How Are You Coping?

The Foundations of Resiliency: Part 3

You think you know stress??

How about being an OR nurse?

I cannot imagine many environments requiring more coping skills than hospital operating rooms (except perhaps a battlefield).

In her research on resiliency among operating room nurses Brigid Gillespie identified Hope, Self-Efficacy, Coping, and Competence as significant factors in fostering the resiliency that nurses in that environment require.

Resiliency: A Refresher

In my first two posts on resiliency, we looked at the roles of hopefulness and self-efficacy. True hopefulness combines a clear and optimistic view of the future with the confidence that we have what it takes to get there. Self-efficacy is being confident that we have the necessary tools to accomplish the tasks ahead of us.


Coping strategies fall into two categories: emotion-focused coping and issue-focused coping. In the former, we cope with stressful situations by managing our thoughts and emotions (denial, humour, meditation, etc.). In the latter we cope with stress through learning, by changing our behaviours, and by changing our environments.

Most of us use a combination of emotion- and issue-focused coping strategies when dealing with difficult situations. But Gillespie and others have confirmed individuals are more resilient when they focus most of their energy on issue-focused strategies.

At an organizational level, developing resiliency through stronger coping skills requires focus on three key areas: emotional safety, a learning environment, and a focus on successful behaviours.

Emotional Safety

Emotion-focused strategies allow us to calm down, to regroup, and to focus enough to turn to issue-focused tactics. There is no point in undertaking complex learning- or behaviour-changing strategies when our heart is still pounding or we are overwhelmed with anxiety. Our stress hormones (like cortisol) and our limbic system make very sure of that.

Organizations must provide an environment that is emotionally, or psychologically safe. Psychologically safe environments have the following hallmarks.

  • Confidentiality/absence of gossip – team members know if stressful situations in their personal and professional lives are shared with others, that information is safe.
  • Bitch-buddies – I’m not kidding. Check out Winn Claybaugh’s take on this. A healthy team is one on which everyone has someone they can vent to in confidence or use as a sounding board. In these private, personal exchanges, listening, confidentiality, and empathy are required.
  • A trust in the good intentions of others – a psychologically safe environment is one where, even when you can’t quite believe what you just heard, there’s enough trust in the bank to wait a bit to see how things play out. Negative or hurtful comments or actions, when they do occur, are assumed to be the result of fear, misunderstandings, momentary stress, or a lack of chocolate! They aren’t excused, but they can be understood.
  • Permission to be candid – because we are operating in an environment of good will and have the success of the team at heart, we can approach people with concerns or constructive criticism. If we check in respectfully and in confidence, we should find a listening attitude, and a commitment to acting on, or at least considering seriously, feedback we get.

If we can honestly say your organization exhibits most of these elements of an emotionally safe environment, we can consider ourselves fortunate. Those organizations are still disappointingly rare.

A Learning Environment

Fear is a primary cause of stress and negative behaviour, and ignorance is a primary cause of fear. Solution-focused coping requires an environment where ‘seeking to understand’ is a building block for solutions. Each challenge is met with a commitment to understanding its causes, and to collaboratively exploring solutions.

Peter Senge, in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, created the modern understanding of a learning organization. Senge identified five main characteristics of a learning organization: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision and team learning. The last two of these are key for a team with great coping skills. A shared vision is important is the root of clear purpose. Learning should be freely shared.

A Focus on Successful Actions

The ability to adapt our behaviours is a critical key to coping. You might be calm after each storm, you might even feel like you have ‘learned something from this’, but if our actual behaviours don’t change in a way that makes us more effective the next time out, we are just rolling from one crisis to the next. Without responsive change at the individual and organizational levels, repeated crises and traumas lower resiliency. Each successive hit is a little harder to recover from.

Resilient organizations acknowledge and reward positive changes in behaviour. These kinds of organizations have four qualities:

  1. They reward us for taking risks and operating outside of our comfort zones. Operating at the edges of our comfort zones is necessary for growth and change, and requires psychological safety.
  2. They look at long-term trends, not daily blips. Even those of us with the best track records for rapid learning and constant self-improvement have bad days or even weeks that are outside the norm. Smart leaders and smart partners accept that short term funks and failures are a normal part of the growth process and don’t dwell on them.
  3. They allow us to show up as new people. One of the traps we fall into is allowing our past experiences of others to lock our expectations of their future behaviour. We don’t allow people to change. As parents we are notoriously blind to the new independence, changes, and maturity of our growing kids. We see who we expect to see (confirmation bias), not who the person really is. If organizations do this, they limit the ability of their best talent to change and grow as ever-increasingly effective people with new habits and behaviours.
  4. They reward real change as it occurs. Research has confirmed this for almost a century: nothing encourages positive changes in behaviour better than reinforcing feedback. Notice someone coping with a difficult situation successfully? Tell them you notice! See someone stepping outside their comfort zone even a little bit? Provide reinforcing feedback that encourages more. Acknowledging positive change now ensures positive change in the future.

An Action Plan for Solution-focused Coping

Three steps to strengthening our coping skills:

  1. Use emotion-focused strategies to reduce your immediate level of anxiety and stress. Meditate, exercise, have a glass of wine, call a friend (or a bitch-buddy); whatever it takes to allow you to get grounded enough to act. Are you working in an environment that exposes you to stress but makes emotional safety impossible to find? Leave. There’s no growth there.
  2. Reflect and learn. Take time to understand how you got yourself into a situation in the first place. Connect with others to share reflections and strategies.
  3. Change your behaviour. We are a collection of our habits. Identify those habits (or lack of them) that amplified stressful situations, and do the work of changing them. If you see a colleague, peer, or employee trying to do the same, acknowledge and support their efforts. Coaching or mentoring relationships are powerful, and necessary, elements of consistent behavioural change.

Developing coping skills is largely the domain of the individual. But organizations can do a lot to support. By providing psychologically safe environments, nurturing learning, and providing feedback, great organizations increase collective and individual resiliency.

#organizationalresilience #resilience #organizationalperformance

About the Author

Clemens Rettich

I am an organizational consultant and educator with over 20 years of experience in supporting the improvement of organizations and organizational management across North America. I work at the intersection of people, systems, and change with a human-culture-first mindset that values joy, innovation, and collaboration. As a teaching professor at the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, I teach in the areas of leadership and organizational behaviour. In my work I explore the nature of the human organization in a post-colonial, post-technocratic society. I hold an MBA (Leadership and Organizations), and an undergraduate degree in music (Musicology, Performance). My areas of practice include management and leadership, organizational behaviour, process improvement, organizational change, and talent development and training.
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