The Ultimate Resilience Playbook for Technology Leaders

As we hurtle towards the final quarter of 2020 and look back at what a year it’s been (and likely will continue to be) resilience has never been more needed professionally as well as personally. 

What is resilience?

There are many descriptions of resilience with and across different spheres (i.e. international development, warfare, social work etc) but at its base level, resilience is mental toughness combined with the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; the ability for something (or someone) to ‘snap’ back into shape once bent. Part hardiness (optimism and predisposition towards challenge and risk), part confidence, resilience is what allows people to take whatever comes in stride, with a focus on what they can learn and gain from the experience: “All mentally tough individuals are resilient, but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough” (Clough and Strycharczyk, 2015).

Comparison and generalisation is hard because resilience is a variable that changes from person-to-person. It is also situation specific; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences over the course of a person’s life, will serve to shape their resilience, but like a muscle, it can also be trained and strengthened over time. Failure to exercise and nurture it – thereby allowing ongoing stress and difficulties to chip away at it – may lead to one or multiple episodes of burnout.

Understanding stress

Humans experience four types of stressor:

  • Ambient stressor – These run as a ‘background track’ to daily life and result in leaving the nervous system in a persistent low-level sympathetic stress response (fight, flight or freeze). I.e working in an office with flickering lights or noxious smells;
  • Specific stressor – A definitive event that generates a sympathetic stress response. I.e. failing to deliver on a project or being made redundant.
  • External stressor – Events occurring in the outside world (i.e. pandemics or political unrest) which trigger a sympathetic stress response.
  • Internal stressor Stress caused by an internal narrative or belief that generates a sympathetic stress response i.e. anxiety or imposter syndrome

Niching it down to business-related situations, in the late 1970’s Dr Karl Abrecht pioneered stress management techniques that detailed four common’ types of stress:

  • Time stress Fretting about deadlines? Too much to do and not enough time in which to do it? Time (or the perceived lack of it) can be a big source of worry and stress; 
  • Anticipatory stress This can be fear and worry surrounding an upcoming event or general unease about the future, especially when it’s filled with uncertainty; 
  • Situational stress While this could be circumstances that have arisen due to an emergency, situational stress more commonly occurs during times of workplace conflict, when mistakes are made or (perceived) judgment due to loss of status and/or confidence (i.e. demotion/redundancy); and
  • Encounter stress – Some people call themselves a ‘people person’ and can adapt better to this kind of stress, others find such interactions more stressful or draining. Those whose work involves regular encounters with clients or customers in distress (i.e. health and social workers) and those whose personality traits lean towards introversion or are more shy/anxious types can be especially susceptible if their resilience muscle is weak. 

More often than not, more than one of these stresses will be present at any one time, but their severity (and thereby the impact) will ebb and flow. 

Why is resilience so important in tech and leadership?

A while back, we looked at the possible reasons why tech leaders were more likely to experience burnout. We posited that the incredibly fast-paced nature of technology itself (time stress), the 24/7 accessibility (situational stress) and three-way management that also includes regular, often confrontational, client/user feedback (encounter stress) make it unlike many other industries. Add to that the heightened anticipatory stress experienced by startups and you have a melting pot of potential mental health crises. As such, to maintain strong leadership and sustainable teams (i.e. reducing absenteeism, improving retention and fostering learning), building resilience has to be prioritised. 

A six-month long research survey was conducted by Jonny Miller and Jan Chipchase concluding in May 2020 and lead to creation of the interactive Emotional Resilience In Leadership Report 2020. Report highlights include:

  • The Shadow Stressor framework to identify and mitigate stressors, which are the causes of burnout.
  • The Resilience and Emotional Debt (RED) framework, to understand how the likelihood of burnout builds over time, and how we post-hoc rationalise the burnout experience.
  • The cost of burnout on relationships, health and finances, including the bottom line.
  • The four main barriers to resilience: perceived vulnerability, insufficient support structures, lack of emotional and physical awareness, and workaholism.

