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The Human Factors That Build Resilience

With remote workforces here to stay, here’s how companies can help their employees collaborate more effectively.

By Jan Meyer, Lauren Bidwell, Lauren Gibbons Paul | 10 min read

You can’t attain the digital transformation that will power your next big innovation unless your people possess critical datacentric skills. But while it’s clear that technical skills will remain important, experts say organizations also need to develop and nurture innately human capabilities like resilience, emotional intelligence, and curiosity to try new things.


Employers used to consider these attributes secondary to technical and analytical prowess. But such “soft” skills have been rising in importance as companies in many industries implement digital transformations that enable organizations to pivot as conditions change. A recent KPMG survey of U.S. CEOs found a majority believe that the pandemic has accelerated their digital transformation efforts by months or even years.


In short, the need to operate in an environment of change will not wane. Organizations need people who can continue to collaborate, even as their goals or tasks shift and then shift again. And business leaders are now actively seeking to grow the qualities that will help their employees thrive amid uncertainty.


The enduring human faculties of empathy, problem-solving, and experimentation are now more important than ever, says Kira Gerbron, senior manager of learning and leadership practice at Deloitte. But there’s good news: shoring up these things will increase your employees’ overall ability to learn. “If you invest in capabilities that are innately human, you can build other types of skills faster,” says Gerbron.


How can you grow these capabilities in your employees? Try these three approaches.



Emphasize empathy to encourage resilience

Right now, the most important thing you can do to build the resilience of your workforce is to practice active empathy – to listen, understand, and respond to employee feedback with constructive action. This is a clear signal coming from workforce resilience research by Qualtrics, an SAP company. Its survey of more than 17,000 workers says two-thirds of people want to be listened to right now, and engagement is up to 90% when the employer takes meaningful action based on that feedback.


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Listening takes on heightened importance because so many employees are not in the office. When so much work is remote, managers have to plan for more interaction with employees than in a traditional environment, says Janis Coco, senior director of culture and leadership development at Commonwealth Care Alliance. In the absence of the informal in-person encounters that used to be part of our work lives, even the most resilient employees need positive reinforcement and help with problem-solving. And they benefit from clear expectations. Managers should plan to reach out to employees at least once a week, if not once a day, Coco says. The conversations don’t need to be long – 15 minutes is good – but they need to be of quality, with the manager doing most of the listening.


“In this environment, we need people to be very self-motivated and self-directed and disciplined,” says Coco, but that doesn’t mean you can skip touching base and carving out space for longer one-on-one time. In addition, Gerbron says, it helps for managers to solicit feedback on their performance. “You want to see how your employees are feeling, ask for feedback on how you’re doing. Make sure your people are okay and feel supported,” says Gerbron.


These ongoing interactions are important, as overload and burnout are very real results from the blurring of work and home life so many experienced, along with a lack of childcare and shuttered schools that prevailed during the pandemic. In this context, leaders must work to develop strong and healthy norms around work-life balance and serve as role models. They can lead by disconnecting regularly, making time to exercise, using paid time off, and stopping work at a reasonable hour. These moves help create an environment where people feel work is not taking over their lives. And such an environment will help people develop their reservoirs of resilience.

Leaders can demonstrate healthy norms around work-life balance by disconnecting regularly, making time to exercise, using paid time off, and stopping work at a reasonable hour. 

Resilience, described in the dictionary as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” is more complex than you might think. It has seven essential ingredients, according to expert Andrew Shatté, who has studied resilience for more than 30 years, co-writing a book on the subject and co-founding two companies, including meQuilibrium, which provides an on-demand application that helps boost individual resilience. Resilience includes calmness under pressure, impulse control, the ability to solve problems, a level of self-efficacy, realistic optimism, empathy, and a “growth mindset” that drives the person to look for opportunities.


We can measure and develop an individual’s native resilience, Shatté says. His company’s software application administers a brief assessment that examines a person’s propensity to experience emotions such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. The application then provides highly individualized quick exercises targeted at overcoming what Shatté calls “mental traps that get in the way of resilience.”


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Difficult experiences change people, he says. “When people go through adversity like COVID-19, threats to the democracy, or social unrest, about one-third come out exactly as they went in, one-third will come out scarred, and one-third will come out stronger than they were before,” says Shatté. How people think about themselves and their world, the causes of the event, and their beliefs about how the world should be – all of which are habits – will determine which third they emerge in.


“Each group develops habits and thinking styles that either promote resilience or inhibit it,” Shatté says. The meQuilibrium application “teaches compensatory skills to help people get around habits that get in the way of resilience,” he says.


People develop the habit of responding to the world with a “signature” emotion, such as anger, frustration, or anxiety. Shatté says recognizing one’s signature emotional pattern and testing whether it’s warranted can help people avoid getting caught in a mental trap that hinders their resilience. This is what his platform seeks to do.




Nurture people’s emotional intelligence

Going forward, work on nurturing emotional intelligence in employees and managers. First coined in 1995 by author Daniel Goleman, the term “emotional intelligence,” or EQ (for emotional quotient), refers to the ability to understand one’s own and others’ emotions and take them into account. Without a doubt, it is a human’s most innate capability. EQ levels vary widely, but it’s still possible for individuals and teams to develop emotional intelligence.


