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Stop Taking Adversity So Personally

a hiker summiting a mountain

Follow these two strategies to unlock the benefits of resilience for your teams, clients, and stakeholders.

Jesse Sostrin is Salesforce’s Global Head of Executive Development, which means he spends a lot of time thinking about the future of leadership. He is the author of five books, including “The Manager’s Dilemma,” “Beyond the Job Description,” and “Re-Making Communication at Work,” all of which helped to establish his place in the next generation of influential thinkers challenging conventional ideas about management, leadership, and success on the job.

Here on the Salesforce Blog, Sostrin’s column offers periodic insights on the challenges of leading people, teams, and organizations into “the next normal.”

Imagine this scenario:

Leslie is a busy executive who is proud of the resilience they’ve shown during these challenging times. Interpreting tough circumstances as a personal challenge, Leslie has worked longer hours than ever, achieved quality in every project, and said “yes” to every changing demand. But what Leslie doesn’t realize is that burnout is just around the corner because — what was mistakenly called resilience — is just unsustainable self-preservation in disguise.

There’s a lot of talk about resilience out there these days. Resilience is among the most essential leadership traits required to bounce back from crisis. But for many leaders, resilience is just another form of armor they feel obligated to wear. True resilience is something much different.

It’s not a hopeful layer of defense to shield yourself from a threat; it’s the forward-leaning confidence and ability to recognize and adapt to the unfavorable circumstance at hand. What many leaders mistakenly call resilience is actually self-preservation. This mixup can have unintended consequences.

To help your teams, clients, and stakeholders stabilize and transition to the next normal, you need to unlock the true benefits of resilience. To do that, start with a crucial mindset shift and then follow these two strategies.

A key mindset shift

The literal meaning of adversity is anchored in the perception things have unfavorably turned against you. This personalization triggers an inherent hostility and the result is a confrontational orientation of “me versus it.” It’s not surprising because adversity — those big or small problems rising from your work/life experience — can change your plans, undo your progress, and cause you to question your hopes and goals in an instant.

Leaders besieged by the constant change, rising ambiguity, and intensifying complexity of a turbulent business might understandably adopt this adversarial stance. However, most of the adversity we encounter arrives through no fault of our own. It just finds us and reminds us of how little control we have over the events and circumstances that surround us.

Yet what do you do when you feel under attack? Armor up and fight. That’s why so many popular quotes about resilience deal in metaphors of battle (i.e. “fight through adversity” … “win against the odds,” etcetera). But here’s the problem. When adversity is taken personally, a vicious, energy-wasting, and anxiety-inducing cycle takes over. That’s why I say that if you’re taking adversity personally, then you’re doing resilience wrong.

The body doesn’t differentiate between the real and the imagined, so any perceived adversity can actually trigger the same “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction a physical threat produces. Heart rate increases, muscles contract, blood pressure rises, vision narrows, and blood rushes from your brain into your trunk. And as the prefrontal cortex shuts down, we respond reactively and impulsively, instead of rationally and reflectively.

Needless to say, it’s not an ideal physical, emotional, or mental state to be in when there’s a lot at stake. And over time, chronic states of anxiety and stress like these can lead to severe mental health issues and physical disease.

But adversity is actually neutral, and treating it that way allows for what Harvard Psychologist, Bob Kegan, describes as the subject-object shift. Instead of unconsciously interpreting adversity through the adversarial lens, which makes the world seem as though it’s turned against you, put it in its rightful place. Turning the unwanted circumstance into just another neutral “object” you can look at — even play with — disarms you and stops the vicious cycle from taking its toll.

It’s not “What’s happening to me?” It’s “What’s happening around me, what do I need to learn from it, and what do I choose to do about it?” Changing your outlook in this important way can simultaneously boost resilience and reduce the unnecessary toll that exhausting self-preservation routines takes on you. Once you’ve made the mindset shift, apply these two strategies to boost the quality and efficacy of your response to adversity.

