Army officers who shed a few discreet tears when they have lost men in battle are more likely to possess the emotional resilience required of a great leader than those who attempt to cover their emotions with bravado.
In commercial life, too, the ability to express emotion rather than bottle it up, and to face difficult decisions about a staff member or team, tends to distinguish the self-aware, inspirational manager from the also-ran.
So says brigadier Richard Barrons, a serving Army officer and co-author of a book which argues that success in both military and management life relies on having what he calls the “moral courage and innate resilience” to accept change or disaster without blaming others or being blown off course.
He believes that while the age-old English concept of the ‘stiff upper lip’ has become shorthand for the tendency to hide feelings and deny emotion, it actually means precisely the opposite.
“We see it as being sufficiently emotionally responsive to see the problem, but not so emotionally fragile that we ever let the problem beat us,” he says.
When an organisation faces a reputation-crushing crisis – whether it is an illicit affair among the top ranks or a throw-away remark from the chief executive, à la Gerald Ratner – there is a thin line between those who bounce back and those who are permanently crushed by the fall-out.
The difference between the two, says Kevin Money of the School of Reputation and Relationships at Henley Management College, is the ability to bounce back when disaster strikes and to learn from it.
He says that weathering the storms of failure is a pre-requisite for achievement in business. Yet while in-built emotional resilience, which doesn’t mean being insensitive or boorish towards others, is critical to both personal and business fulfilment, organisations are not doing enough to build such resilience in their staff, according to Money.
Ironically, however well-meant and well-planned they may be, many of the weapons in the HR armoury can knock employees’ resilience rather than promote it.
“Techniques such as 360-degree feedback and annual appraisals are supposed to improve self-awareness and future performance, but can end up denting self-confidence and self-esteem instead,” he says.
“If feedback is given in context and is constructive in tone, it may add to people’s self-awareness, but when handled clumsily, the effect may be to puncture the very resilience that employers should be actively fostering.”
The notion that employers are responsible for tending to the emotional maturity of their staff may sound a little like nannying. But Money’s remarks are echoed by those of Doug Crawford, head of employee engagement at HR consultancy Chiumento, who believes that the practice of holding annual, overly formal appraisals can be “intimidating and threatening”.
Crawford argues that in most organisations, too much emphasis is placed on the assessment of individual performance, and not enough on holding managers accountable for the climate they create in their teams.
“The performance management process should be re-christened ‘performance enablement’,” he says. “Rather than concentrating on basic stuff like ‘outputs’ and ‘deliverables’, it should measure and quantify the role of managers in enabling their teams to be successful in the goals they are set at work.
“A manager’s contribution to making staff successful in what they do – and creating a climate that fosters success and emotional resilience – should also be measured, but in reality, this very rarely happens,” Crawford adds.
In The Business General, Barrons and his co-author Deborah Tom – a psychologist and management consultant – argue that emotional resilience allows a leader to make tough decisions and live with the consequences. Sending men into battle may at first appear to have little to do with the rough-and-tumble of business life, but the analogy between Army life and the boardroom does stand up to scrutiny.
“We hear a lot about emotional intelligence, but I would argue that emotional resilience is inextricably linked to it,” says Tom.
“If you are able, as a leader, to empathise with others and form relationships based on trust and integrity, you also have the resilience to allow you to make unpopular decisions and break bad news without losing direction or respect.”
The first rule of emotional resilience is self-knowledge, according to Tom. Resilient leaders have confidence and self-belief, and rather than being blown off course when unwelcome change happens, can remain focused and calm. Criticism, she adds, is an essential part of performance management, and should not be taken as a personal attack.
“People get very precious when their own performance or decision-making is questioned, but in terms of emotional resilience, candid appraisal is a very good way to toughen yourself up,” she says.
Managing a workforce may not have all the ups and downs of a military campaign, but both share the element of the unpredictable. Giving staff a thicker skin could help your business to bounce back.
How to sharpen your emotional intelligence
The crying game
Anyone who followed BBC hit series The Apprentice will have witnessed former HR manager Jo Cameron’s frequent emotional outbursts during the team tasks.
On the whole, however, it is rarely acceptable to show too much emotion at work. Staff who cry in the office are perceived to lack control or be emotionally unstable.
But according to a study by Susan Cartwright, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, the more ’emotionally intelligent’ we are, the more successful we are likely to be at work.
The results of her study found that workers who externalised or expressed their feelings managed their emotions better and experienced less stress.
So while no-one is advocating a daily dose of tears, the occasional sniffle could make staff more, rather than less, resilient at work.
How to toughen up – sensitively
- Get in touch with your feelings and give them expression. Holding back can make you overly controlled and brittle.
- Rid yourself of negative talk that reduces your confidence. Replace it with positive ïcan-doÍ statements.
- Know where you, your team and your organisation are going, and focus on one main aim.
- Include everyone in your vision, whatever their seniority.
- List what you have achieved in your personal/business life and picture yourself achieving great things again.
- Analyse your values and assess whether you are living them.
- Make a point of getting to know team members on a personal level. Do not be afraid to ask them interested, although not nosy, questions about their personal lives.
- Do not be tempted to blame members of the team when things go pear-shaped. A blame culture damages self-confidence and encourages people to hide the truth rather than share it.
- Exercise gets rid of demons and makes you feel more mentally alert and robust.
- An office culture that treasures optimism rather than pessimism is more likely to succeed in its aims.