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Thinking Your Way To Building Resilience

1024 679 Stewart Brown


I had recently set up business on my own. I had been networking furiously to build awareness that I was open for business. This involved plenty of travel to meet with various contacts, some of whom I hoped would be interested in becoming a client.

One day I had set off a little late for a meeting about 30 miles away. The route there was a fast road and I was sure that I would make up the time. But, disaster struck halfway along my journey. Two lorries had collided and the road was completely blocked. Traffic had backed up. The road was too narrow to do a u-turn. In any event, the alternative route was way too long and I would definitely arrive late. To make matters worse, I didn’t have any phone reception.

My heart started pumping. My mind raced ahead. This was a really important meeting. If I gave the wrong impression by turning up late, any chance of business would be gone. My mind started transforming what had been a speculative meeting with no guarantee of work into the make or break meeting of my fledgling business. I imagined myself unable to pay the mortgage. You get the picture. I was in full panic mode.

In some ways, how I was feeling was not my fault. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution of the human brain and body was to blame. I had gone into full on fight or flight survival mode. But the problem was that I couldn’t flee anywhere and there wasn’t anything obvious that I could fight!

“My heart started pumping. My mind raced ahead. This was a really important meeting. If I gave the wrong impression by turning up late, any chance of business would be gone.”

Our ability to think logically and strategically and to employ advanced emotions like empathy are all severely curtailed when we are experiencing stress symptoms.

So, What’s The Answer?

Resilience is how we respond to stress, how we bounce back or overcome adversity. The good news is that resilience can be taught. But it requires understanding on how and why we each respond to difficult events.

So, why doesn’t everyone descend into road rage at the first sign of a traffic jam? Why do some people seem to handle stress better than others? To answer this, we need to dig a little deeper, into the psychological perspective.

Many people believe that the event or stressor is the cause of the consequence. How often have you heard people say, “That guy really wound me up!” or “The deadline is really stressing me out!”

An alternative way of looking at the situation grew out of work by the eminent behavioural psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis. His A-B-C model suggests that the consequence is not caused by the event itself, but it comes about as a result of the beliefs that we hold about the event, which are often irrational beliefs.

In Ellis’s model, A is the activating event, B is the belief we hold (which causes the perception that the activating event is stressful) and C is the Consequence, how we respond. Perception is key here. If we perceive an event to be stressful, then we will start experiencing the biological responses to a stressful event.

What Influences Our Perception?

There are many factors that influence our perception, from attachments we form as children to defence mechanisms we adopt to protect ourselves from anxiety.

To explore the role that perception plays, let’s go back to my journey to that important meeting, which I told you about earlier. The accident between two lorries did not cause my tension. There was an important, albeit rapid, intervening step going on. And that step was my perception or belief about the entire situation. My thoughts about being late for the meeting, being unable to control the situation and what I thought the person who was meeting me would think as a result caused an unhealthy response in my brain. It triggered a stressful response. My emotional amygdala started dominating my thinking and overruling my rational frontal cortex. As cortisol and adrenaline flooded into my system, my thinking became more fuzzy and I imagined ever-worsening crises – such as becoming homeless. All as a result of the blocked road.

Now, unfortunately, to make matters more complicated, a number of our beliefs at the B stage of this A-B-C process are unconscious beliefs. I spend a large part of my time as an executive coach helping people to become aware of such unconscious beliefs, sometimes also known as cognitive distortions or ‘thinking errors’. Because if you are aware of something, you have the opportunity to make a choice. And that choice is whether to allow that thinking error to activate the response – ie. to allow stress to arise – or not; to choose a different response.

My experience is that lawyers are particularly prone to certain thinking errors, such as (and there are many more…):

• All or nothing: Thinking is black and white rather than shades of grey. “I have to get this 100% perfect. I always make this mistake. I’ll never get the hang of it.”
• I should/must/can’t: This is a big one. It refers to when we set unrealistic standards for ourselves. It can be really damaging. Examples include: “I should be able to cope with all this work.” “I must not make any mistakes.” “I can’t handle this.”
• Magnification: This involves blowing things out of all proportion. “I failed my promotion interview. My career is in ruins.” “We made a mistake. This is terrible.”

“Develop self-awareness of when you are starting to get stressed. For me, I started to lose my sense of humour, taking things too seriously and becoming snappy with others.”

