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Thought Leadership

Thriving Under Pressure: Developing New Skills in Uncertain Times

A graphic showing a human figure and three principles associated with building resilience: “build inner resilience,” “build social resilience,” and “build physical resilience.”

An ancient curse has particular relevance today: “May you live in interesting times.”

These are interesting times indeed. The COVID-19 pandemic is the third instance of significant disruption and uncertainty in just 20 years – following the terror attacks on September 11 and the Great Recession of 2008-09. The pandemic is particularly challenging for HR leaders, whose work often centers on bringing groups of people together.

Yet periods of uncertainty and change are precisely when learning is most vital. Relevance is critical to adult learners, and when the need is real and present, adult learners are most open to learning new skills. People are currently in acute need of skills to handle the pressure they are facing and to adjust to new ways of working.

Growth gives meaning to pressure

“Connecting pressure to personal growth is vital for resilience over the long haul,” says UNC affiliate faculty Dane Jensen, who has extensive experience advising world-class athletes and top executives on thriving under pressure. “If, as a leader, I feel like the pressure is just a weight on my shoulders that I must endure, it will have a significantly more negative impact than if I see how rising to this challenge can help me become stronger and better. Growth gives meaning to pressure – and our ability to help people see this tough period as a growth experience is a significant imperative for maintaining engagement at work.”

Dane suggests thinking back to a time in your life that was high-pressure but exciting, not draining. “When I was a management consultant early in my career, I was working very long hours and the stakes were high,” he says. “But it was worth it because the opportunities it presented were amazing, I gained valuable knowledge and skills from my colleagues, and the experience took me somewhere worthwhile. It wasn’t just pure stress. That’s positive pressure.”

During coming months HR leadership can provide unique value and directly influence how their organizations weather the storm. This is a time of great pressure – but how heavy that pressure sits, and how skillfully it is navigated, is within your circle of influence.

Build resilience in all corners of your organization

Ultimately, resilience is built in the troughs, not the peaks. Not only is this a time in which resilience skills are vital – it is also the perfect time to support your people in helping them to build resilience.

In Dane’s forthcoming book, The Power of Pressure, he argues that the two key factors that ramp up pressure are importance (“This matters to me.”) and uncertainty (“I do not know how this will turn out.”). The threat posed by COVID-19 delivers an unhealthy dose of both ingredients.

Amid this pressure, HR leaders have an opportunity to show that their organization cares not just about physical safety but also about people’s psychological well-being, and stands ready to help them learn the skills they need to not just survive but thrive through this period.

There are three key imperatives here:

1. Build physical resilience

Employee wellness programs have never been more important. Now is the time to promote awareness of the programs available to your teams. Dane cites sleep, nutrition, and exercise as the basis of not just a healthy immune system but also a resilient individual.

For example, UNC Professor Mike Christian points out that studies indicate that sleep is closely associated with self-control. In a 2011 study, he found that sleep deprivation makes employees more susceptible to unethical behavior – such as a boss influencing a subordinate to fudge numbers on a financial report.

“When you get enough sleep, you have more ability to override your short-term temptations to make choices that benefit you in the long term,” says Mike, whose research focuses on the mind-body connection in the workplace. “When we get a good night’s sleep, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive control and the regulation of our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions – is more effective.”

2. Build social resilience

In this time of physical distancing, the need for human connection as a tool to remain resilient is perhaps stronger than ever. When humans lose connections to family, friends, and neighbors who keep them emotionally balanced, anxiety can heighten to a dangerous point. This is also true at work. “People need a steady drumbeat of support and inclusion from their colleagues and superiors,” says Dane, who cites the example of an NBA coach who spends at least 30 seconds every day with each of his players.

3. Build inner resilience

Resilience isn’t a genetic gift – it is a set of skills that can be learned and mastered. Often there may be an assumption that resilience will be built naturally as a by-product of tough times. But just like an athlete needs a good coach to reap the developmental benefits of sports, individuals need support in learning how to channel pressure into growth.

One way to accomplish this is by giving learning participants an understanding of how uncertainty and pressure impact their performance and health, and then grow their awareness of the choices they have and skills they can use to enhance their resilience under pressure.

During recent sessions he led on resilience, Dane received over 800 responses from leaders on their biggest challenges and pressures during the pandemic. In addition to long-standing stressors such as work-life balance, stressors specific to this time such as concerns over health and isolation were added onto the pile of worries. The below graph demonstrates the largest areas of concern, by size.

A graphic listing the "current stressors" of: "isolation," "motivation," "communicating," "health," "security," "balance," and "financial."

“What is most interesting to me is that the responses weren’t simply ‘coronavirus’,” says Dane. “In times of challenge, what is often most challenging is that the old pressure doesn’t go away – we simply add more to the pile, further compounding our already high-pressure lives.”

Dane argues that in acute scenarios people need to have a clear sense of:

  • What they can control – their perspective and their behaviors
  • What they need to let go of – the situation and others’ responses

These choices apply to your organization as well. Most consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak are outside of your control. Policies will be handed down from senior executives. Despite best efforts, people may become ill. There may be disruption to supply chains, operations, and other critical components of your business.

“Think about what you can control and what you can’t,” Mike advised. “Make a list if it helps. Be intentional about focusing on what you can control. Do the best that you can in your own sphere of influence. As individuals, we have no control over what’s happening on a global or population scale, so the result is anxiety and stress. Of course, it’s important to stay informed about the situation, but check the news on a schedule that works for you.”

“Having the discernment to identify the things outside of your control and the ability to let those things go is a critical aspect to resilience,” adds Dane. “A leader who can paint a clear picture of where the organization will focus attention and what will be consciously ignored is invaluable in any crisis.”

The good news is that how you prepare your workforce for this challenge is within your control. Investing in resilience skills for your organization is an easy way to demonstrate empathy and support, improve performance and productivity, and arm your workforce with the skills to rise to the occasion.

The coming few months may not be enjoyable, but with the right tools everyone can emerge with the satisfaction of knowing that they were up to the challenge. This will greatly increase engagement with their own jobs as well as appreciation for an organization that cared enough to address the situation in a proactive, skill-building manner.

Now what?

What is clear is that even when we may not be able to bring people together physically, the uncertainty and pressure bred by the pandemic makes learning more crucial than ever. Fortunately, professionals are more receptive in the current environment to learning how to deal with stress and pressure, especially if they can see it as an opportunity for long-term growth, not just short-term survival.

HR leadership can play a key role in these times, leveraging practical tools and assets to help their organization understand what creates feelings of pressure and stress and to build both physical and mental resilience. One key way to build that resilience is to identify what we can control and what we cannot, and to use that in making intentional choices on where to focus our limited time and energy.

Here is an opportunity over the coming months to help leaders build resilience, but that opportunity may be brief. We are committed to supporting you in seizing this moment and readying your workforce for ongoing disruption. Get in touch.

Dane Jensen is an affiliate faculty member of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and CEO of Third Factor. Mike Christian is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Bell Distinguished Scholar at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Dane Jensen is an affiliate faculty member of UNC Executive Development and CEO of Third Factor. Mike Christian is Sarah Graham Kenan Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Academic Director of Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.