How To Have More Energy At Work: Building Professional Resilience
“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.” – Dean Becker
A version of this article first appeared in Legal-Island‘s Annual Review – (Ireland’s Employment Law Hub – the one-stop-shop for HR professionals) – (Author: Susan HayesCulleton)
How to have more energy at work: practicing resilience
A few weeks ago I managed a stand (consisting of myself and a colleague) at a consumer show. Anybody who has done this will know how mentally and physically exhausting it is.
When you’re behind a stand at an expo, you find yourself constantly interrupting people walking by, you run through your ten-second pitch a thousand times, you are rejected frequently and sometimes rudely, you have to deal with the tyre kickers, not to mention the pressure of needing to make it a success when you think of the vast amount of money that has been invested in the entire stand… all this for hours on end. To top it all, the show was taking place in the Dutch speaking area of Belgium… and I don’t speak Dutch. As you can imagine, I needed a lot of resilience that day.
Resilience is the capacity to mentally recover from draining experiences. When people say they are drained at the end of the day and they wish they had more energy at work, what they don’t know is that an understanding of resilience can help them build their resilience muscle and be more productive without the need to grit your teeth and tough it out.
Despite the amount of physical and mental energy we expended to run it, our stand came away with the best results of the entire exhibition. Did we simply charge on, stop everybody irrespective of their response and kept going “one more time” until the pain ended? No, it didn’t happen that way. Resilience can be learned and there is a method to the apparent madness. I would like to share my principles for improved resilience: why they work, and how they can be applied in a professional context to different individuals, teams or scenarios.
What should you measure to increase resilience and have more energy at work?
I can’t point to any research, academic or industrial, to prove a neat return on investment into increased resilience. The soft skill of resilience doesn’t lend itself to such measures as “For every $1 invested in resilience, then $x flows to the bottom line.”
However, just because we can’t measure this with a spreadsheet or profit and loss statement doesn’t mean that the relationship isn’t there. According to Cal Newport, “such metrics fall into an opaque region resistant to easy measurement – a region I call metric black hole” (from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World).
Just because it can’t be measured easily doesn’t mean it won’t make a noticeable difference. During that day, our resilience and constant efforts led to greater sales, higher productivity, increased lead generation and an overall higher return on investment.
Additionally, on an opportunity cost basis, by having more energy at work we reduced the need for the company to spend money seeking out and pursuing other marketing channels. It didn’t require transporting, accommodating and paying “fresh bodies” to take on the challenge when both of us would have run out of steam, thereby reducing staff turnover.
Finally, it was important that, as the more experienced team member, I demonstrate leadership to my colleague: if resilience can be learned, it can also be taught (preferably by example). There is an organised, efficient way of running a stand in such a scenario. As we worked alongside each other, my team mate was able to absorb my tacit knowledge and experience, building him up to do the same in my absence, and to subsequently demonstrate to others within the company how to do so. Enriching our bank of experiences also opens our minds to new challenges (“If I can survive this, then what else could I do and make a success of it?”)
Does building resilience have an impact? And what impact? We can’t directly or accurately answer the question, but we can certainly ask if there is a need for improvement. In “Tough at the Top”, Sarah Bond and Dr Gillian Shapiro questioned 835 British employees about their sources of resilience. Fig 1. clearly shows that employees feel their employers soak up a lot of their resilience without offering the resources to build it up. Whether this is reality or perception is irrelevant: we must seek to invert the results of this graph.
Fig 1 – Where do people get their resilience from? “Tough at the Top”, Bond and Shapiro, 2014
More energy at work also means not wasting the energy you have
A look at the research and at workforce answers confirms three things: resilience is important to deal with challenges, today’s workplace requires a lot of resilience, and people generally want to have more resilience. Are we short on resilience?
Resilience is often associated with “grit”, the ability to keep at it even though it might require effort. Not giving up at the first hurdle, or the fifteenth, demands willpower, and willpower is also a function of energy. Research into the mechanisms of willpower has shown that it’s a resource that can be depleted, explaining for example why most diets are broken in the evening. If resilience is linked to willpower, then increasing and improving resilience also means not wasting it.
To have more energy at work, the first thing you must do in any challenging endeavour is to identify whether resilience is required at all, before dipping into your reserves.
Let’s go back to my stand in Belgium. It’s simply preposterous to think that everybody who walks in the door of the exhibition hall is going to make a beeline for our booth, begging to be marketed to. The fact that they paid to be admitted to the expo qualifies them as leads, self-selecting into a marketing funnel.
