Understanding Resilience

In late October 2018 I was a pedestrian in Toronto and was hit by a car turning right on a red light. I experienced a fractured tibial plateau on my left leg and couldn’t walk. The severe pain kicked in on the ride to the ER at Sunnybrook, our nearest hospital. The admitting experience was largely very well organized and my care was well managed.

After plates and pins surgery a few days later, I was bed-bound for a couple of days and then up with a walker and toe-touch weight-bearing at 25% for 6 weeks. It was a challenging time with pain to be managed and sleep to be enabled, and the inevitable thoughts about the future: When will I be back to normal? Able to take a shower myself? Able to stand long enough in the kitchen to cook a meal? Able to get outside? Able to walk long distances for enjoyment and exercise?

As I travelled the road to recovery, I began to think about the all-important support from friends and family. I decided to tune into the idea of resilience to understand it better and to get a good sense of where my own resilience comes from, so that I could focus and strengthen it. I have been thinking a lot lately about mortality – my own and that of my husband of 51 years – wondering with some degree of concern how I would manage alone. This may be related to the fact that this, my 72nd year, is exactly the age when my mother, now 97, was widowed herself and I am now marveling at how well she has managed her 25 years of being on her own.

As the days and weeks of my recovery progressed and I found myself less dependent on others for simple things like a meal and a shower, as well as emotional support, I tuned into my own resilience and tracked not only how I felt at different moments of the experience but also how I reacted to others.

I have concluded that resilience for me has 3 tracks. The first is a large degree of what Seligman (1990) called Learned Optimism, the opposite of his earlier work on Learned Helplessness (1972). Learned Optimism is a glass half full approach, a sense of hopefulness, feelings of upbeatness, or whatever it might be called. Learned Optimism, says Seligman and others, is learning to be hopeful about the future, no matter how difficult the present seems to be. Choosing to focus on the positives in a situation is a skill that comes more easily to some people than others. How you interpret the facts about a particular situation is what matters to your ability to deal with what comes your way in a manner that is useful and increases quality of life. Positive situational focusing helps and often it is in the eye of the beholder.

The second factor in my experiences of resilience is Support and how the love and care of family and friends helps each of us to find our measure of optimism, hopefulness, and trust in a positive future. The relationship between resilience and support is an interesting one. From the friends who brought a cup of cappuccino and stayed to talk for a while, others who sent or delivered food, books and good wishes, to our kids and their families who arranged to deliver pre-cooked dinners from a nearby food emporium, the support was much appreciated from both a practical and an emotional level. Practically it helped us with the day-to-day challenges that I could not manage. Emotionally, it helped me to feel loved and cared for which likely helps healing.

And third in my arsenal for resilience is something about being able to Measure Progress in a forward direction with a goal of getting to a state that is valued, which for me at this time was mobility and independence. Little things mean a lot when you are measuring progress. Being able to walk down the hall for the first time, reducing the amount of analgesics that are required to manage pain, sleeping more than 3 or 4 hours, getting an appetite back, setting up an appointment with a physiotherapist – all these help with measuring forward progress which in turn helps to engender a sense of optimism and feelings of a positive future.

It was an interesting time, now largely resolved. I will continue to look at the concept of resilience both in myself and in others, and see if this idea of optimism, support and measuring progress holds up in other situations. And I will consider what other concepts might be operating in other situations requiring resilience.

Micromanagement and Humble Inquiry

I have been hearing a lot about “micromanagement” lately in my coaching work with 360° LPIs (Leadership Practices Inventories) where invited Observers are asked a series of questions regarding the Leaders’ behaviours that either support them or detract from their learning, their self-concept as professionals and thus, their job satisfaction. In a series of interviews with professionals in another organization with retention issues, the issue of “micromanagement” surfaced with regard to a leader whose knowledge, expertise and meticulousness led to her team’s sense of being “overpowered’ and disrespected by her tendencies to “micromanage” others.

In the context of business management, “micromanagement” is defined as a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls the work of his/her subordinates or employees. In a 10.16.2017 Fast Company newsletter piece titled: ”Stress is making you micromanage, which is making everything worse”, the author, Caterina Kostoula discusses the effects of being micromanaged on health, creativity, retention and productivity and asks the reader to consider why there is a need to micromanage, what is the source of anxiety that is leading to the behaviour. She suggests a number of ways to understand and curb the tendency.

Both these experiences and readings have brought me to Ed Schein’s 2013 Humble Inquiry text, which is about the art of questioning, rather than telling. In today’s social organizational climate no one wants to be told, least of all highly educated professionals of any age who believe that their education and expertise ensures they will be treated with respect as the knowledge workers they are. Ed Schein is a thought leader who has maintained his interest, involvement and noted expertise in the world of people, organizations and culture for 60+ years. He is 90 years old, a former professor in The Sloan School of Management, a master in organizational culture and leadership and still a powerful force in the organizational development world.

There are different forms of Humble Inquiry outlined in the text and there are a few commonalities among them.
1. Humble Inquiry implies a desire to build a relationship with colleagues that will lead to more open communication and greater feelings of teamwork, trust and mutual respect.
2. It implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and thereby, arouses positive helping behaviour to the other person. It is about an attitude of interest and curiosity.
3. Humble Inquiry is necessary if we want to build a relationship beyond rudimentary civility, because we may find ourselves in various kinds of interdependencies in which open, task-relevant information must be conveyed across status boundaries.
4. It is only by learning to be more humbly inquiring that we can build up the mutual trust needed to work together and open up communication channels.

It is likely that in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous organizational world of today, it is easy to fall into the trap of micromanaging to avoid the anxiety of not knowing. By better understanding our discomfort with highly uncertain outcomes, we may get better at identifying and understanding a tendency to micromanage – and by the way, this tendency may be seen by others before we are able to see it ourselves. The next necessary step is to identify the behaviours that are deemed by others to be micromanaging. The final and very important step is to successfully learn the art of Humble Inquiry and to use it whenever we feel the urge to take the lead away from others to dispel our own discomfort.

With thanks to Ed Schein, Caterina Kostoula, Fast Company and a series of online summarizing authors from sites such as Agile Jottings.

Thinking about Occam’s Razor

While watching an episode of Madame Secretary the other night, I was interested to hear the main character mention Occam’s Razor as she wrestled with a complex issue and the need to get at the variables, understand them and make decisions about how to proceed. Knowing my interest in complexity and complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory, a friend told me about Occam’s Razor awhile ago. I had never come across it before, despite lots of reading about complexity and complex systems – obviously not reading the right things, Ann! Thanks.

Wikipedia tells us that Occam’s Razor (which is also sometimes written as Ockham’s Razor) is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham in the 13th C – believe it or not. William was a respected English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian.

The principle of Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses which predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove to provide better predictions, but—in the absence of major differences – the fewer assumptions that are made, the better – according to the theory.

Called also the Law of Parsimony, it tells us to KISS or keep it simple, and not over-complicate. This of course makes a lot of sense and it also reminds us to quantify, qualify and verify our assumptions. Wikipedia goes on to say “ For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are better testable and falsifiable.”

The fact that we are still considering William of Ockham’s ideas, 7 centuries later boggles the mind, and makes me question how much more we know or don’t know today than we did centuries ago.

It also makes me wonder about the fit between Occam’s Razor and complex adaptive systems’ theory. This is for another time.