Building Workplace Resilience (pt. 2 of 2)

Written by William Campbell

A few weeks back I started a two part series on building workplace resilience. In that first post I tackled “Control” and “Mental Toughness”. I got some great feedback, and here I expand on some of those same themes to finish out the series.

3. How do you really rest?

I want to bring it back to the quote at the beginning of my first post. We are part of a culture that has done nothing but instill the importance of work and production from the time we enter the education system. This impresses on us that our worth is in the paper, the project, and the performance. Your worth is not in what you can produce. That statement is simple to say, but difficult to believe. Allow yourself to find your worth in the simple fact that you are worthy. No person needs to tell you and no system needs to validate you. This kind of mindset is what fuels our inability to truly disconnect. In a previous job, we had monthly retreats of silence. We would take a day, disconnect from all of work, and engage in silence. In this way, we detoxed ourselves from the noise in order to truly listen. One of the questions we usually used to start those retreats was, “How do you find true rest?” It is easy to chill in front of some Netflix (don’t get me wrong, I would medal in this at the Olympics), but as relaxing as that can be, it’s more about shutting down than it is about being restored. For many of us, our workplaces draw from our emotional bank account leaving us depleted and running on emotional debt. Just shutting down doesn’t refill the account. How do you get you account refilled? If you’re interested in more on retreats of silence, many are spiritual in nature but there are plenty secular versions. Just google “retreats of silence” or hit me up for more conversation.

4. It’s less about boundaries than you think…

The traditional conversation around resilience quickly turns to empty platitudes about that so-called “work/life” balance. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what that means anymore. The way we work in our current society has so changed that this elusive balance is hard to define. Is it shutting off after 5pm? What if your work has odd hours? What about our 24 hour access via computers and cell phones? Typically, people say we need to set boundaries, but many kind of boundaries exist. What the literature reflects is that what helps us build resilience is less about physical/technical boundaries (i.e. leaving at a certain time, not checking your phone) and more about our mental/emotional boundaries. The rise of positive intelligence has helped people recognize that our minds can be our best friends and our worst enemies. The first time I heard the word “positive intelligence” I thought it was part of the whole “just think positive” movement from years ago. But this is the science of helping us take control of our emotions, as I wrote in the first post, it is not the adversity that causes our emotional consequences but what we think about that adversity. Our inner lives are one of the most powerful forces for how we experience the world. I don’t know about you, but my inner monologue is chatty. Between the time I leave the office and make it to the train, I’ll have already had three imaginary arguments with people based on situations at work. Worse, when the monologue turns to critic (which is most of the time), I start telling myself stories about the situations that only escalate my own negative emotions. I was recently introduced to Shirzad’s work on our own saboteurs and how our inner judge is subconsciously steering our emotional reactions. Check out more here.

5. Becoming mindful

Though I hate to be yet another person recommending mindfulness, this issue of taming the inner critic is where it is proven to have an affect. Those who practice mindfulness regularly cite the ability to calm their inner monologue and focus on the present. Furthermore, it allows them to experience their emotions without judgment. We laugh at this stuff (and I have too) because it all sounds new age. We’re too smart, ironic, young, hip, enlightened, skeptical, [fill in the blank] to buy into that crap. Stop trying to be too cool for school. Your emotional health matters. If you roll your eyes at this mindfulness stuff like I did for too many years, do yourself a favor and stop taking yourself so seriously. I won’t go into length on this because you can just google it. Consider this yet another glaring reminder to just look into it.

6. Failure: Shame or guilt

Learning from failure has become one of the more en vogue concepts, mostly because we all struggle with it. You don’t have to look hard on google to find examples of some of the greatest leaders and artists who experienced failure over and again only to bounce back. People who gain the ability to see failure as a learning opportunity are those with the most resilience. What I want to focus on, though, is more on when failure becomes internalized. People will often say they are comfortable with failure, but I question if this is more mistakes than failure itself. I am reminded of Brene Brown’s work on shame. She says:

Shame is a focus on us, while guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad,” while guilt is “I did something bad.”

