Maureen Metcalf and Belinda Gore
This article takes a look at resilience through an integral lens. We will explore how we define it, how we applied it to a client project, our findings, and our analysis.
Our objective in writing this article is to contribute to the literature of applied integral theory about leadership development through sharing our learnings. These theories, and our application of them, are a work in process. We (Maureen Metcalf and Belinda Gore) have been teaching resilience using an evolving approach for several years. The initial work was developed and delivered by Belinda and used at MeadWestvaco, a global packaging company, which was moving the operations of a plant from Ohio to Mexico. We have continually refined the initial materials and they have become an important building block for our resilience training and coaching, as well as an important part of how we talk about leadership and the skills we help our leadership clients develop. We hope that others can learn from our experience as we continue to gain knowledge ourselves through this process.
As leaders we must remain flexible in the face of change and the unknown. In the process we evolve to better fit our shifting economic and technological environment while maintaining our focus on vision and long term goals. We believe healthy leadership development means that leaders, in the midst of continual change, actually change themselves as well as their organizations.
Several studies, including a book written by Daniel Todd Gilbert entitled Stumbling on Happiness, support the idea that, after a period of adjustment, we return to our prior level of happiness no matter what happens to us. In order for this to happen, it is helpful to take a broad perspective and remember that what we are going through is part of larger cycles, and that whatever we are feeling (good or bad) will pass.
In engineering terms, resilience is measured as how much disturbance a system can absorb before it breaks down. In leadership terms, we define it as the ability to adapt in the face of multiple changes while continuing to persevere toward strategic goals. In our very dynamic work environments we, as leaders, must build resilience in ourselves as well as in our employees.
Leader resilience focuses on the leader as a person. It is a subtle distinction, but the underlying thought is this: as a leader, I need to be personally healthy and strong to do a good job in my leadership role. If I am unhealthy as a person, I am unable to lead effectively.
Case Study Company Profile
MeadWestvaco, a global packaging company operating in 30 countries, is known for its brands in healthcare, personal and beauty care, food, beverage, media and entertainment, and home and garden industries. The company employs 22,000 people worldwide and serves customers in 100 nations. In 2009, an effort to strategically reduce costs and overhead included plans to close its MWV Calmar facility, a pump and dispensing manufacturing and distribution operation located in Washington Court House, Ohio.
The company consolidated production and equipment with San Luis Potosi and moved from Washington Court House to Monterey, Mexico. As an outside contractor Potosi offered more seamless scalability and featured more advanced production equipment and processes.
Calmar had been a longtime, sizable employer in the southern Ohio town of Washington Courthouse, employing 334 people, many of them members of the same families. Plant closings of this size in a rural area impact the lives of workers and their families as well as the economic stability of the entire town.
Thomas Payton, Human Resources Manager, Calmar, Inc., had been working on his master’s degree with a specific focus on developing hardiness and resilience for employees. With this insight, Payton sought Metcalf & Associates’ help to plan for the closing, including providing support and transition for the employees.
“I was looking for an organization to help facilitate the process of closing the plant and specifically the human resource issues that we were facing. We chose Metcalf & Associates because of their experience in building resilience among employees,” explained Payton.
“I had a good relationship with employees and the union, and also knew that bringing in someone from outside the company had benefits,” noted Payton.
We worked with Payton and the plant manager to develop a plan for the transition and also to provide coaching for the employees during the plant closing. Belinda worked with the group by teaching resilience workshops, coaching the leaders during transition, and coaching Payton on how to manage and lead the group through the changes they were about to experience. Maureen worked primarily with Payton and co-developed training materials.
Belinda conducted a workshop for key members of management, hourly employees, and some union members in which aspects of hardiness and resilience during change were explored in depth. “It went very well and our employees felt that Belinda related really well with them,” said Payton.
Belinda focused on the “Four Cs”—Commitment, Control, Challenge, and Connection—to help employees prepare for the transition and plan for their future. Employees were asked to identify what they were committed to and were encouraged to stay connected with key support people during the process. Managers were also involved in special workshops on how to manage their own transition while supporting their employees and professionally closing the plant.
“Todd Wiget, the plant manager, and I held meetings in which we acknowledged the grieving process for employees, and spent time talking and listening to individuals’ experiences. In effect, we helped to ‘normalize the anger of the experience’,” explained Payton.
