Resilience Is About Strong Networks

05 May, 2021
by Natascha Zeljko

“It’s not about who’s stronger or weaker, but people’s circumstances.” To Thomas Wetzel, Business Unit Manager Training and Coaching at Hager Unternehmensberatung, resilience in a crisis means more than just soldiering on

There's been a lot of talk about resilience lately. Like most fashionable terms that become buzzwords, it's often vague. So let's start with a definition of the term. What exactly does resilience mean?

From my point of view, resilience means a healthy capacity to resist the unpredictability of life. I find buzzwords highly interesting. They often describe processes or principles that have been in place for a long time. Suddenly, people start talking about something and bam, it gets a fancy term. The buzzword is ready.

Especially in crises like the one we are currently experiencing, this unpredictability increases. In other words, resilience becomes an important resource. How do you stay optimistic?

I would recommend changing your perspective, developing a so-called bird's eye view, and looking back at your history: What has gone well in the past? You will find that many positive things come to mind. It's also important to have a realistic assessment of this situation. Yes, times are tough. But if you compare them with other challenging periods, the circumstances were generally so much worse. After the war, for example, the task was to rebuild. Without funds, without infrastructure: everything had been destroyed. And there were no social security systems to cushion the hardships. What does all this mean for us today? As I understand it, it's all about developing a healthy pragmatism. It's true that many people are not doing well at the moment, but the conditions for a new start are better than ever. Even if you've lost your job, but you’re healthy, you can get right back to work. Maybe at a different job, with different challenges. But life goes on. 

Few people like change, most people are afraid of it. 

That's right. People are attached to the status quo. The truth is that we are very slow to try new things. We only ever do it in response to external cues. We are not physiologically designed to change proactively at all. The energy consumption of our brain is very high, we burn 20 percent of our calories during sleep alone. So we are not programmed to overexert ourselves.

We are at a critical point. The last few years and decades have always been uphill (except for a few dents), but now we're facing different scenarios of existential threats. How are people reacting to this?

I do not share your opinion on this point. I think what has changed these days is our awareness: the problems were already looming before, we just blanked them out. Technological developments have caused some shifts in the world of work. For example, what do we do about the jobs that are being eliminated by artificial intelligence? What do we do about the people who are being replaced by new technologies? Corona was just the turning point that ruthlessly exposed existing difficulties.  

Fair point. Let's talk about companies. What can managers do to strengthen their teams at such a time?

Managers have to adapt too, because they have to deal with the realities of the pandemic as much as anyone else. What makes their situation different, however, is that they often live in a rather privileged environment. Also, they're usually a little more experienced because they're older; and since they're in a different phase of their lives, they no longer have to contend with homeschooling or closed daycare centers, unlike younger employees. But here is precisely what their duty is about. Supervisors should put themselves in the shoes of these younger colleagues, show empathy. In these times, more than ever, it's about genuine compassion and genuine interest. So the question "How are you?" should be meant seriously.

Do managers even have to be over-resilient compared to most?

I don’t like the prefix over. It implies "too much," as in eager versus over-eager. An excess of resilience, with people getting so relaxed that they could forget to breathe. I believe that you’re either resilient or you’re not. But as a leader, what matters is to be a good role model, to take care of yourself – then you can take care of your team.

What can companies do to make the employees themselves more resilient?

It’s crucial to use resources intelligently. For example, to ensure that people take breaks. Companies realize this now. Two of my clients have made it impossible to schedule appointments back-to-back, even on a technical level. The IT department has programmed the calendar settings so that there must be a 15-minute break between meetings. You could say that a new sense of responsibility is starting to emerge among companies, in terms of fiduciary duty. After all, just because people are working remotely doesn't mean executives can abandon their fiduciary duty towards them. Quite the opposite. In this context, it’s interesting to note that we are no longer reluctant to talk about letting people work from home. Tracking has shown that employees are actually doing more rather than less. However, I doubt that the quality of their work has improved as well.

And what can individuals do to overcome crises better?

Support networks and social relationships have an enormous impact. They determine how hard the blow will hit you. People who have a good environment around them, who are stable and at peace with themselves, endure difficult situations better than people who are already overwhelmed by everyday life. This means that the difference is not who's stronger or weaker, more or less resilient, but people's circumstances. To a large extent, they define for how long a difficult situation can be overcome. Another important factor in improving your resilience is the ability to regenerate, to take responsibility for yourself, and to reflect on your actions. Here, too, the pandemic has held up a mirror to us. We have learned all at once that in evolutionary terms, we’re not made to sit around a cave fire for sixteen hours. Sometimes we need to take a step back, go our own way. Our social relationships are being put to the test right now. For example, in relationships where both partners work from home, children need to be cared for and educated. Perhaps there are other relatives in need of care, and they can't take visits. These psychological factors create such incredible pressure that at some point even the most robust person will break down.

How important is exercise? As we've all read again and again, exercise is crucial for mental stability.

We are made to move, but unfortunately we move too little. As a result, the entire body suffers and we don't feel good. Resilience decreases. It’s interesting to look into martial arts such as Tai Chi and Qigong, or even Yoga. In Asian philosophies, it’s always about a balance between body and mind, and maintaining the flexibility of the body for as long as possible. But that doesn't mean that you should overdo it. No one needs to run marathons to improve their mental health, or cycle 20 kilometers a day, or climb every mountain – unless they consciously want to push their limits. Excess is a problem too. I've had participants in my classes report fatigue fractures in the pelvis from their triathlon training. That's not healthy. These are additional stressors that cause the opposite of resilience.

We've talked about resilience in people. Let's take this to another level: What makes a resilient company?

I think that comparison is beautiful because it's accurate. It's a different dynamic with companies, but the principle is the same. A firm is an organism that is shaped by its environment. In this sense, it's like a person, and the same rules apply. Just like an individual, a company is exposed to changes and fluctuations. In my case, for example, the training area of my business has declined, because it is primarily based on face-to-face contact. On the other hand, personnel consulting orders are going through the roof at the moment. That means you always have to keep an eye on things: How are circumstances changing and how do we adapt to them? To give you an example, the sales force field has almost completely disappeared due to the pandemic. Key account management has gone digital. What’s going to happen to all the field sales staff? Of course, there will still be a need for in-person contact. But you will increasingly encounter customers who say, "Let's do this quickly via Zoom."

Last question: Are there certain traits in people that suggest resilience? For example, is there a correlation between communication skills or humor and resilience?

I don't think you can frame it that easily, that there’s such a simple correlation. Of course, one could assume that people who are humorous, communicative and extroverted are likely to have many social contacts and a larger network – which promotes resilience. But that doesn't mean that the quieter introverts who just want some tranquility, and enjoy being alone, can't be just as resilient.

This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and Hager Unternehmensberatung. The company, which specializes in executive search, has repeatedly been named one of the best personnel consultancies in Germany by the magazines WirtschaftsWoche and Focus. Hager Unternehmensberatung employs around 110 people and, in addition to its extensive know-how in the field of digitalization, is also considered a specialist in issues relating to diversity and innovation.

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