Coaching for Resilience

Thanks to COVID, pretty much every organization a coach visits these days has more stress than it did two years ago. Want data? The demand for mental health services is at an all time high. People are acting out their fear and anger in unsocialized ways, including more violence, parents yelling at school boards, political hysteria, alienation based on COVID attitudes, increased traffic accidents, you name it. It is a rising tide floating all boats into treacherous waters.

The impact on organizations has been immense, with leaders having to face near impossible questions. “Will we be able to stay in business?” “Should we work at the office or at home?” “When should we go back to the office?” “What policies should we have about vaccinations? Masks? Social distancing?” “Should we fire employees who won’t get vaccinated?” “Do we really have to reconstruct our entire ventilation system?”

While case counts are dropping dramatically as of this writing, no one really knows the future, so we also have the stress of that uncertainty. About the only thing that seems certain is that COVID will be around in some form for the foreseeable future. Finally, pretty much 100% of us are sick to death of having to think about COVID at all.

You, in your capacity as coach, can help leaders deal with these formidable challenges. No, you won’t be able to give them all the answers to their questions about dealing with a COVID world. But you will be able to give them something better: a skill set that can be used not just in this crisis, but in every crisis that will come in their future. When you do, you will not only be saving your client organizations a great deal of healthcare money that would have been spent on stress-related illnesses, you will be reducing suffering and increasing access to the creativity inherent in your clients and in those who work for them. The organization that pays you will truly be getting its money’s worth.


What can you do? Teach resilience.


Stress, such as that related to COVID, can cause poor work performance, illness, and even death, but the psychological skills that comprise resilience can mitigate that risk. Two researchers, Dr. Salvatore Maddi, a University of Chicago psychology professor, and Suzanne Kobasa, a graduate student, identified those factors in the 1980s. Since then, studies have repeatedly verified that the findings of that early research were on target. Let’s begin with the story.

In 1984, the Supreme Court broke up Ma Bell. This had a huge impact on its executives. In those days, if you got a job at Bell, you had a job for life. Your life had a plan. You adapted to the company and knew how to succeed. Back then, people were not getting new jobs every two or three years as is so common today. Once you got a job at Bell, you simply didn’t know another life. Bell was your life.

When the Supreme Court broke up the monopoly that was Bell, deregulation threw everything up for grabs, including job security. Lives were thrown into turmoil. This was a huge stressor, every bit as impactful on Bell’s executives as COVID has been worldwide.

Maddi and Kobasa wondered how these events would affect Bell executives, in particular the executives at Illinois Bell, whom they had been studying.

Previous research showed that about 20% of people experiencing this magnitude of stress would become seriously ill, and that 5 to 7% of those people would die as a result. The research at Illinois Bell was designed to identify the characteristics of people who would do well versus those who would succumb to illness and death.

Naturally, given that they were looking for impacts on physical health, Maddi and Kobasa first examined health histories. Those histories provided no prediction of who would thrive and who would get sick and/or die. For example, a history of coronary heart disease did not push a person into the group likely to get sick.

Then they looked at psychological attitudes. They found that three specific attitudes differentiated those who stayed well from those who got ill. Later studies have found that these same three attitudes can also help people recover from life-threatening illnesses. These attitudes are called the Three C’s of Psychological Hardiness. Teach them to your clients.


  1. Challenge (versus threat). Executives who perceived deregulation as an ongoing threat had trouble. They experienced anxiety without relief. Over time, this anxiety depleted their body’s resources, making way for physical breakdown.


Executives who defined deregulation as a challenge said something like this to themselves: “Boy, this looks tough. But I have faced tough situations before, and I can handle this too.” They consciously recalled various challenges in their lives and the successful ways that they had handled them. Those memories gave them confidence and tools for the future.

In working with your clients, as they talk about their worries going forward, ask them what they have done to cope with other hard times. What has worked for them? As they re-focus their attention from danger to possibilities, they will create access to their resources.


  1. Commitment (versus denial). Many executives denied that deregulation was coming. Think about that, and wonder in awe at the power of denial. The Supreme Court didn’t wake up one Monday morning thinking, “Hey, let’s break up Ma Bell! That would be fun!” No, this was an outcome years in the making. And yet, many Bell executives allowed themselves to live a fantasy.


Then, when “the unthinkable” happened, they got sick. Denial had kept them from being pro-active, laying the groundwork for what lay ahead. When one’s only defense against terror is denial, unrelenting emotional turmoil occurs when denial crashes in the face of undeniable reality. Again, the body eventually breaks down.

Executives who did well acknowledged their coming new reality, and helped dissipate the accompanying anxiety by dealing with it earlier, in smaller chunks. They made a commitment to change what needed changing in order to adapt to their new situation, and made a plan. They were able to commit themselves to this process because they valued themselves enough to rise to the situation. (They didn’t think of themselves as helpless victims.)

But they also cared about something larger than themselves. As a result, they committed themselves to adapt, not just for their own sakes, but for the wellbeing of their families, their churches, their companies, and their communities. In other words, something larger than themselves.

Making this commitment to others is particularly important. Those overwhelmed by crumbling denial became alienated from those around them. Intense fear, such as that which the deniers experienced, makes people self-centered. Moderate anxiety, such as that experienced by those committed to change, encourages us to connect with others to create a shared preferred future.

In working with your clients, help them face reality. Your emotional support can create an opening. Then help them think through a plan that benefits them and their organizations going forward. And help them recognize the value and need for them to join with others in commitment to something larger than themselves.


  1. Control (versus helplessness): Those executives who experienced themselves as helpless (“I can’t control the Supreme Court”) got sick. They perceived external factors as in full control of their world. Executives who did well said, “I cannot control deregulation. But I can control my reaction to it.”

Your clients can’t make COVID go away. But they can control how they respond to the ongoing endemic threat which this set of diseases presents, as well as the associated adaptations which most people are likely to have to make. As your clients focus on what they can do, instead of what they cannot do, they will be empowered to take positive, constructive steps.

In EQ language, resilience is Optimism. The EQ Leader Program 2.0 has a menu of exercises designed to help executives learn, with your guidance, how to strengthen their capacity for resilience. If you want the exercises to share with your clients, but don’t want to buy the whole program, you can get them here.

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