Detailed Discussion of Our Approach To Resilience
The following approach reflects the latest changes to our thinking and therefore varies in some ways from what was originally delivered to MeadWestvaco. We built on the resilience literature to add a more integrally informed focus and included recent business research from organizations like Gallup that investigate about wellbeing.
We break resilience into four primary categories:
• Maintain Physical Wellbeing
• Direct Mental Perspective
• Fulfill Life Purpose While Living Your Values
• Harness the Power of Connection
All of these categories are interlinked, but none of them can be ignored if long-term resilience is to be developed.When it comes to leadership, it is important to remember that maintaining personal resilience is as important as building other business or organizational skills.
When coaching leaders we often hear them argue that they are too busy to take care of themselves. While we fully understand the delicate balancing act that leaders must maintain; building and maintaining resilience remains essential to successful leadership. One of the biggest challenges for leaders is balancing the time requirements of all of their competing commitments, including the commitment to building resilience. The good news is that, as leaders improve their resilience, they will think more clearly and have a more positive impact in their interactions with others. This will impact measures such as employee engagement so that an investment in the leader’s resilience will support the effectiveness of the entire organization.
Maintain Physical Wellbeing
According to Gallup, “Those with high physical wellbeing simply have more energy to get more done in less time. They are more likely to be in a good mood, thus boosting the engagement of their colleagues and customers.” This category is one we often understand and yet give limited focus to. Some basic elements include:
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise 6 days per week
- Eat well
- Limit caffeine and alcohol
- Eliminate nicotine
- Meditate & relax
- Take time in nature
There is an increasing body of research supporting the idea that we are less effective when sleep deprived. Additionally, the latest research also suggests that it is important to get exercise six days per week. Other studies point to the impact of meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs. In a study that appeared in the January 30, 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, “A team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter…Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.”
One of the key goals in maintaining physical wellbeing is managing the amount and impact of stress. We define stress as one of several physical or emotional factors that create physiological and/or psychological tension. Tension is normal and adaptive when the autonomic nervous system processes it in a healthy manner, i.e. experiencing tension and releasing tension. Problems occur only if we do not recover from tension quickly enough, leading to symptoms caused by reduced immune system functioning.
Building daily routines that help the body recover from stress is key to developing body resilience. The physiological impact of ongoing stress is often debilitating due to the negative impact on the body’s immune system. If the body is not given regular opportunities to recover from the tension associated with stress, the results can range from diminished concentration, to anxiety and/or depression, to vulnerability to disease (including chronic conditions).
Directing Mental Perspective
It is essential to stay in touch with what is really happening now instead of limiting ourselves with beliefs and assumptions from the past that may no longer be relevant. The mental perspective of resilience is based on our attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions rather than knowledge. Negative and inflexible thinking prevents the ability to see the big picture and to find creative and alternative routes toward the goal. Our assumptions can diminish our capacity for awareness by holding on to prior knowledge that we hope is still true. We tend to shape our experience into what we think it should be. We tend to respond to the present situation based on our past even when conditions have changed.
Keys to mental resilience: Question assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs, and actively manage your thinking consistently.
Doctor Susan Kobasa’s research findings on AT&T executives published in 1988 indicated three major factors that distinguish people who display what she termed “stress hardiness”:
- They have a positive attitude toward CHALLENGE
- They believe that they have CONTROL over their own lives
- They display COMMITMENT to a belief that gives their experience meaning and value
A later adaptation added a fourth “C”: CONNECTEDNESS to others.
Attitude Toward Challenge
The first factor that distinguishes people who display stress hardiness and resilience is how they look at challenge. To talk about challenge, we refer to the “Flow” model proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He defined “flow” as the mental state of operation in which a person involved in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. This is a time when challenge and skill are balanced. Characteristics of being in flow include:
- An ablity to concentrate
- Deep effortless involvement
- A sense of control over actions
- A loss of self-consciousness
- An altered experience of the duration of time
If challenge is too high and skills are low we feel anxiety. If skill is too high and challenge is low we are bored. It is important for us as leaders to be aware of our level of challenge and manage it. If you are overly challenged, how can you build your skills and reduce your anxiety? If your skills are too high and you feel bored, what can you take on that will offer additional challenge to your work life?
