I’ve been reading an article in the January/February issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR), “How to Bounce Back from Adversity.” If you have access to HBR online, here’s a link. The freely available Idea in Brief is here.

Based on old and new research into various forms of stress response, Joshua D. Margolis and Paul G. Stolz have developed what they call a “resilience regimen.” They claim that, in order to “respond quickly and constructively in a crisis,” managers need to learn a new way of thinking, turning away from looking for the cause of problems or challenges, and instead learn to focus on how best to respond to the new situation.

Margolis and Stolz organize their approach into four “lenses:” control, impact, breadth and duration. In all four areas, the idea is to change any old habit(s) you may have leading you to think about difficulties in terms of causes, external forces, underlying events, and enduring timeframes. Control refers to aspects of the situation that you can directly influence, looking forward. Impact pertains to identifying what positive, immediate impact you might have on the situation. Breadth points to your ability to reduce the downside or maximize the potential upside of the crisis, focusing on the transformative opportunities it might present. And, duration represents the capacity to envision what you want life to look like on the other side of the crisis.

In each of these four areas, Margolis and Stolz suggest ways to engage colleagues in this forward-looking change of mind, thereby providing leadership for the difficult period. And, they suggest that those of who work in fields and organizations that experience ongoing stress need to develop resiliency even more than most.

I find this to be a tall order and also counter-intuitive. How can we take meaningful action to change the direction things are headed if we don’t understand at least something about how we got into the current fix? Consider the poor souls in Haiti and Chile, looking at the piles of rubble that used to be their homes. Assuming they have the resources to do so, if they simply put the pieces of their homes back together, ignoring what caused them to collapse, aren’t they exposed to the risk that the same thing will happen all over again?

Maybe the important takeaway from Margolis and Stolz’s work is to avoid dwelling on the past. Perhaps staying focused on the reasons for difficulties too long can make it hard to act. The key is to turn attention to what is in front of us. These are the kinds of questions they suggest we ask ourselves as we face the trying times ahead:

  • “What aspects of the situation can I directly influence to change the course of this adverse event?”
  • “What positive effect might my efforts have on those around me?”
  • “What sequence of steps can we put together as a team, and what processes can we develop and adopt, to see us through to the other side of this hardship?”