The paint manufacturer Sherwin Williams made this important discovery years ago, as recounted in a 2001 Harvard Business Review article by Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff. A group of managers at the paint manufacturer was starting a new initiative that would require higher levels of teamwork. Before a consultant arrived to help, the group members met to assess their strengths and weaknesses as a team. “They found that merely articulating the issues was an important step toward building their capabilities,” the authors write. The experience prepared them to collaborate.

To help people become more adaptable, leaders can step back from telling workers exactly what to do and how. Instead, they can observe employees perform and provide support as needed. 

By getting employees to pay attention to their own work styles and those of their coworkers – and by practicing this themselves – managers can step back. Rather than use the classic “command-and-control” management style, when the boss tells you exactly what to do and how to do it and jumps in if things go differently than expected, managers can observe employees perform and provide support as necessary. “Say less and ask more – this helps the employee learn, and it is what’s needed in a time of complexity and uncertainty,” says Coco.


It’s a way for employees to learn how to do their jobs better – and to absorb that lesson for future jobs too. As the world continues to evolve, the idea is to equip your workforce to unlearn and relearn new skills and capabilities quickly and effectively, adds Kamran Malik, global learning practice leader at EY. “You need to create people who can get better at getting better.”


To get there, leaders need to display authenticity and flex their adaptive skills to help their teams deal with today’s uncertainty and tomorrow’s business conditions. “We’re all in the same situation and having to stretch a different set of skills and capabilities we do not ordinarily use,” says Malik.




Encourage experimentation

Going forward, look for people – both within your workforce and among job candidates – who naturally seek out new information and new ways of doing things. People who show an enthusiasm for learning and an inclination for experimentation contribute a lot of value to the organization.


A manager’s job is to be alert for people who are naturally curious and create an environment where that curiosity has a safe place to thrive. This means building a culture in which people (even those who are not naturally curious) feel free to experiment without fear of repercussions if their efforts fail.


You should also get into the habit of helping employees communicate lessons learned about experiments that succeed and fail. It is important not just to congratulate people whose ideas have paid off but to deconstruct ideas that did not work and explore why. These examinations can show everyone what experimentation looks like and help build a trusting culture by demonstrating that failure does not lead to punishment. Of course, this is more easily achievable in teams, as hierarchy in large organizations decreases the sense of safety. It is quite likely team members will feel more comfortable to speak out and experiment within their groups than on a wider corporate stage.

One way to encourage experimentation is to deconstruct ideas that did not work and explore why. These examinations can demonstrate that failures are learning opportunities – and not occasions for punishment. 

A trusting environment also cultivates people’s openness to new experiences. This is important. People willing to seek out novel experiences have more to draw on when working with new situations, learning new technologies and business processes, or dealing with uncertainty. Curious people are more likely to seek out mentors and connect with others inside and outside the organization, even when all work is remote. Shatté, the resiliency expert, calls this a “growth mindset” – the ability to see the opportunities latent in a difficult or uncertain situation.


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These qualities – resilience, emotional intelligence, and experimentation – will be essential as organizations emerge from the pandemic, digital transformations continue at many companies, and other change-intensive moves pick up.


That’s because succeeding at transformation is not only about technology decisions. It’s about the mindset of the organization. Leaders need to provide the right environment and the means for their people to dare to do something different. It’s not just “How do I install the system?” It’s rethinking new ways of doing things, to be allowed to fail and then to improve. All the state-of-the-art software in the world will not do what it was intended to do if your employees are not ready to adapt and change. The ability to perform in this way depends on the characteristics innate to your people.


Cultivating soft skills is a new point of emphasis for some managers – and for corporate leaders too. In the recent past, members of the C-suite shared a common perception: that people’s ability to adapt and demonstrate resilience were talents they possessed, not skills to be learned. Now, leaders are recognizing these are skills that people can develop over time, says Konstantinos Takos, head of people and organization consulting at PwC Greece.


As managers develop these skills in their people, Takos says it’s important to resist the urge measure them. “That will come later. For the short term, it’s more important to redirect your focus and energy towards finding the right change agents that can make a disproportionate impact to your organization’s transformation and upskilling journey,” Takos says.

One way to elevate employee engagement and productivity is to give them personalized, seamless, supportive experiences that mimic what they’re used to as consumers, according to Eric Bokelberg, an HR innovation consultant at IBM. For example, one financial services company he worked with built an employee-focused enterprise app that combines all employee services in a single, intuitive interface. In this kind of model environment, people can open tickets for any type of request (such as facilities, HR, or IT) through a virtual agent. They can connect with other employees who have common interests and access other services like wellness, employee assistance, and benefits. “It’s designed to offer an experience that is tailored to the employee,” says Bokelberg.

Meet the Authors

Jan Meyer
SVP, Head of Learning Systems | SAP

Lauren Bidwell
Applied Psychologist & Product Strategy Researcher | SAP SuccessFactors

Lauren Gibbons Paul
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

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