Attitude Toward Control
The second factor that distinguishes people who display stress hardiness and resilience is their attitude towards control. More specifically, it is control focused on self-regulation, not other-regulation, because the only thing we can truly control is ourselves. We can:
- Set goals
- Pace ourselves
- Believe our decisions make a difference
- Identify and transform our negative thinking
A key area of importance is controlling negative thinking. Negative thinking undermines resilience because attention is focused on non-productive issues. We retain the ability to make choices when alleviating negative thinking. Examples of negative thinking include:
- Jumping to conclusions
- Not seeing the forest for the trees, or so-called tunnel vision
- Personalizing, thinking everything is focused on me
- Attributing responsibility and blame toward others
- Over-generalizing, applying data from one situation to an unrelated situation
- Assuming what others are thinking instead of asking
Think of areas in your life where you may indulge in each of these examples of negative thinking and then think of an antidote or approach to step away from the negative thinking. Now replace it with positive thinking. An example of this could be that when I am criticized I jump to the conclusion that the client does not value our work together or my expertise. I can take the criticism personally, concluding that the client will likely fire me as a coach. An antidote to these two types of negative thinking—personalizing and jumping to conclusions—is to ask for more information: “When you commented about coaches who do this behavior, are you including me in that statement? Is there anything you would like me do differently in our working relationship?”
With this additional information, I am able to correct my thinking and possibly my behavior almost immediately. By being aware of my negative thinking, I am able to clarify quickly and take the necessary corrective action. I am able to reduce the wasted energy I might spend worrying and move quickly to action. This type of action takes discipline and courage. The antidote is not always as easy as stopping a conversation and asking a clarifying question. Dealing with negative thinking is critical because we can waste a great deal of emotional energy that is completely unproductive. This energy could be invested in many other areas if we actively address negative thinking directly. In addition to managing negative thinking, developing a practice of replacing it with positive thinking can have a significant impact on wellbeing. There are now studies on happiness that link positive thought patterns to several markers of physical wellbeing.
Areas to consider when developing your ability to focus on the positive include building the capacity to:
- Participate in a positive way even when things do not go your way?
- Find ways to feel good about your role and about yourself?
- Replace negative habits and activities with something positive?
Pick a week and commit to reminding yourself that the challenges you face are a natural part of life and even better that, while they may not be fun, they do give you opportunities to develop skills that you would not have developed if you were not faced with this challenge. As you look back at the end of the week, can you see any change in your thinking or emotional reaction to challenge and possibly an appreciation for the opportunities it presents?
In facilitating workshops we spend a great deal of time on this specific element of resilience. It is an area that our participants have most control over in that they do not need extra time or equipment to monitor their thinking like they might to enhance their exercise program. Additionally, their thought can have such a significant impact on their resilience if they develop these basic practices and use them daily.
Fulfill Life Purpose While Living Your Values
This section deals with the third factor that distinguishes people who display stress hardiness and resilience. Having a strong sense of life purpose and aligning your professional network with that purpose creates a strong foundation for wellbeing. Emotional intelligence accounts for 85-90% of the difference between outstanding leaders and their more average peers. Emotional intelligence is a major factor in accomplishing life purpose. Key areas of focus are:
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
The research on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) suggests outstanding leaders have high EQ in addition to high IQ. Emotions impact reasoning and decision-making, and if neglected can derail the implementation of well-structured plans.
Keys to Purpose and Emotional Resilience: Have a clear life purpose, develop skills in self-management, and appreciate and work with your emotions regularly. We addressed part of self-management when we talked about tending to our negative and positive thinking so this section will focus more on purpose.
Do we have a clear sense of life purpose? By understanding what we stand for, we are able to maintain perspective and focus. What opportunities do we have in our professional lives that help us achieve life purpose?
