To be resilient or to adapt? That is the question

To be resilient or to adapt? That is the question

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Clients face a potential choice as they respond to the evolving Covid-19 situation. Do they focus on being resilient, or do they adapt to the challenges they face? Ruth Simpson, who is leading an EMCC UK webinar on this subject in October, explores the challenges and opportunities of adapting and being resilient in the current climate.

What is the difference between being resilient and adapting? Definitions of resilience refer to working through, or recovering from disruption and returning to the same end state. Adapting, however, refers to making a change or adjusting to fit new conditions. One difference between the two can therefore be described in relation to the end state. When people adapt, the end state is different, whereas when they are being resilient, the end state is the same as the one before the disruption. This is a very simple description in a complex field.

It could be said that we respond to disruption on a daily basis without considering how resilient we are. Equally, many daily disruptions cause our end state to be different. For the purposes of working with clients at this time, the distinction may help them identify the most effective response, given their particular circumstances.

The choice about whether they need to be resilient or adapt lays with the client and depends on how they see their situation. By way of an example, some clients may feel they need to develop resilience in order to respond to the disruption of having to work from home. They may see this as a temporary disruption, in which case the focus may be on reducing stress and using energy productively.

Another client may see this as an opportunity to learn about how to work more productively from home. This calls for a form of static adaptation, as described by the psychologist Eric Fromm, which requires the learning of a new skill or behaviour in response to the changed environment. The focus in this instance could be on how to set priorities, manage time and technology.

Yet another client may see this at a deeper level, if working from home has challenged how they see themselves professionally. Perhaps they previously believed you could only work in an office and if you are at home you are not really working. This would call for what Fromm described as dynamic adaptation, and requires a psychological shift in thinking. The focus here could be on exploring and challenging values and beliefs.

The process of transition

Where the client does see a need to adapt, the end state is new and different, and change is the outcome. This calls for a process of transition from the old state to the new. The academic basis for our understanding of transitions comes from research into tribal rites of passage. This identifies a three-step process of separating from the old, being betwixt and between old and new, and integrating into the new, changed state. Based on his work with people going through transitions in the 1970s, William Bridges built upon this and named the stages Letting Go, the Neutral Zone and New Beginnings.

Where static adaptation takes place and a new skill or behaviour has to be learnt, such as working productively from home, there will be things to let go of. This could include knowing that you have to handle all the resources that you might need, such as stationery, physical files or books. The neutral zone could describe how you get used to this and how you get around it. The new beginning could be evidenced by a smooth and productive day of working at home.

Dynamic adaptation, involving a psychological shift in beliefs, could involve challenging and letting go of old beliefs. For example, working at home could generate considerable tension if you believe it is only possible to lead people in a face to face setting. Letting go of strongly held beliefs can be incredibly difficult and disorientating, at very deep and personal levels.

How can coaches support clients to make a choice?

Coaches are well placed to help clients work through and develop a response to their situation by enabling them to consider the options and associated implications.

Acknowledge emotion – The most useful first step could be to reflect on the client’s experience since March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps one instance when it is possible to say that everyone has been affected by the same thing. Though the effects are likely to be unique for everyone, all our expectations for 2020 have been disrupted.

The Psychologist George Mandler presented a theory recognising that the interruption or blocking of an action affects how we feel. Irrespective of how clients choose to respond moving forward, there may be a need to acknowledge what they have had to deal with. How have the clients and those around them felt, how have they coped, and how are their energy levels? Perhaps after an initial adrenalin rush caused by the novelty of working in a different way through lockdown, there is now a weariness and need to recover.

All of this is made more challenging with little certainty about what is to come. The emotional and energetic state is relevant as it could influence what the client is able to see in their current situation, and subsequently how they choose to respond.

Clarify the end state – Recognising that the end state could be used to determine whether to be resilient or to adapt, probing and challenging the client’s thinking around the outcome they are looking for could be key. Timing will be relevant in terms of whether the situation calls for a temporary difference that will revert within a couple of weeks or months, or could this be for the foreseeable future?

By way of an example, the client could be facing the challenge of how to engage her reports virtually. If this is for a two-week quarantine period, the focus may be better placed on coping and managing resources in the short term. However, the focus could change if the situation calls for being better able to engage with reports virtually and there is no end in sight. In this case, there may be a need to focus on how to motivate others from a distance, develop new communication processes and/or consider what virtual leadership means.

Consider the resources available – Being resilient and adapting makes a call on the resources people have available. If the desired end state is to be different, this call may be considerable.  Bridges proposes that transitions take their toll physically, mentally and socially. As well as the psychological disorientation caused by questioning long held beliefs and assumptions, there may also be a loss of self-belief and confidence. Even static adaptation, such as adapting to a new process or operating system can be challenging and frustrating. And whilst this goes on internally, externally transitions could potentially affect relationships at work and home.

Resources include those available within the client themselves, externally through others and within the context of the situation they are facing. Internal resources include the client’s attitude, specifically, their levels of positivity, optimism and ability to think openly. This is in addition to their capacity and belief in their ability to cope with and manage any stress in the situation.

Externally a network of relationships to call on will be invaluable, as long as the network is available and has the energy to provide support. Having an understanding of what else is going on may also help the client to identify what could help or hinder their response to the situation they face.

Making a conscious choice

In summary, the difference between being resilient and adapting can be defined by the desired end state. If a return to the original state is desired, developing resilience to cope and use energy productively may be the best approach. If a different end state is required, adapting to fit the new conditions may be more effective and involve a process of transition.

In either case, the client’s emotional and energetic state could play an important  part in how the choice is made and which it will be. Coaches could support clients by enabling them to think through what the situation calls for and where they will find the resources necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

As I write this, in August 2020, the talk is of regional lockdowns and a potential second spike. Whatever is happening now, as you read this, we are all likely to be facing questions about how to respond to the evolving situation. Do we focus on coping and alleviating stress, or adapting to fit the new circumstances? At least recognising there is a choice may mean time, money and energy is saved, by using it consciously, in the most effective way, to suit the circumstances facing us and our clients.

The most effective answer is likely to be unique to every individual and every situation. So do you need to be resilient, or do you need to adapt?

Ruth Simpson is a coach, consultant and facilitator. She has worked for over 25 years to manage and implement change in organisations, working with leaders as a management consultant, and more recently as a coach.

Ruth is leading an EMCC UK webinar, To be resilient or to adapt? That is the question on 9 October. Follow the link for more information and booking.

Photo: Nick Bolton