How individuals and organizations can turn setbacks into growth
Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. Today, more than ever, it’s often hidden in plain sight. With the pandemic changing almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives, most everyone is facing adversity in some way.
It may be the added stress of working remotely, feelings of isolation, financial pressure, being a parent of school-age children learning from home or trying to help your aging parents who live thousands of miles away. The examples are endless, and with so many of us rarely leaving our homes, the adversity we face daily becomes hidden behind our webcams and virtual backgrounds.
Though the past year has been mentally and emotionally challenging for all of us, there’s good news on the horizon. Arianna Huffington, author, co-founder of The Huffington Post and CEO of Thrive Global, said when asked about the pandemic, “Navigating the new normal isn’t just about looking out; it’s about looking in.” The true silver lining to this pandemic may be that it has forced us to look into ourselves and our organizations and find ways to impact change in meaningful ways. Understanding how to live, lead and grow through adversity will help us to emerge stronger, with more positive outlooks and an increased capacity to stay resilient in the face of the next challenge.
From PTSD to PTG
Most of us are familiar with the term PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder, the adverse effects on our mental and emotional health stemming from an event or challenge that we experienced. It could be a cancer diagnosis, a motorcycle accident, being a victim of a crime, the loss of a long-term romantic relationship or financial ruin.
The pandemic has been for many of us a traumatic event that has caused considerable adversity, but as counterintuitive as it sounds, experiencing adversity can be beneficial. Studies of trauma survivors demonstrate that the individual benefits of adversity include:
- helping us better understand our own strength,
- bringing new appreciation and meaning to our lives,
- changing our priorities,
- deepening spirituality, and
- increasing the closeness we feel for ourselves and others.
From these benefits arise the idea of PTG—post-traumatic growth. Research on adversity and resiliency shows that when looking at a general population of people who have lived through trauma, a full three-quarters of the individuals will emerge more resilient, demonstrating aspects of post-traumatic growth. A study done in the UK and Portugal early in the pandemic found that 88.6% of those surveyed reported experiencing considerable adversity from the onset of COVID-19, but also that respondents reported four aspects of PTG:
- 48% described the development of closer, more meaningful family relationships
- 22% cited greater appreciation for life with a more mindful approach to coping with stress
- 16% noted a greater sense of spirituality, demonstrated in a stronger sense of community
- 11% said that they had a greater sense of self and wanted to learn new skills
These findings suggest that there can actually be benefits to living through the challenges of the pandemic. And from all this adversity comes the opportunity to build resiliency individually and in our organizations.
Living a Life of Resilience
Resilience is essentially our ability to bounce back from adversity. Unlike our personality or our genes, our resiliency is not hardcoded. Rather, it’s a learned skill or behavior like emotional intelligence that we can improve with time and experience. Individuals with high levels of resiliency tend to possess three characteristics.
1. They understand what can be controlled and project positive outlook.
To project a positive outlook is not to simply think of the glass half full versus half empty or to put forth a cheery disposition. Rather, it’s how we perceive situations and the amount of control we feel we have to exert change. This psychological concept is called the locus of control. If you have an internal locus of control orientation, then you believe that you have control over what happens to you. Common beliefs associated with this internal orientation are that if you work hard and apply yourself, you can achieve anything; effort and dedication are key to success in the long run; and people get what they deserve in life. Conversely, if you believe that you have no control over what happens and that your fate is determined by outside forces, you have an external locus of control. External orientation embodies perceptions of “most things happen to me, so there is no reason to set goals”—life is game of chance and people rarely get what they deserve. People who project an internal locus of control feel more confident in their abilities and are motivated to take action when challenged.
A simple example of internal locus of control is conceptualizing that personal and professional curve balls are thrown for us and not to us. The idea is that a curve ball is a good thing, rather than bad, and that we can teach ourselves to effectively react when one comes our way and eventually learn to hit one out of the park. Perceiving the curve ball as being thrown for us puts us in control of taking the unexpected and making it an opportunity.
Perception is key to our ability to bounce back. Though we all have a natural inclination toward either internal or external locus of control—for example, men and older adults tend to have more internal orientations—we can practice changing our perception over time. Consistently asking ourselves the questions “What control do I have to help myself and others?” and “What is the plan to get through this and come out the other side?” can help us project a more positive outlook and increase our resilience.
2. They build relationships and ask for help.
Relationships, social support systems and personal connections are foundational to our physical and emotional health. One of the most pervasive adverse effects that the pandemic has had on us is that it has isolated us from our families, friends, co-workers and communities at a time when we needed that personal interaction the most. Most everything written about overcoming adversity and developing resiliency touches on this aspect of relationships and the ability to ask each other for help. Those that embrace these concepts fare better in the middle of a crisis, and they are better prepared post-crisis for the next setback. It seems fundamental that we should build relationships and ask for help. But this can be extremely difficult to do.
When I was in my late twenties, I got what I thought was my dream job working for a company that I admired. Fast forward a few years and I was miserable. The job wasn’t a good fit, and ultimately, I left my position. It all seemed so overwhelming—and honestly, embarrassing. I reacted by going dark with my social network, not asking for help, and really isolated myself professionally while trying to find my next job. Once I realized the isolation was adding to the adversity, I started to reach out to my network; I asked for help and made daily attempts to continue building relationships. My next opportunity came from a colleague who happened to know I was looking and mentioned it to a client. That client called me and asked me to interview for the position, and that turned out to be a pivotal point in my career.