In addition to being clear about life purpose, it is critical to have a regular practice that contributes to our ability to renew ourselves. Renewal contributes significantly to our ability to consistently demonstrate emotional intelligence. According to the book Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion, the following three activities have a significant impact on our ability to renew ourselves:
- Mindfulness – being awake, aware, and attending to the world
- Hope – enables us to believe that the future you envision is attainable and to move toward our vision and goals while inspiring others toward those goals as well
- Compassion – understand people’s wants and needs and feel motivated to act on those feelings
Another powerful tool to renew our emotional capacity is acts of kindness and service directed toward others. According to The Economics of Wellbeing by Gallup Press (2010), “When we surveyed more than 23,000 people, we found that nearly 9 in 10 report ‘getting an emotional boost’ from doing kind things for others…Throughout the course of our lives, ‘well-doing’ enhances our social interaction as well as our meaning and purpose. And some studies suggest that it inoculates us from stress and other negative emotions, thus increasing longevity.”
Harness the Power of Connection
The ability to interact with other people with awareness, empathy, and skillfulness and to experience closeness is vital in building resilience. Because connection is so important, we are revisiting a key factor previously mentioned in emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills include the ability to interact with other people with awareness, empathy, and skillfulness. The intent of interpersonal skill is the use of empathic understanding to engage the strengths and energy of the business relationship, at every level within the organization and with customers and suppliers.
According to Gallup “Those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged. Social relationships at work have also been shown to boost employee retention, safety, work quality and customer engagement.” This research represents a significant shift in how many people look at friendship at work and the importance of developing strong connections. Thus, the research is clear: investing the time in connection improves our work and our work environment.
This belief about having friends at work differs significantly from what many of us experienced in our earlier careers, where the prevailing attitude was to focus on our tasks while at work and build friendships in our personal time. We may have been actively discouraged from developing close friendships with colleagues to avoid being seen as “unprofessional”. This recent research can be the foundation for rich discussion about how to changes some of our basic beliefs about interaction in the workplace and the environment we create as leaders.
A key factor in building successful friendships is consistently communicating in an open and honest manner, and doing what we say. Here are a few tips for improving our communication (these are not new ideas but rather short list of what we think is important):
- Learn to say things simply, clearly, and honestly
- Let other people ask when they are not sure if they understand you
- Make communication safe by being responsive
- When in doubt, share information and emotions
- Build trust by consistently doing what you say and acting for the greater good
- Ask clarifying questions
- When you differ with others, seek to understand the basis of the difference – is there something you have missed or have you made an assumption that differs from the other person?
In facilitating, we continue to process the question of friendship at work: what are participants doing that supports or hinders building and maintaining friendships? If this is not the case, what steps could we take to initiate or deepen those connection? What would interfere with our taking that step? How can we address that interference?
Keys to connection: Invest time in key relationships and build the necessary skills in relating with others, such as communication and empathy.
Individual Action Planning: The final element that brings this process together is moving the concepts into action. The first step is to ask leaders to envision their goals, and then to identify where they are currently in reference to those goals. We ask each leader to select one or two actions that will move them only one step forward toward the realization of the envisioned outcomes. Goals that are too large become meaningless (as we may have personally experienced from attempts to lose weight, stop smoking, or increase exercise). For example, it is more effective to lose five pounds slowly and keep them off than to lose twenty pounds quickly only to put them right back on again. Similarly, one or two sustainable action steps toward greater resilience may have a more significant impact. It is more effective when leaders identify partners in change, while committing to check in with that partner at regularly agreed upon intervals to support accountability.
Organizational Action Planning: When we conduct a workshop with companies and work groups, another important part of the process to bring about true organizational change is asking leaders to develop action plans for how they plan to transition the organization towards being one that supports resilient leaders and workers. Since people change within the context of their organizations, the likelihood of sustainable change is much higher if the leaders talk about resilience as having high priority and modify systems within the organization to better support individual change. As an example, one group committed to encouraging employees to negotiate due dates rather than assuming they will get immediate response to items that are not critical. In this case employees had not been taking personal time because they felt the need to be continually “on call”. Having due dates allowed them the flexibility to integrate time for exercise and better work-life balance that resulted in their feeling more energetic and engaged when on the job.
“You don’t want to hear your plant is closing or that you may grow from the experience. Belinda and Maureen helped us chunk down the problems into manageable pieces and gain a sense of control during the transition. They did this by providing tools for employees to develop their own manageable steps to resolve issues,” said Payton. “They helped to validate some of the work we were doing inside the company and provided a confidential outside point of support for employees, which was important. They worked with me and the team to help us keep our sanity during stressful times.”