What, if anything, can I influence — and what do I need to let go of?

Use your adversity like data

Information is power, but only when it is recognized for its potential and objectively leveraged for its value. The same is true with adversity. Disruptive, unwanted circumstances can lead to powerful change but only when you de-personalize them, learn from them, and then leverage that learning for a smarter response.

To glean the vital information from the adversity around you, consider this line of objective inquiry: What are the facts about what’s really going on here? What, specifically, is this adversity signaling? What lessons or insights can I take from this? Who can I test my thinking with to stay objective? What, if anything, can I influence — and what do I need to let go of?

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, mentalizing like this can help you avoid faulty interpretations or the unnecessary personalization of adversity. As you get better at observing the information within every adversity, you can start to anticipate and respond more effectively.

Using your adversity like data requires you to dump the antiquated notion of the resilient leader as the fearless hero. Instead of a caricature with exaggerated features of strength, perfection, and unwavering confidence (which only reinforces unrealistic expectations), the resilient leader is humble and curious — the foundation of a beginner’s mind.

Moving too quickly through adversity and blindly reacting to circumstances (i.e. skipping the “data collection” and learning work altogether) can actually produce a false sense of resilience with long-term risks for your leadership viability. You’ll fool yourself into thinking you’ve made it through to the other side, but you’ll remain just as susceptible to the same issue should similar circumstances arise in the future. That’s because it’s not how fast you bounce back; it is the accuracy of the trajectory you set for the rebound. And it’s not how much effort and tenacity you devote, it’s how much informed focus and meaning you build into your response.

So strive for the perfectly imperfect kind of resilience, which is more about vulnerability than toughness. It’s the naked truth that acknowledges: this is who I am, and this is where I’m at right now … it’s my call on how I choose to move forward.

Avoid using resilience when you don’t need it

For many leaders, the call for greater resilience is an overused talk track. But every time you unnecessarily call upon resilience when another leadership trait is suitable, you end up chipping away at the very resilience reservoir you need for the next true adversity that may be around the corner.

For example, in a recent conversation, a senior leader explained the stress and strain she felt: “I can’t not care. I give it my all every single time. I’m just so passionate; it’s how I’m wired. So I treat every project and every initiative like it’s the Super Bowl. But I know it’s burning me out and the pace and pressure isn’t sustainable for the team either. I think we just need more resilience.”

After validating the heavy load she carried, I kindly but forcefully pushed back and suggested a misdiagnosis. What you’ve identified as “the need for more resilience” is masking the underlying issue, which is poor prioritization and performance whitewashing.

This leader fell into a common trap: by treating all goals and priorities the same, nothing was truly important. The effects of this barrier were certainly wearing her and the team out, but throwing more resilience at the problem — without addressing the underlying cause of the adversity — would be wasteful. A more effective approach is to decisively set priorities and make proactive, calculated tradeoffs on where time/energy gets invested.

What are you mistakenly calling on resilience to fix?

To explore this, take an inventory of the parts of your working life that get the greatest concentration of your resilience. Then ask: is it resilience I need for this, or can something else resolve this concern?

When you stop overdrafting on your resilience you’ll better address the root cause of the issue and preserve your actual resilience for the times you need it most.

Adversity is largely about capture. What has the adversity in your work/life captured from you: your time, attention, and resources … your joy, confidence, and drive? But resilience is about capacity. What does greater resilience allow you to do? Cope with stress and anxiety better, solve more complex problems, make decisions with greater focus, and lead others with greater commitment and compassion? 

The critical mindset shift and two related strategies described here can help you positively tilt your capacity against the capture. That way, when adversity strikes you and everything feels wrong, you’ll use your resilience right.

Avoid the secondary effects of the crisis.

Jesse Sostrin VP, Global Head of People Leadership Development

Jesse Sostrin, Ph.D. is VP, Global Head of People Leadership Development at Salesforce and the author of several books, including “The Manager’s Dilemma” and “Beyond the Job Description.” He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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