leadership development

Emotional Resilience with Linda Hoopes, Ph.D.

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In Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Culture Code, there’s a quote he shares. It’s from Texas Rep. Sam Rayburn, the longest serving Speaker of the House (over 17 years):

Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.”

When it comes to the topic of resilience, the good carpenter definitely has it. Patient. Mindful. Tolerant. Most of the traits not deemed cool leadership traits of the past. Addressing toxic behavior and prioritizing employee safety and connection are finally getting the attention they need. FINALLY. The good carpenters are becoming our 21st century leaders. After decades of archaic management practices and praising brilliant yet abusive white men as America’s “great innovators,” it’s about time. Why?

We’re sick and stressed as a population. As citizens of this great democracy, we were sold a lot of lies. Believing all we had to do was pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to succeed in life was (and is) a farce. Now, we have the data to back it up: business success happens more frequently when employees thrive.

There are plenty of naysayers who prefer to stay back in 1955, but breaking down institutional oppression takes time. The good news is that, with an ever-increasing pool of workforce talent that is more diverse and emotionally intelligent than in past generations, we’re shifting old mindsets and creating much-needed change, especially in business culture.

That word: change. It is both praised and feared, a tipping point and a tsunami. Humans have a long, love/hate history with change, and it’s reflected in how we deal with change at work, at school, at home…everywhere. Some of us cope with change better than others with multiple factors at play.

One, resilience, is critical.

Psychology Today defines resilience as “that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.” But with all that’s written and discussed about resilience, how do you really learn it? How can you leverage it when you’re dealing with a deadline or driving culture as a CEO?

We recently had the pleasure of meeting Linda Hoopes, Ph.D., founder of Atlanta-based organizational development firm Resilience Alliance and author of Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent WorldIt’s a terrific read from Linda, a seasoned business consultant who has spent close to three decades learning, coaching and advocating for resilience tools and strategies in the workplace. We love how Prosilience gives a crash course on the topic AND provides helpful, interactive exercises that can be used individually or in a group setting.

Below are excerpts from a few conversations we had with Linda over this summer. Enjoy.

HEP: You spent the last 25 years consulting businesses on organizational change. How did you end up getting a start in this work? What inspired you, Linda?

LH: I grew up with a dad who was a logistics engineer and a mom who was a musician, a church choral conductor. So I got a pretty good mix of both the right and left brain. I’ve always liked people, and I’ve always liked the business world. I spent my junior year of college in Wales. I’ve always liked travel and adventures. I took a year off between college and grad school and worked in a bar in Seattle. The program I [eventually] chose was an interdisciplinary program, it was between psychology and management at the University of Tennessee. I felt like I would get the psychology part, but I would also get to do it in the business world.

After getting my Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology, I taught at various places. I was on a visiting position at Georgia Tech when I took a role at an organizational change consulting firm as their head of research and assessment. It actually wasn’t the organizational change part of it that I was most interested in; it was a job where I could use my statistics, my psychometrics, my research methods. The firm, ODR, was one of the earlier firms in the change management field. It was headed up by Daryl Conner, who has written several books and is a speaker and consultant on organizational change. I was in the thick of all of that just by virtue of where I ended up.

Industrial-organizational psychology [known as I/O psychology] is a field that is a weird mix of hard and soft. People talk about the “I” side of I/O psychology, which is the statistics, measurement, selection systems, and so on. And then there’s the “O” side, which is more the teams, groups, leadership, interpersonal stuff. I really liked that combination of quantitatively based, but interpersonally strong.

HEP: How did you begin learning about resilience building?

LH: That was a function of where I landed, because of Daryl. He was publishing his first book, Managing at the Speed of Change [now a business management classic], and it had resilience as the centerpiece of it. He was talking about resilience in the context of why some people seem to be able to move through change more effectively than others.

One of my first jobs as the research director was to pick up some of the literature review that they’d done on that and start to figure how we would measure that in people, how we would develop a tool to help people understand their resilience. How would we define the dimensions. This was before everybody was talking about resilience. There was some work on hardiness, but resilience was a new kind of space. I dug into it and it’s such interesting stuff to try to figure out some of the individual differences that enable resilience and then seeing what can leaders do to support that as we go through change. So I just got hooked on it because I ended up getting thrown in the deep end and started learning about it.

I don’t think resilience is one thing. I see resilience as a complex of things that have to do with how you calm yourself, how you choose strategies, how you use a set of “muscles.” Everybody has a unique fingerprint about how they’ve learned to deal with challenge and adversity. I’ve become a big believer in looking at how people who are in challenging situations do it effectively.

