2 Questions to Improve Resilience

How to improve someone’s ability to cope with difficult tasks.

3 min read

Asking just two questions can help identify and improve someone’s resilience for a task - their ability to persevere and find ways around challenges.

As we have noted in both the book and a previous blog, resilience is a critical capability for success. It is the ability to find ways around potential challenges and develop new or alternative ways of doing things. It is the capacity to cope with adversity and sometimes even grow stronger from it.

Now a seemingly unrelated new piece of research may hold a clue for something simple that all managers can do to help people improve the resilience of their people for tasks.

The research in question involved experienced pilots completing a flight simulator exercise. The pilots were told beforehand that that the exercise would involve an engine failure that would occur shortly after take-off (one of the most difficult situations a pilot can face). And they were then asked two simple questions: "How demanding do you expect the task to be?" And, "How able are you to cope with the demands of the task?"

What the researchers found was that the pilots’ responses to these questions accurately predicted how well they subsequently coped with the engine failure. Pilots who saw themselves as less able to cope were indeed less able to do so. Moreover, their answers to these two questions predicted their ability to land the plane safely more than other relevant factors such as their age and years of experience.

So when you next set one of your direct reports a task a project, try asking them these two questions. They may not be totally open with their concerns, but it will help you understand how they feel about the task and as the study with the pilots shows, how people feel is important.

Implementation Intentions

There is of course a follow-on issue: namely how to help someone who isn’t confident about their ability to deal with the demands of a task. The solution here is something that psychologists call ‘implementation intentions’, which effectively boils down to making a plan – preparing for what to do when things go wrong. This is a popular technique as it is simple, quick and effective. It involves only a few steps.

First, ask the individual to think about what setbacks or problems they may encounter with the change in behaviour they are seeking to achieve. Make a few suggestions of your own if they struggle to come up with a good list. Then, for each issue, ask them how they should respond, how they think about what the options and alternatives might be, and how effective each response would be. Again, feel free to make suggestions to help them. And that is it. It is that easy. Identify potential problems and then plan for them. It both reinforces people’s self-confidence and helps them to cope with almost inevitable setbacks.

A good example of this was a senior engineer we worked with who had a tendency to talk over others in meetings and inadvertently close down debate by seeming too black-and-white and strong in voicing his views. The problem was that it was annoying his colleagues, preventing a good discussion of issues that needed discussing and, as a result, it was irritating his manager. We worked with him to look at his underlying beliefs about wanting to make himself heard and we helped him identify ways of voicing his opinion in a less certain and aggressive manner. Yet although he was a willing individual, who wanted to stop annoying others, deep down he was not sure he could change.

Knowing that sometimes his old, historical behaviours would inevitably show through, we helped him prepare for this. We talked through what might happen and helped him develop a plan for how he should respond in each scenario – for example, apologizing to people after a meeting or approaching them and asking their opinion on the subject he had inadvertently closed down. Inevitably, he did sometimes fail in the behaviour change and continued to talk over people and dominate meetings. But because he had a Plan B, he also had a constructive way to deal with these occasions. His setbacks became expected challenges with pre-prepared solutions, rather than confirmation that change was not possible.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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