24 Apr To Build Your Resilience, Ask Yourself Two Simple Questions
Take Susan, the CEO of a small telecommunications firm. She was enrolled in my MBA course when she received some bad news. A major contract, one that her firm had spent months preparing for, had gone to a competitor. She had worked hard on it. Her team had found ingenious ways to shave costs and innovative ways to add value for the client. It would have been a profitable project and, more important, successful completion would have proved a new product concept.
Her face fell and she deflated visibly. She regained her balance in days, but the damage was done. One of her engineers, a key employee and the only one who understood how a critical software component worked, left the firm. Other employees, jittery of business failure, were ready to bolt. She had to spend endless hours reassuring them about the viability of the company. She soon discovered that how the boss feels affects the entire team. It was not enough for her to regain her keel swiftly; she had to remain visibly unruffled and strong in front of her team.
Failure is sometimes lauded as a key to successful innovation, but it takes a psychic toll on the manager. Anxiety can lead to exaggerated worry, irrational fear, and obsessive thoughts. So how do you maintain your calm when the roof is falling on you?
One way, of course, is to fake it. You act confident and put on a bold front. This may work, but putting on and maintaining a mask is strenuous. Perceptive members will discern the truth — and trust will erode. There is a better way. You can be genuinely unfazed by the reverse you experience. To pull this off, you need to practice looking at the world in a new way. It is simple, and actually quite a bit of fun.
The method is based on an old Sufi tale wherein a man and his son are alternately, and repeatedly, confronted with bad luck and good fortune. Neighbors cluster around to commiserate over the former and give congratulations on the latter. Each time, the man retains his poise and poses the same question: “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?”
Think back in your life. Has anything happened to you that, at the time, you thought was a “bad thing”? Looking back at it today, can you see clearly that it was not so bad, and perhaps was even a “good thing”?
Most of us can recall many such instances. One of my students at London Business School joined a hedge fund and was bummed when he was laid off at the start of the financial crisis. But he received a healthy severance. When the situation worsened, his colleagues were let go with a bare-bones package.
So, is it possible that what you are about to label a bad thing today could, at some point in the future, turn out to have been a good thing? If so, why be in a hurry to label it bad? Just asking yourself the question “Is there any possible way in which this could actually turn out to be good?” presents a realm of possibility. And if you take the question one more step and ask “What can I do to make this happen?” you will find avenues opening up that you may never have conceived of before.
Here is a three-step process to help you cultivate this new mode of thinking. I recommend you begin using it immediately with the minor misfortunes of your life, so that you are practiced in using it when there is a major derailment.
- Be clear regarding what you are about to classify as a bad thing and why. For example, if you did not meet your revenue goals, what about this is troublesome? Is it that your bonus will suffer? Is it that you may have to lay off staff? Is it that you will not get additional resources you were counting on?
- Ask yourself this question: “Is there any possible scenario by which this could actually turn out to be a good thing someday?” Simply pondering this question will take you to a different emotional domain, one rich with possibility rather than foreboding.
- Ask yourself the next question: “What can I — and my team — do to make this scenario come about? How can we turn this event into a good thing that we can all celebrate someday in the future?”
It sounds simple, and it is. You will discover how powerful it is when you try it.
And Susan? Her team was energized when the competitor that won the project made several missteps. The customer came back to her in panic mode — and did not quibble over the additional fees she charged.