How To Go About Building Resilience

Stress occurs when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope: This definition suggests that stress is caused by external factors, such as work pressures and deadlines. And internal factors, such as the attitudes that we have to deadlines, have a role to play that hinder our ability to cope.

1. Notice

Develop self-awareness of when you are starting to get stressed. For me, I started to lose my sense of humour, taking things too seriously and becoming snappy with others.

Notice it in your colleagues and offer to help them out. My former PA always used to say that if I had eaten a chocolate bar before 11am, then it was bad sign! And she would ask me if she could help with anything, move a meeting or delegate work to a team member.

2. Practice Better thinking

It may not always be practical or wise (from a career progression standpoint) to avoid activating events, like making presentations, altogether. Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden later (1987) extended the A-B-C model by adding two additional stages, D and E. And in their excellent and practical book How to Deal with Stress (Kogan Page: 2007), Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper describe a further stage: F.

D: is to dispute the belief – in other words to alleviate stress by noticing and challenging your thinking. E: is creating an effective new strategy to deal with the activating event. And F is the Future Focus: what am I going to do differently going forwards based on what I have learnt about myself?

Now, I’m not underestimating how difficult it is to challenge stories in our head that we’ve held for some time – decades even! But there is always a way forward. Going back to my interrupted car journey to that ever-so-important meeting, I noticed that my thinking was skewed. So, I started to breathe slowly and deeply. I realised that I had been guilty of two massive thinking errors: I had obsessed about the importance of punctuality and how a professional ‘should’ behave and magnification: missing the meeting would not be the end of the world.

Clarity of thinking emerged as my cortisol levels dropped. I remembered that there was a pub close by. So, I parked my car on the verge, walked to the pub and used their landline to call my contact. He was running late and lived close to where we were due to meet. We came up with an alternative plan that I would call him when I was on the move again.

And with that, I returned to my car, turned on some music and chose to relax whilst I waited.

thinking traps

Resilience: Recognising Our Thinking Traps

1024 832 Nick Clench

career ladder


Resilience is a term you hear a lot at the moment in management speak, but what does it really mean and how can it help us be more effective?

The word itself comes from the Latin ‘resili’ meaning to spring back or rebound, and the dictionary definition also refers to the ability to recover from adversity. In psychology, we define it more as the ability to persevere and adapt when things go awry. So resilience is all about coping in the face of adversity and recovering quickly.

We can see how this is useful from a personal perspective, and research shows that resilient people appreciate life more, are happier, more content and enjoy better relationships with other people. From a business perspective, this translates into lower absence from stress, improved team working, better customer service and ultimately higher revenues, among other things.

Research also shows resilience to be an important capability in leaders, bouncing back from setbacks, using them for learning and helping others along with them.
But why do we need resilience in the first place? In times of adversity – be it stress from a large workload, being shouted at by an angry client or just the disappointment of missing a key target – we go through an emotional reaction. This reaction is based on pre-determined beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world around us and are deeply ingrained in our personalities.

Here’s an example: you’re in the office working away at your desk when suddenly a colleague storms up to you and says angrily, “How dare you send that to the client without checking it with me, you knew how involved I’ve been with this project – you must have done this on purpose. My team warned me about you!” Woah. At this point there is an instant, emotional and fairly automatic response, and this typically falls into one of four categories.

Me, me, me. This is internalising the problem and assuming that it is all your fault. You may think things like “I must have done something wrong”, “It’s all my fault” or “They don’t like me”. This is taking the problem and making it all about you, even though there is no evidence at this stage (other than an angry colleague!) that you’ve done anything wrong.

Life’s not fair. The opposite of internalising, is externalising – assuming that the world is against you. You may think things like “This was bound to happen”, “It doesn’t matter what I do, they’d blame me anyway” or “Things like this happen to me all the time”. This is a sense of helplessness and reluctance to take responsibility and at least explore the facts.

Armageddon. This is where the problem is exaggerated to epic proportions, and not in a good way. There are always positives and negatives to any situation, but people who fall into this trap only see the negatives. They will think things like “This is a total disaster”, “I’ll never recover from this” or even “I’ll probably lose my job over this”. It is fearing the absolute worst and failing to see what the realistic outcome is likely to be, in a balanced rational way.

