How to Cope With Adversity in the Workplace

31 July 2018

When we discovered there was a  Mountain Climbing Day  we started to talk about how hard the journey to the top must be. Each step you take becomes harder. The lactic acid starts to build up on your legs, the backpack begins to feel heavier and the air becomes thinner. When you look up, the mountain peak seems so close, yet so far away.

But when you reach the top it’s a rewarding and exhilarating experience. There is an overwhelming sense of pride in your achievement as you see the valley below.

Dealing with adversity in the workplace is a lot like climbing a mountain. The difficult moments come when you least expect them. We trip over hidden obstacles, encounter setbacks when we least expect them, and the journey, which we started out full of hope and positivity, becomes entrenched with negativity and despair as our best laid plans go awry.

However, there are strategies business leaders can employ when we encounter adversity. We caught up with inspirational speakers  Colin Maclachlan, Emma Lawton and Simon Wheatcroft who were delighted to share the experiences and strategies they have successfully used to overcome adversity.

Adversity is inevitable

We started our conversation by agreeing that adversity, in whichever format, is inevitable. It's how we learn, grow and develop as individuals and employees.

Colin, a former Mountain Troop in the SAS, began our conversation by drawing on his SAS training experience, where robust and daunting challenges were actively encouraged!

"We can become more robust and agile through experiencing turbulence throughout our lives. For example, think about the difference between the first time you faced a difficult challenge and then the third...there's a reason the third was less daunting and you were probably more successful! That's why we make our training as real as possible in the SAS."

The challenge we all agreed was how individuals can positively adapt and respond in adversity. Emma presented us with some sage advice:

Most people will experience something, or most likely things, in their life or career that will throw it off course. And so much pressure is put on how you cope, how quickly you bounce back and return to business as usual. But that's not how things work.

We're all different. It's ok to not be ok. Take the time you need to get back on track and only forge ahead when you're ready.”

Accepting adversity is inevitable and perhaps embracing it can be an effective strategy to at least mitigate the unexpected. But once adversity arrives, even the best laid plans can be ruined and leaders need to know how to bounce back.

Achieving goals one step at a time

If we stare up at the mountain or look at the large number posted to the wall and compare it to our current position, then the end goal feels like a long, long, long way away. We inevitably think the journey is going to get that much harder.

Whether you’re a third or half-way through your project, when the going gets tough our minds break down and we start to think it’s only going to get harder.

It might sound like a cliché, but in any project or adventure, achieving one small goal at a time helps to keep us in a positive mindset. Simon had some great advice for us to keep a positive mindset.

A good way to build a positive mindset is by achieving a series of shorter goals. Whether that’s taking 10 steps in 60 seconds up the mountain, completing a small task or achieving an easy win, when we rack up two or three achievements in quick succession then we start to build momentum. Suddenly, our journey starts to feel a little easier.”

But how do you keep employees motivated in adversity?

We discussed how businesses often use external rewards, such as financial bonuses, to motivate employees.

This can work in the short or even medium term, but of course we all appreciate money or external rewards have a limited appeal. After all, if an employee is missing out on family time will there come a point when the monetary rewards become less valued than spending time with their loved ones?

Emma emphasised the importance a team leader should hold in maintaining a healthy, happy workforce:

As a leader of people, it's important to recognise your employees come in different emotional shapes and sizes. Listen, and encourage but don't push. Great leaders see the value in happy, healthy individuals.”

Simon elaborates further, encouraging leaders to draw out the intrinsic motivation factors which drive us to succeed.

For example, if I know that at the end of this project we’ll have a happy customer, or our project will make a tangible difference for others, then I’ll continue to feel motivated to come to work and perform to the best of my ability. We all want to believe we have a purpose to what we do, so leaders who can identify and explain the why rather than the want will achieve better results.”

Readers maybe interested to know that Humour and Humility are at the centre of the SAS's ethos. Colin mentioned how both characteristics are used when the chips are down to keep focus.

"They help to both maintain morale when everyone is in a sticky predicament and also remind everyone of the professional nature of the job. Remember, every person who ran a marathon or scaled Everest just kept putting one foot in front of the other That's what I told myself, as did everyone else that passed selection."

Learning lessons for next time

Finally, we discussed the merits in not just recording lessons learnt for next time, but practical methods to ensure they are implemented.

Good leaders will of course encourage, and record feedback from the team and note down improvements during the project rather than waiting to the end. Both Colin and Simon stressed the need to have robust systems and processses in place to record feedback which can be used at the next planning stage.

In particular, Colin was keen to point out how leaders should listen to everyone around them.

"Cherish the moment you conquer that snow covered mountain but then don't lose the opportunity to capture all the key learning whether a success or a failure. Create platforms that give everyone the forum to hear but also be heard. In the SAS, every man thinks like a commander and at least one level up."

Simon discussed a useful strategy used by businesses to record key lessons and ensure they are implemented next time around.

An ‘implementation intention’ strategy is an incredibly effective method for businesses to record lessons learnt and ensure they are used next time around.

Our brains seemed to be wired to understand conditional statements, such as “if X happens, we do Y”. Perhaps it’s the simplicity which makes it easy for employees to follow – even in times of stress or adversity.”

Hopefully we've all learned a few tips or strategies we can use next time we're in a pickle. Thank you to Colin, Emma and Simon for their time contributing to this fascinating discussion.

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