Let’s keep in mind that they’re handing money over to be entertained and informed. It’s our job to do that at the stand, but it’s important to realise that not everybody is going to engage with our “entertainment and information” in the way that we would hope. As a result, rejection throughout the day is close to guaranteed. I used to find this awful! You invite people to come over to your booth, take some flyers, sign up for a special offer, etc. and they might ignore you, smile politely and say “no thank you” or reply with a smart comment. All of which makes retreating to a chair, the bathroom or a coffee dock remarkably attractive. In that scenario, I used to switch on my resilience engine and just fight through it.
I now take a totally different approach. I observe the results of our invitations to engage: how many positive responses do we get, out of ten interactions, in the first 30 minutes? Taking into account lunchtime or other “seasonal factors”, I use this as a gauge to anticipate the amount of engagement we are going to get, in comparison to the rejections. From that point on, I see every non-engagement as a stepping stone towards the next “Oh yes, I would be delighted to learn more”. In my mind, it doesn’t make any sense to draw on resilience reserves when the outcome is quite mathematical.
Albert Eilis’ ‘ABCD’ model is well articulated in “Building Resilience” (Seligman, 2011):
“C (emotional consequences) stem not directly from A (adversity) but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity). The sergeants work through a series of A’s (falling out of a three-mile run, for example) and learn to separate B’s—heat-of-the-moment thoughts about the situation (“I’m a failure”)—from C’s, the emotions generated by those thoughts (such as feeling down for the rest of the day and thus performing poorly in the next training exercise). They then learn D—how to quickly and effectively dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.”
The second thing to test in a professional scenario is whether the people in it are adequately trained and have access to adequate resources for the task. Rather than using resilience to find a way through an uncertain set of circumstances, we should ask whether they are prepared for the assignment. Do they know the sales techniques of inviting people to a stand? Are they clear on the call to action? Do they have the elements at hand to collect contact details, etc?
Similarly, when we say we are “tearing our hair out” trying to solve a problem, this is code for “using up vast quantities of resilience”. I have heard so many stories of people trying to make a budget balance or working out a simple calculation with several inputs, spending hours and hours looking for a solution. As an avid spreadsheet fan, my first reaction to their tale of woe is “Microsoft Excel could have saved you 99% of that bother”. If you want to have more energy at work, don’t be wasteful with resilience.
You would PREFER to have more energy at work
Notwithstanding the above solutions to leaving a resilience tank untouched, there are several times and places in our lives when we do need resilience and I’ve developed the following model, following the acronym PREFER. It is easily replicated and I invite you to try it.
P – Perspective
Our perspective on a situation often overrides the actual circumstances we’re presented with. In the famous words of Viktor E. Frankl, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” We must ask ourselves why we are undertaking a given activity, how the outcome can be varied by the degree of our involvement and to what extent this meets our objective.
Managing the stand in Belgium corresponded to several goals. I trust immensely in the value proposition of the company, and I knew this was an opportunity to offer people who didn’t know about it the chance to actively benefit from its offerings. I knew the expo was a most worthwhile chance to meet the business goals I had set with this team for the year. It was also a real time opportunity to demonstrate leadership to my colleague – in the near future he will be managing the stand on his own and training junior staff. The event was packed with meaning!
R – Resourcefulness
A key tenet of resilience is being able to improvise quickly and effectively with what’s available right now. To brainstorm my way out of several business pickles over the years, I’ve used the GROW model to great effect. Start with asking “What’s the Goal that we have in mind?”; this should be easy to answer, based on the previous step of the PREFER template. Next, consider the Realities of the situation: what’s holding you back from achieving your goal. Separate those realities into the “circle of influence” (what you have control over and can change) and the “circle of concern” (external factors that influence your situation but that, ultimately, you don’t have control over), as defined by Stephen Covey. Now, consider the Opportunities you have to surmount any and all of these obstacles, before settling on a practical plan showing you the “Way Forward”.
On several occasions during that show, I needed to switch tactics. During quiet periods, I used the time to tweet and use social media to generate digital traffic. I also took that time to check in with my colleague, informally mentor, motivate and reassure him. During steady times, I offered our leaflets to people passing by the stand smiling silently and when they engaged, I brought them right across to my colleague, who speaks Dutch, so that my lack of language didn’t inhibit the process.
During conversations in English, I asked a question that invariably prevents an easy getaway, in the case of a cynical lead: “Where do you live?” Everybody at the show lived somewhere, but the question also had a practical purpose beyond keeping the interaction going: we have regional workshops all over the country. As a result, from “Where do you live” it was easy to segue into the call to action: “Would you like to put your name down for a local free educational event?”
