exercise masquerading as therapy, when what I should actually do (if I wanted any shot at equilibrium and inner peace) was just…leave my job.

I stuck with my job, and I stuck with yoga. I’m pretty happy on both counts. I maintain that the lessons I take from yoga help me beyond measure in the workplace and in life more generally, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But what this punchy if cynical truism did compel me to throw out the window was the notion that self care is a panacea, when in reality burnout is as much an organisational crisis as an individual one. We’re never going to fix it alone.

As wellness culture has entered corporate culture, concepts like mindfulness, meditation, and self care are much more commonplace in workplace vernacular. I think this is, on balance, a good thing. But here’s what gives me pause, and why those of us in privileged positions within corporate hierarchies need to keep ourselves very, very honest: We mustn’t let the rhetoric and broad availability of self care practices put the burden of solving organisational problems squarely on the shoulders of individual employees. Let’s not simply throw one more zoom meditation session or telehealth therapy benefit at problems we don’t want to talk about.

Over-reliance on wellness at work can treat symptoms, but not the cause of burnout. When taken to its logical limits, it asks employees to develop their capacity to work through pain, and creates organisations that retain talent more skilled at enduring the status quo than at changing it for the better.

To come at it from another angle, let’s take a foray into Ariana Huffington’s 2021 ‘word of the year’ and the corporate buzzword of the millenium, the mythical, the elusive, the alluring: RESILIENCE. It’s the antidote to burnout, the quality of bounce-backiness that holds the key to business continuity. Everyone wants to be resilient. Hell, we’ve all found ourselves with very little choice in the matter over the past twelve months.

But here is another place where the rhetoric is too often mired in the individual at the expense of the collective and the cultural. Contemplating resilience as an organisational rather than an individual trait can unlock what I hope is a helpful understanding of the term as a function of healthy, productive relationships.

In other words: Maybe the problem isn’t a deficit of grit within individual employees, but rather a deficit of trust among them.

So what are some of the attributes and practices of resilient relationships? And how can managers help create resilient workplace cultures?

Acknowledge interdependence

This might seem simplistic to the point of being silly, but we rely on one another to keep our organizations running. Acknowledging that reality and celebrating the ways in which we are interdependent can facilitate gratitude. It can help us value one other in more genuine ways. It’s important to be sincere and to be specific, and to remember this is a practice. I’m not talking about a one-off proclamation of blanket gratitude for “everyone’s hard work and contributions” and then on to the next thing. A corollary dimension of this practice is modeling vulnerability. Ask for help. Acknowledge what you don’t know and what you don’t understand. Even if your ego is kicking and screaming. Give it a shot and see how it changes the dynamic with others around you.

Pay attention

Here’s my favorite concept from yoga: Our awareness is our most precious and powerful resource. What we pay attention to grows. I like to think of yoga class as my opportunity to practice the intentional deployment of my attention. To build that mental muscle. It’s a vital capacity to build, and it’s arguably never been more challenging to do so. Even before the pandemic added its own intersecting and dreadful layers, we were already discussing this problem: email overload, meeting fatigue, social media and smartphone addiction, the deluge of data and stimuli competing, round the clock, for our “eyeballs.”

There are actionable and measurable tactics managers can employ in order to clear space for team members to think. Reduce unnecessary meetings. Streamline communications. Much has been written about this. What is most interesting to me is what comes next. When you DO meet or communicate, what is the quality of the attention you are paying? Healthy, resilient relationships are ones in which people choose to pay quality attention to each other.

Believe each other

The least functional relationships are unsafe relationships. Let’s assume that within your organisation physical safety is a given, and instead let’s focus on the invisible yet essential process of building psychological safety. When a relationship is healthy neither party is wasting energy “managing the truth” for the other. The last thing we want is a culture where folks are conditioned to be Yes People because disagreeing or speaking their minds falls on deaf ears or worse, comes attached to judgment or negative consequences. Yikes.

Building psychological safety means building trust and enabling truth-telling. It not only means asking better, deeper questions than the drive-by “how are you,” or “how do you like this idea,” but importantly, it means BELIEVING what people tell you once you’ve asked them. Sometimes that means sitting with uncomfortable information, or hearing perspectives that you can’t immediately relate to. But a company made up of people who can’t tell each other the truth is not a resilient company.

I believe resilience is fundamentally a function of relation — of being in relationship with others, and with constantly changing conditions. It is a practice, not a destination. It hinges on an acknowledgment of interdependence, and it lives and dies by the quality of human connections. I hope that strengthening those bonds reaps benefits inside both your company and your heart. Namaste 😉

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