The value of teaching resiliency (column)

Xerox's Ernie Philip says corporate leaders need to teach their staff resilience to navigate change.

Ernie Philip is senior vice president of document outsourcing services at Xerox Canada.

Ernie2My first job in sales at a small Canadian printing company more than 20 years ago was far from easy or glamorous. I sold printers out of a van and had to meet a daily quota of at least 30 cold calls. This entailed lugging a printer from my van into prospective customers’ offices to provide demonstrations and free trials.

I was tempted to hand back the keys to my van and pack it in many times, but I stuck it out for a year — a lifetime in that role. Along the way I discovered I had a trait that has served me well throughout my career and positioned me to be an effective corporate leader: resilience.

Persevering in the face of adversity is critical to getting ahead. It has the power to take us farther than IQ, education or experience alone. It’s applicable across all roles and all lines of business in every industry around the world. And yet, we don’t spend nearly enough time developing resilience in our workforce.

While some people seem to be born with thicker skins, for most of us resilience is a skill that we need to learn and practice.

American psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has spent the last 30 years studying resiliency to understand why some people rebound after a setback and why others fall into a state of learned helplessness. He and his team at the University of Pennsylvania created the Penn Resiliency Program. They train businesses in resiliency and reduce the number of those who struggle in adversity and increase the number of those who grow.

Corporate leaders must first help employees build mental toughness. This requires recognizing their emotional response to failure is based solely on their own beliefs about what it means to fail. If they believe failure means not getting something right on the first try, they’ll stop trying. Being mentally tough means you know this moment is temporary and you have the emotional sophistication to shake off negative thoughts and try again.

Next, employees need to learn to recognize their unique strengths and how they make a positive contribution to the project or the organization. This helps give employees the confidence to innovate and push forward, even after temporary setbacks.

The last step is about changing the way we communicate and respond to our colleagues. Responding in an active and constructive way versus a passive or dismissive way will help them become more resilient. Think about the manager that merely says “Good work” in a performance review versus the one that praises specific achievements, their value and a worker’s personal growth. Employees of the second type of manager will rebound much quicker from a set back because they have an active and engaged relationship and can see their value.

The rapidly expanding global market is transforming the way we work and confronting organizations with an unprecedented pace of change.

Change can be a force of good, pushing individuals to learn and develop and driving organizations to evolve and grow. It can also become overwhelming for employees and businesses, if they are ill-prepared.

As leaders, we need to focus on equipping our employees with the resilience and the mental agility to adapt and thrive in this ever-changing world.

We all want to be happy, productive, successful and deliver incredible value to our customers and the people we work with. Our success is not guaranteed and our failures don’t need to define our careers. It’s our optimism and resilience that will help us respond positively to challenging situations and will give us the opportunity to dream big and push forward.

As leaders, we can help create resilient employees who can steer through change, pressure, uncertainty and ambiguity and have the coping strategies to manage stress, overcome setbacks and continue to innovate.