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Make Your Team As Resilient as Army Fighters

What makes people happy is probably one of the biggest questions there is. Dr. Martin Seligman, a founder of the positive psychology movement, has gone a long way to shedding light on this by shifting the emphasis on what makes people suffer emotionally to what makes life worth living. A bestselling author, Seligman has just published a brilliant new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (Free Press, April 2011).

The book refines Seligman's study of happiness to argue that well-being is the mental state that gives lives the most satisfaction--a state that we reach by improving engagement, relationships, meaning, and our accomplishments.

My favorite part of the book summarizes the resilience training now required for every member of the U.S. Army and their families. With more than 1.6 million personnel serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, most of whom have experienced traumatic events, resilience training was a matter of urgency. While the training was developed for the Army by Seligman, General Rhonda Cornum, and other positive psychologists, its principles have applicability to managers. Resilience training has three parts--building mental toughness, building strengths, and building strong relationships. Here are some interesting highlights:


1. Develop mental toughness. According to the author, "specific thoughts drive particular emotions"--thoughts about loss, for instance, cause sadness, rather than the event itself causing the sadness. By isolating your own reactions from the event itself, you gain control over destructive emotions. You learn to identify where your anger is coming from, so you don't direct it at the wrong target (this is the grace under pressure that many of us associate with mental toughness). Seligman's program teaches how to overcome mental traps such as judging a person's worth or ability based on a single action. Another trap, he says, is to be influenced by "icebergs," deeply held beliefs that lead to disproportionate reactions. One such iceberg for drill sergeants is "asking for help shows weakness." An iceberg for enlisted soldiers would be, "my family will fall apart while I'm on duty." You get to know the nature of your own iceberg by asking yourself: is it meaningful, is it accurate, is it overly rigid, and is it useful? In this way, you slow down your emotional reactions, and gain perspective, so you can lead thoughtfully, not react.

You also build mental toughness by fighting catastrophic thoughts in real time. You need to quiet mental chatter and distractions when there is an acute need to perform at a high level. In the Army, this can obviously involve hazardous combat patrols or other life threatening situations ( but also apply to presentations, meetings, or other management situations).

Techniques for calming distractions include gathering evidence (what do I need to know about the situation at hand?), using optimism (envision the steps to getting the job done well and completed), and putting the high-pressure task in perspective (after I undertake the high pressure task, I've got a few days off to catch up on easy stuff). Another skill is called hunting the good stuff--keeping a "three blessings" or gratitude journal where you write down positive interactions you created the day before.

2. Cultivate character strengths in your team. You build the strengths of your team by identifying and praising each individual's strengths. By focusing on each person's strengths, rather then weaknesses, you build confidence and resilience. This is done through assessments, observation, and one-on-one interviews. By coaching team members in their strengths, you help each individual become more positive about their performance and their role in a group. In one example, a team setting up a combat hospital was running short on supplies and behind schedule, and the platoon leader put together a "strengths-based" team that scrounged up the equipment needed and got the operating room prepared.

3. Build Strong Relationships through Smart Conversation. You need relationships within your team to be resilient. To foster those relationships, leaders and peers should learn the art of open-ended, active conversation (in a culture that often reinforces "strong silent" types). You should avoid non-committal or brief answers, but ask questions and encourage dialogue where appropriate. When conflicts need to be addressed, or major goals are being laid out, leaders need an approach to asserting their role that motivates without breaking down cohesion. Resilience training teaches a five-step model of assertive communication:

  1. Identify and work to understand the situation
  2. Describe the situation objectively
  3. Express concerns
  4. Ask the other person for her/his perspective and work toward an acceptable change
  5. List the benefits that will follow when the change is implemented.
The value of the Army program speaks to any manager who wants to use self-awareness and discipline to confront destructive, enervating behaviors, and create pyschological fitness and energy. How do you encourage resilience with your team?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.