The positive deviance model is a whole philosophy around looking at people who are able to succeed in challenging situations — for example, people in third world countries who manage to nourish their children well while many others in similar circumstances don’t — and figure out what they are doing differently. I think we should look at cases of people who have demonstrated resilience and achieved good outcomes and figure out the common threads in how they do it. I’m very curious about that, the opposite of “let’s make victims.” Let’s make success stories! Let’s figure out what can we learn from the people who have been really good models of how to do it.

HEP: As Americans living in this country, particularly after this last election, we feel like we live in a culture that is not particularly resilient. We can certainly identify people who seem more resilient than others, but when we look at how how the people in this country are dealing with what’s going on, it seems like there’s a lot of feeling wounded, not feeling very resilient.

LH: On all sides. I have friends on many sides of the political spectrum, and I think everyone feels, in some way, like they’re being beaten down. It’s pretty complex. I think the media polarizes things. We get to the point where we don’t listen to one another. We’re way out of my zone of knowledge, but I think that one of the resilience muscles that we’re not using very well is appreciative understanding and really seeking to listen to and understand the points of view of other people that differ from our own. We go in and we judge.

I have some friends who are fairly conservative; most of them place a very high emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom, and so that becomes more important to them than other things. And I have some friends who are very liberal; they place a lot of emphasis on how communities support one another and how we care for one another. Sometimes those get at odds in terms of how we write policy and set priorities, but I think that each of those has part of the answer.

I’ve become a big fan, for instance, of the conscious capitalism movement that says that businesses are one of the most important ways that we can bring well-being into the world because of the resources and the platform the workplace offers, because of how we create the environments where people spend so much of their time. We really need to find ways to creatively integrate the different polarities of what’s going on, rather than let it divide and separate us.

HEP: That’s very well said. Because you’ve been through academia, you’ve been through consulting businesses, what’s your sense on how people use critical thinking? Do you think it’s weakened over time, generally speaking? Or not?

LH: I don’t know. I hear people talk about it a lot, about teaching it in schools and so on, and yet I don’t see people doing it that much. But yet, I also see pockets where people are doing it really well. In some of the organizations I work with, I’m just in awe of the cool things that they’re doing, at least in pockets. I also think that we are in a world where sometimes the least common denominator wins; and we don’t make the time and the space for really thinking through and listening to one another.

Teaching people to be good consumers of data, good consumers of research, good consumers of media, and to really explore the sources of where things come from and to question … I’m always the one on Facebook, that when somebody posts something, I’m the one that’ll go look it up and post, “No, that’s not true.”

HEP: Yeah. We need more fact checkers in the world! Let’s talk a little bit about your book. When you were setting out to write it, what were some of your initial ideas, your goals, and how did those evolve through the course of you writing it?

LH: That’s a great question. I thought it took me two or three years to write it, but then I saw a Facebook post I’d put up about 5 years ago saying, “Hey, I just wrote the first little bit on my book.” It took a long time! This is actually my second book. The first one was written out of the work that I did that I talked about at [ODR], the model of resilience we had developed specifically around organizational change. Over time, I continued to learn things. I went to massage school. Positive psychology came into its heyday. I became interested in the applications of all of this stuff outside of organizations and outside of organizational change. The same things that we run into at work turn up in other places in other forms. The challenges that organizational change brings us are not fundamentally different from dealing with an aging parent or dealing with a car accident. It’s the same set of human reactions.

My intention in writing this book was to think about what I want to say about it now, given everything I’ve learned. I’ve been told by people that one of my superpowers is taking lots of complex threads of information and figuring out how to put it into a simple accessible framework, and that was really my goal for the book. To be able to lay out what I think is important here in a way that would be accessible to a high school student going off to college or an older couple thinking about retirement or somebody who’s dealing with a special needs child; there are universals that underlie all of that.

I did a writing retreat. I went and rented a little cottage in Florida for about 10 days and just hunkered down to start writing, and then it took me a couple more years to finish it after that. Over time, the structure became clearer. There are seven resilience characteristics that have always been part of what I’ve been doing, but I’ve given them some new names, even though the constructs are the same, just to make them simpler and more accessible. I found several other building blocks that I wanted to talk about: being able to calm yourself when you’re feeling disrupted, being able to choose good strategies for knowing when to fight the battles, when to adjust yourself to a new reality. I tried to articulate the common ground underneath challenges that range from being bullied to taking on an exciting new challenge that we’re really looking forward to. There’s a fabric that relates it all.