Building relationships and asking for help is key to overcoming adversity, but it’s just as important to continue to do this when we aren’t facing challenges or setbacks. Individuals with high degrees of resilience reach out to people even when they don’t need anything just to check in, and most importantly, ask how they can help the person they are contacting. It can be hard to do, especially now, but take the time to put this aspect of resiliency into action. Make a goal for yourself to reach out once a day or three times a week to colleagues and friends. You will feel better and more connected—and you’ll be better prepared the next time you need to look to your support system to overcome your own challenges.
3. They embrace challenges and cultivate a growth mindset.
It’s easy to stay in our comfort zone. We understand the parameters, we can anticipate the challenges and we know how to navigate the decision-making process. The problem with embracing the status quo is that there is little to no chance of failure. Developing our individual resilience and cultivating a growth mindset is understanding that failure and success are a package deal. You can’t have one without the other. Resilient individuals look for ways to learn from the failure, view pain points as possibilities and give themselves permission to take risks and make mistakes that ultimately get them where they want to go.
I once had a CEO of a credit union tell me that he thought of a growth mindset as “the idea that was just around the corner.” He had recently led the merger of two equal-in-asset-size credit unions, but one had very diminished capital. When they ran the numbers for the capital position of the new credit union, it was going to be at the very minimum to be considered well-capitalized by the National Credit Union Administration. Many individuals reviewing the numbers could only see the corner and not what was around it; they saw only the risk, not the reward. Around the corner was the ability to serve a greater part of their membership while achieving economies of scale. Getting around the corner was difficult, but the reward was worth it.
There have been so many adverse effects of this pandemic, but it has also afforded us time for introspection. Reflect and ask yourself, “How can I embrace these challenges and see the possibility from the pain?” Challenge your status quo and cultivate a growth mindset by setting your sights on something that is difficult for you to do or that you have failed at in the past. Remind yourself to see not just the corner itself, but what’s around the bend.
Building a Resilient Organization
Individual resilience is built and developed independently, but resilient organizations are comprised of resilient teams. Resilient teams are cultivated by dedicated leaders. An organization’s ability to bounce back in the face of adversity is something that we must continually work at in good times and in bad. Resilient teams and organizations do these things:
1. They believe that they are better together.
Shaquille O’Neal once said, “Excellence is a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.” Highly resilient teams are confident in their abilities to work together to solve problems, react in crisis and complete tasks to progress toward goals. This confidence comes from repetition. Confidence alone will not make a resilient team, and in fact, too much or too little confidence is actually counterproductive. Your team must each individually and collectively understand the role(s) of the team, what role they and others play within the team, as well as the framework that governs how the teams work.
A momentous example of this was the Miracle on the Hudson landing by the crew of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in 2009. The entire incident, from takeoff to landing on the Hudson river, happened in three and a half minutes. The crew had no time to discuss what should be done or how to do it. The flight crew did not always work together, but their training and understanding of their roles as part of an in-flight team gave them the confidence and belief in each other needed to execute that landing and save the lives of all passengers and crew on board.
As leaders, we need to direct a large amount of our energies into nurturing the confidence, belief and understanding of what makes our teams effective. Just like with exercise or sports, we’ll get better at it the more we practice. Prioritize team-building in your organization and foster a culture of confidence and belief in your models for working together. At least once a month, take your teams through exercises and scenarios that are not routine. Assess how you performed, ask what you can do better as a team and then practice again.
2. They foster an environment of improvisation and trust.
Oftentimes, there is a desire to tightly regiment the projects and processes in our organizations. Framework and structure are important but should not be absolute. Resilient teams can improvise—they deliberately adjust to changing circumstances in real time, trust one another and feel safe to explore outside-the box-ideas and find solutions. Less resilient teams lack psychological safety. Those team members are only willing to offer conventional ideas or solutions because they fear rejection or criticism for suggesting a novel approach. Members of teams with high psychological safety trust that they can honestly express their ideas and opinions, resulting in greater diversity in perspective. This is essential when with crisis and adversity.
An out-of-this world example is when the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 had an oxygen tank explode while they were 205,000 miles above the earth. The crew was in danger of not having enough oxygen to breathe for their return journey. The operations team on the ground needed to solve this problem by not only designing a device with only the items the crew had on board that would remove the carbon dioxide from the lunar module, but they also had to talk the astronauts through how to build the apparatus. The team’s ability to improvise and the trust they had in one another is largely credited for the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew to Earth.
You may never be faced with a situation as dire as the Apollo 13 mission, but your ability to promote a culture of improvisation and trust in your organization will allow you to overcome challenges and adversity of varying degrees. Encourage your teams to engage in activities at least quarterly where they can create and innovate with few restrictions. Cultivate an environment that encourages unique ideas and a safe space for expression. You and your credit union will be much more resilient for it.
Understanding the potential benefits of adversity and the aspects of resilience will help us emerge from the pandemic stronger and better prepared for what’s next. cues icon
Bryn C. Conway, MBA, CUDE, principal of BC Consulting LLC, is a long-time member of the credit union community and helps credit unions define their brands, develop their experiences and grow market share.
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