The results of using the resilience program of combined training and coaching were very apparent for the Calmar facility. For example, during times of transition, it is not unusual for a plant to incur more accidents. However, at Calmar, safety measures during the transition period were higher than in years previous to the transition, and in addition, all of their production and delivery goals were met.
“Our plant made a profit two months beyond what senior leaders at the corporate office expected. The combined efforts of Metcalf’s team and our own staff helped to bolster morale and had a positive impact on the business. People really owned their integrity,” said Payton.
“We had a sister plant in which the transition didn’t go well, they had to close early due to issues. The stats show that this process works with employees and it’s successful,” added Payton.
There were five main factors that allowed the people in the plant to thrive and exceed expectations during this time:
- The transition program was strongly supported by the Corporate office and by the plant manager
- The union cooperated with management to find a way to move forward that worked for all parties
- The resilience training and coaching were highly effective
- Having a highly professional HR manager on-site who focused primarily on supporting employees during the transition
- Openly addressing the fact that the primary reaction to job loss is grief. Having the HR manager and long term employees address this in plant meetings in an attempt to acknowledge and normalize these feelings made a significant impact.
According to Payton, “Taking a proactive approach to teaching resilience skills, along with offering ongoing coaching, made a significant impact on the entire organization. Employees at all levels benefited from the resilience training and coaching. The union also had a positive response to this program. A major benefit of this approach and support was that the management team who needed to maintain their focus during this challenging time received additional support so they could manage their own grief and transition process while working with employees who were transitioning.”
Several of the managers had spent their entire professional careers working in this plant and had strong connections to one another as well as to the employees. This change had an immense emotional impact on most of them. The individual coaching was a great asset for the leaders because it gave them a safe place to process what they were experiencing; they were also encouraged to get their own support since most of their time was spent supporting others both at work and often at home. The plant closing also meant that several of the managers themselves were losing their jobs in an economically challenged area, which created additional worry.
Having an HR person on site who created very strong employee transition tools and served as an onsite resource on a daily basis was essential. Payton’s ability to promote employee wellbeing through his continual support made a significant impact.
What Would We Change?
One thing Payton recommended doing differently was encouraging the leadership team to spend more time taking advantage of coaching for themselves. This was a very stressful time for many of them and the personal toll was greater than they would have anticipated. Had they taken better care of themselves and encouraged this within their culture, many of them would have managed their own personal transitions with less stress.
Limitations of the Research
This case study reflects the progress of one individual client and company experience. It does not offer trends or a sample size sufficient to expand to a larger population. It does, however, provide early support of an overall hypothesis that the combination of leadership coaching and organizational transformation, drawing on integrally informed tools, has the capacity to improve both the organizational performance and individual performance as determined by overall business performance measures. We have seen similar results in varying scenarios where clients are forced to navigate through difficult organizational transitions.
Boyatzis, R. and McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. and Lazar,
S. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 191, Issue 1, 30 January 2011, Pages 36-43.
Kobasa, S. (1979b). Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1-11.
About the Authors
Maureen Metcalf, the President of Metcalf & Associates, Inc., brings 25 years of business experience as an effective leader who demonstrates operational skills coupled with the ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth and sustainability. As a Management Consultant with two “Big Four” Management consulting firms for 12 years, Maureen managed and contributed to successful completion of a wide array of projects from strategy development and organizational design for start-up firms to large system change for well established firms. She has worked with a number of Fortune 50 clients delivering a wide range of significant business results such as: increased profitability, cycle time reduction, increased productivity, and improved quality. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Belinda Gore, Ph.D., is a psychologist, executive coach and experienced seminar leader who is skilled in supporting her clients in high-level learning. With 30 years’ experience in leadership development and interpersonal skills training, she is known for helping teams discover strength in their diversity to achieve their mutual goals, and works with individual leaders to access their natural talents to maximize effectiveness and personal satisfaction. Her clients have included senior leadership in global companies, senior and middle management in both corporate and non-profit organizations, and entrepreneurs. She will be leading our new service line focused on helping leaders and their organizations build resilience along with offering leadership team development, board development, coaching and Enneagram assessment. Contact: Belinda@metcalf-associates.com