E – Exercise
To have more energy at work, you need to work on having more energy in general. Your body can soldier on a lot further – it’s your mind that can trip up your efforts with doubts and second guesses. Exerting your body also strengthens your mind, which is one of the main reasons I work out. A healthy body is more likely to be productive and resilient. There is another hidden benefit to working out at the gym: every time I have felt like walking out of a demanding fitness class, I decided to hang on in there until the end instead. In effect, I chose to stay thanks to the same resilience techniques outlined in this model. I know my body can handle it; the gym instructors are trained in safe fitness and our anatomy is built for these activities. I use these opportunities to engage my mind and when my mental strength needs a boost, I encourage myself to follow the example of my body. An exercise class is a comparatively small commitment: even if my heart is racing, I know there is a clear endpoint in sight. As a result, it’s the ideal environment to strengthen your resilience muscle through regular training.
In Belgium, as I would in a typical workout, I took regular breaks, kept myself hydrated, had good sleep the night before and reminded myself regularly that I had the physical and mental capability to continue throughout the day, until the very end, so the only question would be my willingness. And as for my willingness, the answer to sustaining it lies in my perspective.
F – Focus
Focusing on one thing at a time is non-negotiable. Multi-tasking simply does not work: it can lead to a 40% loss in productivity and to a 10-point decrease in IQ. What’s more, heavy multi-taskers are actually less competent at multi-tasking than occasional multi-taskers: that’s something you can’t train for.
Its impact on resilience is even worse. Distractions create a breeding ground for procrastination. This can lead to pushing tasks out substantially, especially those tasks that do require resilience precisely because we find them challenging. Procrastination is multi-tasking in and of itself, since it triggers that nagging voice reminding us of what we should be doing: we are trying to do one thing (the distraction), while simultaneously thinking about the task we are not doing but should be, and trying to silence these thoughts.
All these drain our resources of willpower and ultimately resilience: resilience has much to do with our self-belief and with the confidence that we have what it takes to succeed, even in difficult conditions. Procrastination undermines that confidence: we have to ask for extensions on deadlines, which damage our reputation (especially in our own eyes), we end up delivering rushed work that is not up to standards, and we can’t fail to acknowledge that we wasted potentially productive time.
In Belgium, I switched off every other aspect of my businesses. I didn’t look at e-mail, I didn’t think about other marketing projects nor check in with other members of other teams. I simply focused on yielding the best results that I could, for the client, the company and my colleague. By focusing you reduce distractions: removing this huge drain on your mental resources will contribute to having more energy at work.
E – Emotional leverage points
In Deep Work, Cal Newport refers to “emotional leverage points” as a technical term for what we would generally call “seeking out the positives”. This is a very powerful resilience-building technique. This ability, far from being the stuff of fluffy motivational talk, is often a matter of survival. It becomes progressively more important the more challenging the situation becomes or the more people who are looking to you for leadership.
In Belgium, there was a plethora of positives! We were directly in front of our target market, our offering had enormous potential for them and we had the opportunity to meet with people who could become part of our commercial community. I learned mindfulness years ago and practice it all the time. I always enjoy being immersed in another culture, observing nuances and questioning my own assumptions. I thoroughly enjoy visiting Belgium, the immensely varied nature of what I do and meeting our clients in person. I simply needed to be mindful of the positive points throughout the day when I needed some resilience; I could use those positives to offset the doubts and negative thoughts triggered by stressful or challenging situations.
R – Recharge
In the words of Achor and Gielan, “Homeostasis is a fundamental biological concept describing the ability of the brain to continuously restore and sustain well-being.” True recovery is essential to homeostasis: without the ability to completely disconnect from work at times, we lose the ability to give it our all when we are at work. Some companies are even paying their staff a bonus to take a vacation. For example, AirBnB gives employees $500 of credit to use on trips to properties on their site on a quarterly basis. Others, like Baremetrics, enforce a rigid “minimum vacation policy” to make sure that their staff really do take at least 4 weeks off (compare this to the customary two weeks in the US). This time off gives your personnel the change to rejuvenate and come back to work with more energy, new ideas, higher productivity and with tip top resilience.
In Belgium, I ensured that we both had a solid lunch hour that was taken completely separate to the booth, and during predictably quiet periods when there was very little chance that either of us would need to be called back in an emergency. In addition, I soaked up some of that Belgian culture in the evenings to sample their cuisine, enjoy some fabulous local accommodation and a few relaxing early nights, so that I returned home soon into the week-end, to enjoy the work-life balance that I value so highly since it enables me to be ready for the next adventure.
More energy, right to the end
At the end of the consumer trade show day, all of the other stands had cleared up and left. I took the last batch of flyers and stood at the exit. I smiled and bid farewell to everybody leaving – and ensured that each person had some of our branding in their hands before they left. My colleague and the organiser wondered how I could possibly be still standing, fresh and enthusiastic, after everybody else had walked away exhausted. My answer was that I PREFER my way of doing things!
Are you on the list?