Failure and shame kick in when we start looking at our mistakes and saying, “If I keep making this mistake, then something must be wrong with me.” As Brene Brown says, the answer is not to hide from the failure but to become more vulnerable. The answer is not to turn away and numb ourselves (more on this later) but to look honestly at what is not working. I cannot sing the praises enough of Brene Brown’s work, so please at least watch one of her videos. I’m linking here. And then after you stop weeping, watch whatever video of her shows up next on YouTube. Of course, she is far more than a video, and her book Daring Greatly is a must read.

7. Fixed and growth mindsets

So how do we learn from failure effectively? Well, it seems like I’m in a Ted Talk kind of mood because I’m also linking to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets here. A growth mindset is one where you embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. People with growth mindsets are those who are quick to ask for feedback, who don’t let their mistakes sink in and become internalized, and see a goal in life as continuously learning. A fixed mindset focuses on performance and doing it the right way. Ingrained in us throughout our education system, this mindset causes us to want the best grade. Those of us with this mindset (finger pointed at me) beat ourselves up over the simplest mistake and often look to blaming others. A fixed mindset focuses on perfection while a growth mindset focuses on getting better. It’s a subtle distinction that research has shown has a profound effect. People with growth mindsets are proven to regularly perform better, be happier, and have more emotional resilience. Carol Dweck is also more than a video, and you can learn more about her research here. Another great teacher on how to learn from failure is Amy Edmondson. A short intro to her work is linked here, and I particularly learn from her approach that not all failures are created equal.

8. Choose joy

When I was a camp counselor, the theme for the summer was “Choose Joy.” Though I was required to peddle this idea to impressionable 10 year olds, I had no idea what it meant. It felt fake and forced. Now in my mid-thirties I think I’m slowly starting to get it. We often live in the mental state we create for ourselves. If all we do is gripe, then we actually create more negativity in our mind. But if we choose to be grateful, it increases our appreciation for those people. While on my “sabbatical” (only a 3 week vacation), I remember thinking, “Gee, this stress really isn’t going away. No matter how much I do to try to stop thinking about it, it’s just not going away.” The countdown to return was looming, and I didn’t want to come back as the same stressed person I left. This memory of camp came flying back into my mind. I had to choose what’s best rather than focus on what I wanted to avoid. This fundamentally shifted my mindset away from escape and into embrace. Like Brene Brown says, we are not able to selectively numb one emotion and not affect the rest (see I told you I’d get to this). When we try to avoid or numb the negative feelings, we lose our ability to feel the positive ones. Part of what this meant for me was to do two things.

  • One, I needed to actively pursue what I loved at work. So much of my job was already capitalizing on my strengths, but there were projects or opportunities I wanted that tapped into my soul. I needed to not worry about how I would come across when advocating for myself and just ask! Why do I always worry about what will happen when I just ask? If you’re anything like me, take courage and stop saying “no” for other people.
  • Second, I needed to actively pursue connection and people. It was so easy for me to disconnect when the stress came and focus on the “real work.” But the “real work” is the people. Many of us spend more time with our colleagues than our family and friends. These are individuals who are in our lives. It does not do us any good to hold each other at bay. Instead we must connect, and connect on a deeply human level. Workplaces are a professional masquerade ball where we all have our preferred (and enforced) masks, but when do we actually let others in (and not just the ones we have selectively chosen to be our friends)? This goes beyond the platitude of “make friends” –  this is about choosing to make authentic connections. We need to become human again. We need to stop treating each other as objects on a chess board to get our own game won and instead as humans with real emotions. Let us stop trying to be right and start listening.

This two part series on workplace resilience began as a reflection on my vacation. At first I was tempted to write about nature, rural spaces and the restorative power of nature (which is all true). But that all came across as dangerously shallow. Yes, Un/Settled is about rural experiences, stories, and identities, but for me, this has also become about unsettling myself from the ways our culture and society normalize us into unhealthy and destructive patterns. Not only am I unsettled, but I NEED to be unsettled. Only through unsettling ourselves from our destructive patterns can we build true workplace resilience. This stuff matters folks – it’s not whining or “namby pamby” stuff. If you’re going to make it the next 4o years in the workforce, stop driving yourself into the ground and unsettle yourself.



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