All or nothing. Some people have a very fixed mindset about themselves. In this category you may think “This is typical of me”, “I can’t change the way I am” or “I always make this mistake”. Your assumption is that you can’t change and will always be this way, that your abilities are fixed and can’t be developed and therefore don’t challenge yourself or try to improve. Moving to a growth mindset of gradual improvement would free you up and build your resilience.

Maybe you can recognise some thought patterns here in yourself? Maybe you fall into one of these traps in times of severe pressure or stress? The good news is you’re not alone, and there are ways of overcoming them. With the right tactics, some patience and a little time you can develop so that in times of stress you are able to think rationally and logically and bounce back much quicker.


Power of Ambition

How Ambition, Passion, Growth and Resilience Work Together in High Performers

600 344 iPerform


In our last blog post, we mentioned the fascinating discovery by Angele Lee Duckworth’s research into Grit, that talent and resilience can be found to commonly have an inverse relationship. However, Duckworth also states: “Grit predicts success over and beyond talent. When you consider individuals of equal talent, the grittier ones do better.”

So how do you become grittier? Well, it is not about looking to reach a certain end point, such as an A grade or a particular salary, but it is about trying to maximize your abilities and your outcomes. It is all about doing the best you can and asking yourself “How can I get the most out of my day?” This type of attitude and resilience requires deeply held passion and beliefs. You need to be prepared to grow, have ambition and be passionate about what you are trying to achieve in order to possess the Grit you need to have to maximize your success and to get the performance improvement you want.

This is where the idea of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset comes into play. The Growth Mindset is one of the key foundations of iPerform and takes up the first week of our programme. It is based around the idea that you can improve yourself every day through deliberate practice, and generate a mindset where lifelong learning and growth is a deeply held attitude. This works by constantly seeking ways to improve yourself, asking yourself the question “How can I get the most out of my day?” and believing by working hard, learning from your mistakes and improving, you will perform better in your job.

Dweck’s own studies show how this works. Studies in Brain Plasticity in children show that peoples’ brains change with experience. Although initially a child may first respond to failure by wanting to give up, if the child is provided with evidence from others that success is possible, the child’s belief that success can still be achieved is reinforced.

The greater resilience a person has, the more likely they will respond positively to failure, learn from their mistakes and use their knowledge to improve their performance in the future. Their resilience can be improved by being passionate about the goal and being ambitious and positive about their chances of succeeding. All these elements are included in the iPerform performance improvement programme which is now available on a 30 Day free trial.


Why Resiliency is the Key to Decreasing Your Stress Levels

1024 640 iPerform


A new scheme developed by the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has demonstrated that a Resiliency Training Programme can help people reduce their stress levels, lower their anxiety and increase their productivity over a period of time.

The research, published in the journal Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, looked at a group of high school students. Teenagers are among the most stressed age groups as they deal with conflict among their peers, at home, as well as handling financial problems. As we have mentioned in other articles, higher stress levels can have serious long term consequences in regards to poor physical and mental health, as well as leading low academic and work performance.

To combat the problem, the BHI developed what they call a “Stress-Reduction/Resilience-building curriculum” which they taught to educators in Boston, United States. 12 teachers in a Boston public charter school were trained for six hours in stress and relaxation techniques including Positive Psychology, reframing, breathing and imagery exercises.

These 12 teachers were then tasked to teach the curriculum over a 2 month period to 13 to 19 year old students. The students were then assessed in regards to the impact the exercises had on their overall stress levels. Most reported sharp falls in anxiety and stress whilst also seeing increases in their abilities in dealing with stressful situations. All participants in the study when then assessed a year later to gauge whether the curriculum was still having the same impact. The study discovered that it was, indicating that the Positive Psychology and reframing strategies also worked over the long term. Marilyn Wilcher, the BHI senior program director commented:

‘It’s important for us to continue to expand our research not only to help us continually refine and improve the program but also to demonstrate to educational and political leadership that this work is worth investing in on a broad scale for the benefit of our children.”

At iPerform, we have entire weeks of our employee engagement programme dedicated to these Positive psychology, breathing and reframing techniques, which were so crucial to improving stress levels in this study. Such techniques work equally well for employees in the workplace so why not try out our 2 week free trial here.