TalentFocus Blog

  • Building resilience

    by Angus McDonald, Chartered Psychologist

    Few will ever have experienced a time such as this. The world is facing a threat the like of which has not been seen in over 100 years. We’re all in this together. The need to act collectively is great if we are to manage and eventually overcome what will be for many, the greatest ever challenge to their day-to-day lives. The message of collective action is repeated daily by politicians and the media. Many countries have brought in temporary laws to enforce changes. Just as important, maybe more so, are rapidly developing social norms that nudge people to behave in new ways, probably the best example of which is social distancing.

    So, we’re all in this together. Yes. And no. Whilst coronavirus may be bringing the world together in an unprecedented way, we don’t have to look too far to see divisions. Geographical divisions are great, as the spread of the virus across the world affects different countries at different times and at different rates. It lays bare differences in countries’ infrastructure, especially in terms of healthcare. Even within specific countries, the experience of the current situation will differ greatly from place to place. And it needs to go even more localised. We need to appreciate how it affects each and every individual.

    So, maybe we’re not in this together in the same way. For over a century, psychologists have puzzled over why two people exposed to the same event can react very differently to it. Initially this was studied in relation to extreme events like war, natural disasters or accidents. Interest then turned to the more mundane, looking at the impact of everyday events on people’s psychological health. One outcome of this was the development of ‘life events checklists’ which assigned objective weights to specific events – divorce, illness, getting a parking ticket and even Christmas. However, simply recording what events a person had experienced turned out to have little bearing on their wellbeing. What was far more predictive was the meaning of the event to the individual and the resources they had available to them to deal with it.

    A key message to take from this is that we will all deal with the current situation differently. Our behaviours and feelings will result from an interaction of our specific situation and our individual characteristics. People on the front-line’s psychological wellbeing, especially medics but also all emergency services and those who are required to interact with the public like shop workers, may be particularly at risk. Control is important here. People with greater personal control over situations tend to have better health outcomes; it gives the belief of being able to change things in a way we want, being able to act rather than simply acted upon. These people tend to be more resilient and resistant to stress.

    Resistance to stress is a core aspect of personality. It is found in many assessments and can give valuable insights into how people typically deal with stress. At a fundamental level, people react differently to pressurised, stressful situations. Some naturally show strong reactions which may leave them vulnerable, especially when they may not be adequately supported. However, it is more subtle than simply being resistant to stress or not. Whereas some respond flexibly to changing situations, something that is more relevant now than ever, others do not. They find comfort and reassurance in routine and what is predictable, and so change may adversely affect their sense of control and so wellbeing. Further, some may be very good at keeping their emotions in check, so they appear healthy to others. Not outwardly showing signs of stress will not necessarily mean that someone is coping well.

    For people working at the front-line, recognising that our reaction to a situation may be different to our colleague’s reaction is an essential first step in supporting them to build resilience. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but support that meets everyone’s individual needs and so allows them to remain effective. Personality assessments provide a powerful way of appreciating such differences. They are a short-cut to getting to know someone and to understanding how they are likely to be reacting to the current situation. By appreciating this uniqueness, we collectively build resilience. After all, we’re all in this together.

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  • Fostering innovation

    by Angus McDonald, Chartered Psychologist

    Human history is the history of innovation. Our ability first to adapt to our environment and then to adapt our environment to us, is unparalleled. Our innovations have given us the life we lead today. Whilst many bring huge benefits, the benefits of some are questionable. Others have a clearly negative, often unforeseen, impact, leading to situations where further innovation is needed to put things right. What is clear, is that we are on a path where innovation will become ever more important. There’s no going back from here.

    Much has been written about the creative mind and the psychology of innovation and creativity – the search for the chemistry of the ‘eureka’ moment. However, looking at selected great leaps forward, typically associated with individual moments of deep insight, is probably a distraction. The gradual developments, whether individual or collective, that make up the far greater body of innovation, is where the future lies.

    And we need this now, more than ever. Our current situation means that individuals, teams, organizations and whole nations are needing to find new ways of working together. Many employees now find themselves working from home, having to conduct meetings, training courses and other typically in-person events using virtual technology methods. Companies are already looking to the future, anticipating how they will need to adapt to a world different from only a few months ago. The ability to innovate will separate those that succeed from those that don’t. And for life to fully return to what it was, we will all rely on the ability of drug companies to find new vaccines.

    We’re all innovators. We learn, grow and develop, changing all the time. We may not all do it in the same way, at the same rate or to the same extent, but we all do it. Some people are seen as being more ‘innovative’ than others, but everyone has a role to play in the process. And without involving everyone the process is often incomplete and the results far less than they might have been. The challenge is to nurture innovation in all its forms, especially when working with disparate teams that may have limited opportunities for direct interaction.

    An important aspect of innovation is how we view change. This is a core aspect of thinking style commonly labelled ‘openness’ or ‘pragmatism’. In fact, openness and pragmatism are often seen as opposite ends of a continuum. At one end you have people who embrace change, conceptual thinking, creativity and independence of thought – these are the change agents. At the other end you have people who value what is known, are practical and outcome focussed, and who are happy to take the lead from others. Though not always viewed as drivers of change, for these people change is steady, incremental and introduced only after consideration. Both have an equal role to play.

    In today’s complex world, innovation is rarely individual. Instead it is the result of many people coming together with different knowledge and alternative perspectives. In such a situation, the catalyst for successful innovation lies in how we communicate, explore issues and work together. Again, we can think of this as a continuum. At one end you have those who readily communicate, want to talk through their ideas and innovate through acting with others. At the other are those who want to take time to think through their ideas independently, presenting them for consideration only when they have had time to think them through and reflect. This sounds a lot like the classic personality dimension of ‘introversion’ and ‘extraversion’. Again, both have an equal role to play in innovation.

    So, we have two aspects of personality that independently relate to innovation. But when we put them together, we get something much more powerful. Everybody’s personality preferences will vary along the extraversion-introversion scale and along the pragmatism-openness scale. Combining these two scales gives insight into richer variations; how these characteristics work together and support innovation, as shown below.  

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