Managing Adversity with a Resilience Mindset

In light of how our world has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reminded recently of a brief video1 about resilience from John Maxwell, who is a long-time sage in the area of leadership development. In the video snippet, Maxwell shared, “Resilience comes through adversity.” In other words, we can only achieve resilience if have been given the gift of struggle. But for many of us, amid our own varying levels of resilience, the real question becomes, “How do I actually handle adversity itself so that I come out of it with resilience?” In other words, we understand that resilience is important, but we also need to know how we achieve it.

The following are three considerations we can use to break down the idea of handling adversity so that we emerge with a stronger ability to be resilient:

Define what resiliency looks like to us in our own unique situation.
Understand the value of a growth mindset in relationship to resiliency.
Create a vision of the future for life after adversity.
Defining Resilience

When seeking the definition of something, there are three key places to look: the dictionary, our observations and our experiences. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change2.” Many of us have felt some of the strain associated with the changes in our society as a result of COVID-19; depending on individual circumstances, some may find that the stress is a little more pronounced, whether they are working from home or currently without employment. Simply put, resilience can be defined as persistence and recovery.

When my daughter was in fifth grade, she was assigned her first science fair project. With little knowledge of the scientific method and a vague idea of what to do as an experiment, she looked at the schedule of due dates and immediately became overwhelmed. She didn’t think she could do it because it looked like too much work. She felt that there was no way she could make it in time. My daughter completely broke down, sobbing at the thought of trying to climb this hill – it broke a mother’s heart.

Unfortunately, the assignment wasn’t going away for my daughter because she thought it was too hard. I suggested we make a plan and break up the project into smaller bits, mapping them out with dates so she could do a little bit at a time. I asked her questions to help her think about the challenges before she encountered them and became overwhelmed again. And she amazed me as she recovered from her initial moment of despair and persisted with a plan in hand.

You know the rest of the story – of course she completed the project and received an outstanding grade. She also discovered that she could actually do something difficult. This is resilience, writ large. While this is an example involving a child’s science fair project, the principle of resilience still applies to adults, particularly for many adults in the business world facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. Many of us have probably experienced this before or seen someone else march through this scenario. You hit an obstacle, thinking it will be impossible, but you recover from your initial instinct to cut and run, and fight self-doubt as you persist with a plan. The more you do this, the more you realize that you are capable of doing it again and again. Resilience is the product of our survival instinct and the knowledge that we could do it again if necessary.

Resilience and the Growth Mindset

When we think about our path to resilience, the best first step is to understand what we mean when we say “resilient.” But when we take it to a personal level, resiliency forces us to look a little deeper within to try to understand how we identify, deal with, recover from and grow from adversity.

First, we need to understand one key, foundational truth: we do not know everything. We can’t. Our assumptions about this world and how it operates depend a lot on how we have experienced the world. Were you the child who fell off your bike and was told to brush it off and keep going, or were you the child who fell off and was told to wait right there for a bandage and some antibiotic cream? Although the children in these scenarios walk away with different expectations about what happens during times of pain or difficulty, both scenarios are good ones. Being open this possibility (that there are two right ways to handle a situation), demonstrates a growth mindset.

As (working, professional) adults, a growth mindset also becomes important to our current circumstances. Having a growth mindset mainly involves an understanding that we don’t always have all the answers. Maybe because you were expected to brush off a certain experience, you expect others to do the same, and that’s resilience to you. But if we spread that assumption across how we expect everyone else to demonstrate resiliency, we miss the opportunity to find new ways to manage adversity – essentially, we miss the opportunity to learn from others.

Think about it this way: if you were the child who got the bandage and antibiotic, you learned that there’s value in seeking comfort and then continuing to pursue that bike ride. If you enter adversity with a growth mindset, you can see that another person just got back on the bike – and maybe you can, too. You might discover that you are strong enough to continue, even though you may still be in pain, and you can move on from that experience more quickly.

Alternatively, if you are the child brushing off a situation, a growth mindset can help you see that the other person sought a little extra time to recover and to ask for help. You learn that there is value in sharing the pain and leaning on the comfort you receive from others before moving on.

A growth mindset teaches that there is more than one right way to face adversity. And if we can do that, it’s easier to extend grace to ourselves and others, and to suspend judgement as we all recover and persist in different ways.

Casting a Vision

In times of adversity, the greatest question we can ask ourselves is: what could be the result of passing through a situation like this? When my daughter was struggling with how to accomplish that science fair project, one of the best things we did was to create a picture of what things would look like on the other side of completing that project. Shifting our focus from what seemed impossible to what could be possible was very powerful for my daughter. The mindset of, “I’ll never be able to do it all,” turned to, “Look how much time I have to do it all.” “This is going to be so hard,” turned to, “How fun can we make this project?”

When we face adversity, our natural instinct is fight or flight. To ignite the fight, we have to extinguish the stress-inducing hormones by thinking about what survival looks like. What is possible during this “work-at-home” quarantine? Will you be more productive? Will you finally have that home office space you’ve been trying to pull together for years? Maybe you dream about how your office relationships may improve once we are all back together. Thinking about what that might look like actually causes the brain to react as though we are actually emotionally experiencing it now.

Next Steps

What will you do now that you find yourself in the midst of adversity? What will your resilience story be? Think about starting with these three action steps:

  1. Make a plan and persist – Think about what you want to accomplish and break it down into manageable parts that you can align to a time frame. In our current environment, this may help you find persistence and motivation if you’re finding it hard to stay focused in your home office. Check off your accomplishments, even the simple ones like making your bed in the morning or a brisk walk of exercise.
  2. Extend grace and suspend judgement – Remember, “There’s not one right way.” Approaching adversity with a growth mindset can allow you to discover new ways to handle adversity and encourage those around you. Keep track of what you’re learning by journaling or making lists.
  3. Imagine yourself in the future – Cast your vision for what you want the future to be. Who will you be in that future? Begin aligning your actions now with that vision to increase your ability to be optimistic today and to see your vision become reality.

Resilience is a valuable leadership trait and one we should all work toward. The greatest thing we can do is recall our own experiences to remind ourselves that we have at one time fallen off a bike and gotten back on. We have faced down a science fair experiment and won. Remember that we can do this.

* This article was originally authored by Effin Logue who served as Chief People Officer from 2014 - 2021 and is now a proud DHG Alumni member.

Sources

  1. Resilience: A Minute with John Maxwell, John C. Maxwell, YouTube, 2014.
  2. Resilience, merriam-webster.com.

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