It also became important to me to articulate how energy fuels our resilience; we need to be managing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.

HEP: For us here at Health Equity Partners, bringing awareness and helping develop tools and strategies around various forms of workplace stress is at the core of both our business and what we care about. There’s an elevated amount of stress not only in this country, but all over, as you mentioned. Everybody’s feeling it right now. What’s your sense of why it’s hard for business leaders to acknowledge and talk more openly about this?

LH: It’s a great question. Yesterday I was coming home from a trip. I was riding the train in the Atlanta airport. A couple came on with a crying baby, and there were all kinds of people there, and I saw such kindness. I saw a real sense of people being caring and supportive of one another. I didn’t see stressful, hateful stuff. I guess what I would say is I don’t disagree with you at all. I think the world is cranked up pretty high right now, and yet I see spots of hope. I see times and places around me where people are kind to one another and have compassion for one another. However, I think your question is a valid and an important one. I’ve done some work with companies to help them take an inventory of their change load. One big challenge is that you present them with all this data and they say, ‘Well, you just have to do it all anyway.’” It’s like, “We’re not going to do anything. We’re not going to take anything off the plate. We can analyze this stuff, but really we just have to get it all done.”

I mentally came up with three categories. There are leaders who get it and actively work to create healthy workplaces, where they really are attuned to stress, they’re managing themselves well, they’re creating environments where people can have a nice balance between work and the rest of their lives. Then there are leaders who have learned to manage their own stress and well-being, but they feel like they’ve done it themselves, and they think it’s everybody else’s job to figure it out for themselves. Most of them don’t do it in a mean way. They just recognize that no matter how many systems and processes and structures you put in place, people have to be motivated to take care of themselves as well.

The third category are managers and leaders who haven’t learned to manage their own stress; for them, that’s just the way it is. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and it never occurs to them that they can do anything better for themselves or the people around them. We don’t teach people those self-care skills so well. We put people in environments that are driven by short-term financial goals, and so everything then becomes a crisis and a challenge. We’re in this zero-sum world and everybody believes that if they let down for a minute, the competition’s going to eat them up. I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot more gig economy kind of work, because a lot of people want to create the environment that they work in and they’ll trade off. They’ll go drive for Uber because they can name their own hours and take time off with their family. You’re seeing people who are taking control of it, but it’s not in the context of corporate America. It’s in the context of figuring out how to craft lives outside of that.

HEP: Our last question: you’re an avid traveler, sailor, musician. Talk a little bit more about how you weave these passions into your day-to-day.

LH: I believe I’m a much better consultant and business owner when I bring my whole self to what I do. I think my presence is stronger. I think my empathy and my ability to connect with people is stronger. I figure if I’m not practicing what I preach and trying to make sure that I make time in my life for the things that I’m passionate about and care about, I’m never going to be able to convince somebody else to do it.

First of all, I place a lot of emphasis on balancing things, and I make trade-offs. I work for myself. I don’t make anywhere near as much money as I used to when I was a consultant, but I love my life. If I want to take a week and go to music camp in North Carolina, which I’ll be doing in July, I do that.

I did an interview this morning for a podcast, and I chose to talk about harnessing the power of micro-challenges to build resilience. What I mean by a micro-challenge is something that can be pretty easily addressed; a challenge that comes up and can be resolved in some reasonable timeframe and that isn’t super devastating. Somebody cutting you off in traffic is a great example of a micro-challenge. You’re not going to die. This is the testing ground, the practice ground, for resilience for the bigger challenges.

There’s research that suggests that the way we respond to smaller challenges is a predictor of how we respond to the larger ones. The more I get out there in the world and travel and try to learn new things, the more I’m deliberately putting myself in situations where I’m uncomfortable, where I run into people who don’t speak the language, where I have no idea where I’m going, and I have to figure it out. The more wisdom I get from doing that, the more I can try to model what I’m talking to people about, the more I can show up for them in a way that doesn’t dismiss the difficulties that they’re facing and helps them see some possible paths through it. We are all dealing with thorny issues, but, fundamentally, they come down to decisions about, okay, are we going to change the situation, are we going to change ourselves, can we find a way to reframe it? It doesn’t make the decisions any less hard, but you can start to slice them up into pieces and just be present with what’s in front of you right now and work it through one step at a time.

To learn more about Linda’s work and stay in touch, join her newsletter . You can also connect with her on LinkedIn.