The survey was completed by 261 respondents from 43 countries, with 26 follow-up phone interviews and the resulting interactive report aims to ‘better support resilience in our teams, organisations and ourselves’ as part of the authors’ multi-year research. 

Given the survey’s reach and volume of voluntary contributions, it is clear that the burnout phenomenon is more prevalent than ever and that without a shift towards improving resilience in the workplace (as well as leadership), it will continue its upward trend. 

How do you start building resilience at work?

While resilience is not a fixed entity, a framework can be designed and implemented that contains solid measures for improving the resilience of leaders and their teams through training, system configuration, and organisational learning and development. 

Firstly, any framework needs to consider: 

  1. Existing capacities and capabilities, assets and resources;
  2. Any underlying causes of risks and vulnerability; and
  3. The enabling environment (organisational and situational) and possible triggers i.e. formal or informal rules, practices and policies.

Secondly, it needs to cover the three key spheres of impact: psychological, physiological and environmental. 

Psychological Resilience

Professional athletes and military personnel include the mind as part of their elite training. Doing so can boost confidence, improve focus, bolster self-belief and increase motivation; all factors that play a part in how resilient an individual is and can help stave off burnout. 

This can be done in a multitude of ways:

  • Mindfulness – Not just a buzzword of the last decade, it’s a science-backed game-changer when done correctly and regularly. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. In 2015, a comprehensive study found: ‘Individuals with higher mindfulness have greater resilience, thereby increasing their life satisfaction’. The researchers noted that people who practised mindfulness ‘can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. It also weakens the chain of associations that keep people obsessing about their problems or failures, which increases the likelihood they will try again.’
  • Detaching – This is different from dissociating which can be dangerous and linked to mental health issues like depression. Positive detachment instead allows you to experience the stress-related emotions without being overwhelmed by them and find a balance that enables you to undo the negative impact of any stressors before moving forward. Finding a way to detach yourself from outcomes and let go of (perceived) control can bring a much-needed sense of peace:
    • Observe your thoughts and feelings – If you are attached to something, it will bring heightened emotions with it; racing heart, sweating, shift in mood etc. Most attachment is about control, and often, control is an illusion.
    • Distinguish between internal reality and actual fact – Self-worth (or lack of it) is likely to take the lead when a negative outcome has occurred and not only centred you within the situation but blamed you for it and all other future negative outcomes when the reality is not only quite different, it is nowhere near as extreme or bad as envisaged by your inner critic; and
    • Embrace uncertainty – As Pliny the Elder posited: “In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain”. Security only comes when you’re willing to embrace uncertainty. 
  • Compartmentalise – Compartmentalisation is the ability to suppress – either consciously or subconsciously – difficult thoughts and feelings. Similar to practising positive detachment, mastering the art of compartmentalisation can have beneficial outcomes when facing stress and/or trauma. The key difference is that you’re not avoiding the issue, merely ‘filing it away’ to allow conflicting ideas to exist in your mind at the same time, or permitting you to find a way forward without it tripping you up. By reducing the amount of anxiety felt both prior to and during the undertaking of tasks that induce feelings of pressure or a misalignment of values, a person will be better able to face them each time they arise. Try compartmentalising by:
    • Isolate issues/tasks;
    • Apply extreme focus to the designated task for a short period of time (do not multitask and juggle things that fall outside of the category being dealt with);
    • Have tangible markers of progress so you can objectively see development;
    • Once progress has been made, close the compartment and address the next thing on your ‘stressor’ list.
  • Respond versus react – The difference between reacting and responding is awareness. Reacting is driven by beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind in the given moment. Responding however, allows for both unconscious and conscious information to be considered, including the conflict being faced and the long-term impact of the approach about to be taken. Being able to notice when behaviours are becoming destructive and stop them in their tracks. 
  • Practice self-compassion – When faced with difficulty and conflict, many people can be their own worst enemy and revert to self-criticism. This only serves to damage their self-esteem and confidence further and often is the time when both are most-needed. Instead, self-compassion should be the first port of call. Compassion consists of three parts:
    • Kindness – The ability to relate and treat ourselves and others with warmth and kindness;
    • Common humanity – The understanding and appreciation that adversity affects everyone at some point in their life and that you/they are not alone in feeling this way; and
    • Awareness (mindfulness) – The ability to view difficulties with a balanced, rather than insular, view so it doesn’t prevent engagement and enjoyment of other parts of life.

