We need resilience in the workplace now more than ever, but does your team have bouncebackability?

One-time Olympic-level skier and “poker princess” Molly Bloom (she of ‘Molly’s Game’ fame) knows a thing or two about the importance of resilience – the ability to bounce back and stay positive in the face of adversity. Speaking of her childhood years, she wrote “Nothing was ‘recreational’ in our family. Everything was a lesson in pushing past the limits and being the best we could possibly be.” And after falling from dizzying, multimillion-dollar heights running the world’s highest stakes poker game, Bloom – by then, drug-addicted and a convicted felon – needed all of that resilience and more to get her life back on track.

Asked in a 2019 interview “How do you become formidable?”, Bloom responded with a line straight out of her days as a skier – “You keep getting back up!” But where does that bouncebackability come from? Are we born with it? Is it a response to the cards we’re dealt when we’re young? Adding Bloom’s hyper-competitive family upbringing to the Nature / Nurture mix of personality formation, the answer to both questions would seem to be a resounding “Yes”. But that suggests that resilience is baked into us in our formative years, that as adults, we either have it or we don’t – great if you do, tough luck if you don’t. But advances in neuroscience tell a different story, one that says we can change the cards we’ve been dealt. And not only change our cards but change our attitudes and brains while we’re at it.

The Importance of Resilience and Bouncebackability

The cards, in this case, are our thoughts, feelings and how we repeatedly behave. Life throws things at us, good and bad, and we respond to them with a variety of emotional states. Where things can get tricky is if our negative emotional states become too dominant and form negative emotional and behavioural traits – enduring patterns, like anxiety, pessimism or depression. These then become our default set points – the place we move back to after an emotional episode has passed.

If we have a positive set point – a largely optimistic and can-do attitude to life – then we’ll be less likely to view negative events as threatening or insurmountable. They will be only temporary setbacks before we bounce back to our previous positive default position. If our set point is negative, however, we’ll be more likely to interpret or respond to events in a negative way, and even positive events won’t keep us in a positive state for long before we slip back to our negative frame of mind.

But what neuroscience tells us – and this is crucial – is that if we deliberately and repeatedly focus on shifting our set point needle from negative to positive, we can literally change the way our brains are wired, and in the process develop a much more positive outlook and approach to life than we had before.

In this 2011 TED talk, Harvard Medical School’s Sara Lazar sets out her findings on how yoga and meditation are two ways we can do this. Having taken up yoga to aid her recovery from a running injury, she found the physical exercises helpful but struggled with the teacher’s talk about how yoga would also help her feel calmer, kinder and more empathetic. A few weeks into the classes, though, and Lazar began to notice that she actually was feeling more of these emotions. Her first thought was that it must be a placebo effect, brought on by the teacher repeating those ideas over several weeks, but none the less, she was intrigued. She dug into the existing research and found numerous studies showing that the calming and positive practises of yoga and meditation do indeed create changes not only in behaviour, but in the brain itself, leading to decreased stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression, and increased happiness, quality of life and ability to pay attention.

FEEDing the Brain

John B Arden, in his 2015 book ‘Rewire Your Brain’, describes a similar method for triggering this neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change its grey matter and circuitry in ways that strengthen or weaken whatever thoughts, feelings and behaviours we habitually have. He calls it FEEDing the brain:

  1. Focus – what we repeatedly pay attention to – whether we focus on the downside or upside of life, the risks or the opportunities, the “cannot” or the “can”
  2. Effortlessness – as we change our ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, our brain changes too, which means it takes less effort to keep it all going, eventually becoming more or less automatic
  3. Effort – this is where we have to deliberately choose our mindset, choose our response, and make an effort to think and behave in a more positive way
  4. Determination – it’s vital, though, that we keep practising these new ways of being if we want them to remain relatively effortless, otherwise we can slip back into old patterns of behaviour

It’s easy to see how we can FEED the brain to our advantage or our detriment. If we already have a negative disposition, the more we’ll zero in on the minuses (Focus), the more we’ll worry and fret over them (Effort), the more habitual these thoughts and behaviours will become (Effortlessness) and we’ll do that over and over again (Determination). Flip that negativity into positivity, though, and in just a few short months we can begin to grow the new circuitry in our brains that creates a very different mindset. 

The Importance of Resilience

Now, take that principle of FEEDing the brain with positive messages, apply it in a working environment, and what do we have? Employees steadily and determinedly pushing their boundaries and extending their comfort zones to create positive mindsets around things they might previously have felt negative about:

  • Greater resilience when faced with setbacks and other workplace stresses
  • A can-do attitude
  • Improved attitudes to change, new roles or learning new skills
  • Less blaming and judgmental
  • Better responses to making mistakes or receiving feedback
  • Being less thick-skinned or thin-skinned

The impact on individuals, teams and businesses of actively building resilience and more positive mindsets can be dramatic. As Molly Bloom noted from her own experience, the process of working to achieve a goal, especially a stretching goal, and of building the resilience needed for that, will sometimes feel uncomfortable and difficult. But if we learn to expect that, keep it in perspective and keep on going, then we can move the needle, and the rewards are there for all to be had.

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