You think you know stress??
How about being an OR nurse? I cannot imagine an environment that would require more coping skills than a hospital operating room (except perhaps a battlefield). From having someone’s life in your hands to dealing with hospital bureaucracy, the levels of stress are hard to imagine.
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.
Not surprisingly, Gillespie identified coping skills, specifically what she calls “problem-focused” coping, as one of the primary predictors of resiliency.
Resiliency: A Refresher
An organization requires resiliency to grow, and to bounce back smarter and stronger from any challenges.
In my first two articles on resiliency, I 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 having the confidence that we have the necessary tools to accomplish the tasks ahead of us.
In this article we look at coping, the measure of our ability to deal successfully with stressful or even threatening situations.
Coping strategies fall into two categories: emotion-focused coping and problem-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. In keeping with the solution-oriented nature of my work, I am going to change the latter to ‘solution-focused coping’.
Most of us use a combination of emotion- and solution-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 solution-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.
Emotion-focused strategies allow us to calm down, to regroup, and to focus enough to turn to a solution-focused strategy. There is no point in undertaking complex learning- or behaviour-changing strategies when our heart is still pounding or we are overwhelmed with anxiety.
Organizations must provide an environment that is emotionally safe. Emotionally safe environments have the following hallmarks:
- Confidentiality/absence of gossip – team members know that if stressful situations in their personal and professional lives are shared with others, that information is safe and will not be the subject of gossip.
- 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 the main values.
- A trust in the good intentions of others – an emotionally safe environment is one where, even when you can’t quite believe what you just heard, you have the trust and the confidence to check further because generally every member of the team has each other’s backs. Negative or hurtful comments or actions, when they do occur, are assumed to be the result of misunderstandings, momentary stress, or a clear lack of chocolate! People usually say what they mean, and there is an absence of mind games.
- Permission to be honest – because everyone is operating in an environment of good will and has the success of the organization at heart, you can approach people with concerns or constructive criticism. If you check in respectfully and in confidence, you should find a listening attitude, and a commitment to acting on your feedback.
If you can honestly say your organization exhibits most of these elements of an emotionally safe environment, consider yourself fortunate. These organizations are still disappointingly rare.
A Learning Environment
If fear is a primary cause of stress and negative behaviour, then ignorance is a primary cause of fear. Solution-focused coping requires an environment where ‘seeking to understand’ is valued. Each challenge is met with a commitment to understanding its causes, and to collaboratively investigating 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. Experiences and knowledge should be freely shared. There is no room for holding onto information or knowledge for the sake of control or personal advancement.
A Focus on Successful Actions
The ability to change our behaviours is a critical key to coping and resiliency. You might be calm after each storm, you might even feel like you have ‘learned something from this’, but if your behaviour doesn’t change and grow in a way that makes you more effective the next time out, you are just coasting from one disaster to the next. And worse, as I wrote in the first article, repeated disasters and traumas lower our resiliency. Each successive one is a little harder to recover from if there is no learning or change.
Resilient organizations acknowledge and reward positive changes in behaviour. These kinds of organizations have four qualities:
- They reward us for taking risks and operating outside of our comfort zones. Operating outside of our comfort zones is necessary for growth and change.
- 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 days or even weeks that are outside of 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.
- 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 do this a lot: we are notoriously blind to the new independence, changes, and maturity of our growing kids. We see who we expect to see, not who the person really is. If organizations do this, they seriously limit our abilities to show up and act as effective people with new habits and behaviours.
- They acknowledge or reward real change as it occurs. Research has confirmed this for almost a century: nothing encourages positive changes in behaviour better than positive 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 some form of positive feedback, large or small. Rewarding great performance now ensures great performance in the future.
An Action Plan for Solution-focused Coping
To summarize, here are three steps to strengthening our coping skills:
- Use emotion-focused strategies to reduce your immediate level of anxiety and stress. Meditate, exercise, have a glass of wine; whatever it takes to allow you to get grounded enough to act. Are you working in an environment that exposes you to stress but does not provide emotional safety? Seek change, or leave.
- Reflect and learn. Take time to understand how you got yourself into a situation in the first place. Connect with others to share situations and strategies.
- Change your behaviour. Make a list of new behaviours that might keep you out of similar negative situations in the future. We are a collection of our habits. Identify those specific habits (or lack of them) that result in stressful situations, and do the tough but rewarding work of changing them. And 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 probably necessary, elements of behavioural change.
Great coping skills, emotion- or solution-focused, are largely the domain of the individual. But organizations can do a lot to support us in this area. By providing emotionally safe environments, encouraging learning, and supporting changes in action and behaviour, great organizations increase the resiliency of both the organization and everyone in it.
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