Being aware of your inner critic, finding a way to silence it (i.e. by countering the negative narrative with pre-prepared contradictions or pointing out the good things that have been achieved and being encouraging can help build your own internal allyship and support system.

  • Reframe the problems and language used – Optimistic people tend to be more resilient, which is good because optimism can be learned. When things get hard, it can be the first thing to go alongside hope, but making an active move away from complaining and learned helplessness at work is possible. By deliberately trying to see the good in situations and reframing the experience and turning it – and any negative language used to describe it and you – on its head (I.e I feel rather than I am anxious about this project), you’ll automatically start to feel more in control and therefore better. It takes time and concerted effort, but like anything, doing it enough will turn it into a good habit. 

Physiological Resilience

Physiological resilience includes looking at both the immediate and longer-term impacts of stress on biological factors such as hormones, neurochemicals, genes, inflammation, oxidative stress, gut health and immunity. 

Steps taken to increase physiological resilience can also indirectly reduce psychological and environmental stress across someone’s lifespan:

  • Take a break – Putting physical distance between yourself and the conflict (i.e. leaving the workplace situation or moving into another room away from equipment being used or for a stressful project) can be beneficial as it leads to more balanced emotional health, sharper focus and even creativity. Studies have also found that taking breaks before reaching exhaustion point reduces or prevents overall stress, helps to maintain performance throughout the day and reduces the need for a long recovery at the end of the day.
  • Meditation – While mindfulness is one form of meditation, there are several others including body scanning, chanting, visualisation and breathing exercises (i.e. focusing on the natural rhythm of the breath and the rise and fall of the chest) that can have great physiological effects. Meditation can help channel negative thoughts, decrease stress biomarkers (such as thermal body temperature), regulate breathing and reduce the heart rate all of which can decrease the feeling of overwhelm, lessen anxious thoughts and bolster resilience. 
  • Do something you love – Often, doing a task or undertaking a hobby you enjoy means you’re likely to be good at it. Even if you aren’t, persevere, as you’re likely to see progress. Being passionate about something enforces a positive sense of self by helping you understand your strengths and weaknesses, provides stress-relief (i.e. reduces bodily tension) and increases resilience. 
  • Self-care – People’s ability to care for others/undertake stressful projects for a sustained amount of time requires them to take care of their own wellbeing and strengthen their resilience first i.e. putting on their oxygen mask before they help others put theirs on. Self-care may look different from one person to the next – and depend on their time and energy levels – but at base level it means eating well, exercising, resting and relaxing. 
  • Reach out – For many, a problem shared is a problem halved. While asking for help may feel like the opposite of being resilient, it actually isn’t. Acknowledging that there is a problem and recognising that external support is needed actually helps you feel more resilient in the longer term. Secondly, it’s a two-way street and where a relationship becomes one of mutual support, each party – when in the giving position – will feel an increased sense of strength and ability to cope, even in cases when they are experiencing adversity themselves.

Environmental Resilience

With the continuous advancement of resilience theory, more efforts are being made to analyse and promote resilience within social-ecological systems and find ways for people and institutions to govern such dynamics for improved human wellbeing, both on local and global scales. 

