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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Friday 10 Feb 2012
Personal Resilience: shaping the work experiences of today’s middle manager

Personal Resilience: shaping the work experiences of today’s middle manager

Resilience: a word commonly cited in the media to describe certain adaptive behaviours and used when referring to those recovering from loss or illness, performance in endurance challenges, success in sporting events and now more than ever to explain how today's manager responds to the demands of the uncertain global economy.

Alex Davda, a Researcher at Ashridge Business School, has been seeking to understand personal resilience in managers and shares these insights by comparing two very different ways that managers may cope with pressure, emphasising the findings of our current research and how resilience serves as an important personal recourse, during increasingly difficult times.

In order to compare different responses to stress and pressure, he examines the thoughts and behaviours of two hypothetical managers; Manager A and Manager B. Both are mid-level sales managers, within a large UK based organisation. The organisation, like many others, is going through a long period of change and both managers face a variety of demands and pressures each day.

Coping with uncertainty

Feelings of uncertainty have resulted in each manager harbouring obvious concerns about how secure their job actually is, as well as the security of the entire organisation.

Manager A tries to adapt to the situation, considering carefully different ways to interpret and respond to it. Job security concerns are addressed by focussing on the degree of control and influence, and subsequently provide more awareness of the factors or failings that they cannot do much about.

Manager B avoids directly managing the situation, instead focuses the attention solely towards external factors, such as the state of the economy, as a source of blame and as a means to justify, personal and the department's poor performance.

Realistic Expectations

The expectation of senior management during this time has been made explicit.

Manager A, when assessing the ability to meet these expectations, employs a realistic self-belief, analysing their own ability, considering a wide array of past successes and setbacks, to create a realistic understanding of the situation. They then use this information to openly and accurately discuss expectations with senior management.

Manager B on the other hand, assesses the situation based only on experiences which fit their own self-perception, overlooking set-backs in favour of past successes. Therefore, creating a false sense of security and possibly making predictions completely out of line with the estimations of senior management.

Maintaining a sense of purpose

On a personal level, maintaining a sense of purpose is often what supports managers through difficult situations.

When under pressure, Manager A constantly reflects on what motivates them in their life, including important career and personal goals and how these can keep them on track during difficult times.

Conversely, as result of the same pressure Manager B is unable to identify the key drivers in their life and instead is caught up in the day to day. They find themselves chasing short term reward and seeking external praise, leaving them and those around them questioning and whether it is all worth it.

Impact of uncertainty on the team

Times of uncertainty undoubtedly create pressure amongst team members, requiring managers to display an ability to understand others.

To meet this, Manager A makes a conscious effort to understand their team members, asking questions and gathering information, with the aim to understand how each individual is managing in this period, paying attention to any fears, worries and anxieties, as well as individuals who are responding well to the situation.

On the other hand, manager B acts in a way that they believe to be appropriate for the group, overlooking the differences between how people may be responding and attempting to relate to their team using a "one size fits all" approach, this clearly may alienate and demotivate certain team members, who feel their needs are not being met.

Balance and quality time

Finally, as well as all this, both managers are expected to balance demands and alternatives in their work and home life.

Manager A and their partner appreciate the variety of demands that the role often requires and has always required. The result of working hours has brought certain financial benefits and a particular lifestyle, with which they are highly content with. However, when they do get to spend time out of work, they make sure it is quality time well spent.

Manager B and their family appear to be constantly searching for more time, leaving them extremely unsatisfied that they cannot achieve the balance between work and home that they believe to be norm, constantly feeling that they are missing out on something.

The assessment

Ultimately, it is not unusual for two managers operating under similar types of pressure at work, to adopt different ways of thinking and behaving, especially with the variety of challenges being faced across them business world.

However, it is clear that certain "coping recourses" are more helpful than others. Managers operating effectively under pressure are those who access these recourses and by doing so, maintain levels of motivation, direction and satisfaction in themselves and in others. This ultimately, leads to a more positive and productive work experience.

Alex Davda (pictured) is a researcher at Ashridge Business School