Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Essay - resilience and the need for slack in an overstressed world


Such a little thing, really. Youngest pranged her car. She was okay, no one else was injured, but it really threw me.

The photo shows the car outside our old house just after it was purchased. She was so proud of it.

The episode got me musing on the importance pf resilience, the capacity to bounce back, to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune.

I don't know about you, but I find that when I'm under pressure or stress I can cope and cope and cope. Then, suddenly, I fall in a heap, unable to recover or respond. In the most extreme cases, I can lose the ability to make even simple decisions.

Clare's car was a case in point. I had been dealing with something else, then I suddenly had to drop things to go to pick her up. Suddenly, I was struggling to cope.

Quite a bit of the personal and professional writing I do is concerned in one way or another with resilience.

My suggestion that the Australian PM was struggling to establish that small island of calm that she needed to properly manage events is a case in point. Without it, she had no choice but to just keep reacting and reacting and reacting. My recent writing on management and competition is another example. Stressed organisations lose their capacity to respond in the best way to events around them.

Our personalities vary. In my case I have come to place stress on resilience because I have a somewhat driven personality that draws strength from enthusiasm.

I can sometimes do remarkable things as a consequence. Yet it's also true that that enthusiasm can become a weakness, leading me to over-extend. Worse, if enthusiasm or joy goes, then I can operate effectively for periods, but only for periods. Suddenly I collapse.

Some years ago I was working on a cabinet submission setting out proposals that my then minister, John Button (and here), was to take to cabinet on the development of the Australian communications equipment industry. It was an important submission because it aimed to set the industry on an international growth trajectory. It was also one of a suite of policy measures that we had been pushing with considerable success, measures that tested the bounds of conventional thinking.

That afternoon I was sitting in my office finalising the document for circulation to other departments for coordination comments. I was working under a very tight deadline because the submission needed to be lodged with the Cabinet Office later that week.

Our Deputy Secretary came into my office to tell me that unknown to me one of my senior colleagues had persuaded the Departmental chief that we needed to go a different route. I was instructed to redraft accordingly. I just looked at Alan and burst into tears.

Tired, under pressure, unexpectedly defeated, I could no longer cope. I knew that the revised approach was not going to deliver the expected results, I knew that I should try to find a way to fight back, but I just couldn't do it. We did a scissors and paste job and got the submission out, but the joy had gone.

We live in a world today marked by increased tension and pressure. We also live in a world of unreal expectations.

At an organisational level, we set objectives that in total across industries cannot be delivered, yet we mandate that delivery through performance agreements and reporting requirements. We cut corners to get the immediate outcomes, knowing that longer term problems must result. But then, we probably won't be there in the longer term!

At personal level, we are exposed to constant expectations about what we should eat, how we should look, how we should perform, what we should achieve, what we should possess. Failure is inevitable, as is tension and distress. The simple idea of cutting people some slack, of accepting what is, is lost in the haze of what should be.

We were talking at work the other day about the rise of depression. This has become a national problem in this country, especially in the professions. It is also a problem that I understand to some degree because depression is the opposite side of the mirror to enthusiasm.

The rise in depression is a simple reflection of the loss of resilience in our society, our organisations and at personal level. We are losing the ability to cope, to bounce back.

I have no solution to this problem.

At a professional level, I can do something in a practical sense by tailoring my advice and also the way I manage to try to compensate. This was not something I had to cope with when I first became a manager. Then my aim was to get the best results from my people. Now my aim has to be to take stress away, to support and help so that people can actually do their jobs.

At a personal level, I find it hard to avoid becoming caught. It's not just the lists I do, nor the desire to achieve or to improve. It's far worse than that.

We live in a judgemental world.

Last October my hair turned completely white almost overnight. Suddenly, and for the first time, I found myself worrying about my age, about the way that people were perceiving my physical appearance. I found myself sensitive about photographs, about the way I looked. It was suggested to me that I should shave my head, get my eye brows tinted, to ease the impression of age. I actually did the first on convenience grounds, but not the second.  

As we grow older, our abilities change.

I can no longer play tennis in quite the same way, although I still enjoy the game. I get far more aches and pains than I used to. I cannot maintain quite the same sustained working pace. And yet, I can do things that I could not do even ten years ago. People I work with are constantly surprised at just how fast I can do things. It's just a matter of applied experience, of skills.

I know this, I know that I should not worry about my age, but it's hard to break free. We are all conditioned whether we like it or not. The practical effect is reduced resilience; it becomes harder to cope.

As I said, I don't have a solution to the problem. But more and more I feel that the simple idea of building in some slack - slack in organisations, slack in society, slack in personal relations -  is the thing that has to be got across.

Just as I in managing people or activities must now aim to take stress away, to give people some peace and freedom so that they can do their jobs, so society has a whole has to find a way to do the same thing. Without this, the systemic problems now built into Australian life will simply get worse.  


Evan said...

I think depressionis anger turned inwards. You can check this out - when you are depressed see if you are angry, express it and observe if the depression doesn't diminish to the extent the anger is expressed.

So the way forward is constructive expression of the anger - not easy, but it is a way forward.

Anonymous said...

Evan that's an interesting take. I'll have to think about that.

For me an ordinary, healthy life means always having a fully formed, viable 'Plan B' whereas to be depressed means your Plan B consists basically of the thought "why bother?"

A thousand word treatise condensed to bypass Jim's spam catcher, but I'll think about your theory.


Jim Belshaw said...

The problem with having a plan b, kvd, is two fold. When things are going well you don't need it. When things are going badly, it's all too hard!

Rod said...

Interesting timing for this post Jim,

On my blog you wished me a quick recovery for illness (which included surgery). The bit I didn't mention was that I was found to have an episode of depression and panic attacks following a prolonged period of stress at work.

I have been very resilient up until a point where there was 'a straw that broke the camels back".

I certainly read your post with interest.

Anonymous said...

Jim, you mentioned your cat ate your homework the other day, but it might just be that this is the least of your problems:

- a fascinating, if long, read...

I hope the coming week brings more balance to your endeavours.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thinking further about your point, Evan, I'm sot sure that's right. I think that it depends upon the way that anger is expressed.

That's interesting Rod. I hope that you are looking after yourself now!

Facinating piece, kvd, given that we have two cats! Now I have something else to blame.

Rummuser said...

Synchronicity! I have been mentoring a young entrepreneur and the latest thrust has been on resilience. I have borrowed heavily from Diane Coutu in the Harvard Business Review in my chats as well as

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, Ramana. That book looks interesting.