Given the multiple pressures on technology teams and leaders, and the need to adapt to organisational change, enabling and subsequently boosting resilience within the workplace environment is incredibly important to prevent future exhaustion and burnout:

  • Identify and remove or reduce triggers where possible – Make a list of all work-related stressors and mark an E for each one you can eliminate, an R for each one you can reduce the strength of, and a D for each stressor you can learn to deal with. In a column next to the ones marked with an E or an R, write down ideas you have on how you’re going to achieve such elimination or reduction and start implementing it as soon as possible. For those marked D, it will also be mentally easier knowing that you’re able to cope with them when they next crop up.
  • Take a strengths-based approach – Lifted from the world of health and social work, this concept shifts the focus away from so-called ‘negative’ traits or actions and identifies and builds on the strengths and capacities a person possesses to help them resolve problems and deliver their own solutions. This approach helps people feel capable of self-rescue and more resilient during times of adversity and is crucial for team resilience. 
  • Create and foster a support network – In order to be able to reach out, a person needs to have a solid support network. More and more organisations are adopting the ‘bring your whole self to work’ approach. Others have gone even further and offer Mental Health Days. People need to feel psychologically safe at work, not only to make mistakes but to ask for help – this includes when they are struggling and need additional support. A support network of trusted colleagues (both peers and managers) should be in place to provide a safety net for when things become difficult to help ease the load. 
  • Encourage work/life balance – When the balance shifts in favour of work, you can lose perspective of not only what is important, but see it (and the related stressors) as all-consuming. There will be points when work requires more time, effort and energy but this should not be all the time as it will become a relentless cycle of doing more and more until you reach breaking point/workaholism. Jobs can mean a lot to people and for many, their identity is tied up in it, but there also needs to be boundaries to stop it seeping into and negatively affecting other parts of life. 
  • Improve resources and access to them – Work ‘perks’ shouldn’t just include socials and free lunches. The wellbeing of employees is paramount and the key to happy, engaged teams and commercial success. Being able to access things like the EAP scheme, regular meditation and yoga sessions, subsidised gym memberships, free on-site massages and health and nutritional events are ranked much higher and have a far bigger impact than benefits like Friday beers or free ‘work late’ dinners (which simply encourages a toxic working culture). 
  • Design a recovery plan – In the event that things have already gone too far and exhaustion and burnout is nigh either on an individual or team level, a substantial recovery plan can help ensure that bounce back is quicker and less likely to happen again (or at least as severely):
    • Seek out things that can help rebalance 
    • Take breaks, including away from screens/technology;.
    • Learn to set boundaries – say no to things that will further deplete the limited energy you have;
    • Make your health a priority;
    • Focus on the value of your work and the reasons why you do it;
    • Indulge your creativity;
    • Connect with your coworkers; and
    • Take time off even if it feels counterintuitive.
  • Regular check-ins – Both on an individual and team level. This isn’t just a retro, more a daily energy level check. Ask the team how they’re feeling each day using a ‘percentage’ and when someone has reported a ‘lower charge’, the rest can step in to ease the workload until they are back up to 100% and vice versa. 
  • Encourage/seek professional help – It’s okay to seek further help beyond your support network. Counselling, therapy, mentoring and coaching are all available to supplement the support offered within the workplace. For many, having an objective ear, neutral advice and/or peer support can be life-changing. Professional support experts can also provide practical tools through things like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mentoring circles or coaching that will help boost resilience. 

The more resilient the person/team, the better the quality of their life, which includes their work-life. The importance of flexing and strengthening the resilience muscle therefore cannot be underplayed. As the world continues to move apace, changing at speed both on a global scale and within the technology space, people’s capability to address ongoing and ever-increasing stressors is diminishing, increasing the risk of burnout. Mastering resilience is therefore not something that should be looked upon as a modern fad, or a one-off to be worked on in isolation and left at that. Instead, it requires long-term, consistent commitment to working towards a stronger self and team. With everything going on, there’s never been a better time to start. 


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