True Grit: What is it, and how can you get it?

Why true grit is the greatest virtue you can have in the struggle to pull your business out of recession.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Last year, we heard a lot about the 'Dunkirk spirit'. Whenever serious problems arise, it seems, someone will invoke 1940 and the unlikely rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from the French coast as Hitler's all-conquering army looked on. Never mind that few crises in life quite match up to the threat of annihilation or invasion by a foreign army. When in doubt, do mention the war, and Dunkirk in particular.

But if these wartime allusions are overdone, it's not a bad idea to remember the words of the man who ordered the rescue of the British troops back then. Winston Churchill had pithy and down-to-earth advice for those facing difficulty: 'If you are going through hell, keep going.' And he offered a punchy mission statement for life. 'Keep buggering on,' he declared. KBO. But sometimes it takes a tough kind of old bugger to do that.

This month, MT takes a closer look at 2010's most highly valued human quality: resilience. We have all just been through a pretty terrible 12 months, and can see few signs of relief on the horizon. It has been tough and will remain so. Coping with today's intense pressures and refusing to give in to them is going to require resilience from colleagues at all levels.

In his most recent book, How The Mighty Fall, management writer Jim Collins refers to 'those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation'. These are the resilience black-belt holders, the people who never give up. They're not necessarily the most talented, the most witty or the best-looking people you'll ever meet. But they'll be among the most successful, because they have grasped that under-appreciated fact about life, in particular in business or other competitive pastimes: not giving up can be the most important thing of all.

As Collins explains, success in business may not involve spectacular or extravagant moments. It may all be much more banal and far less exciting. 'Success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end,' he writes.

Gerald Ratner would probably agree. Trying to lighten the mood at an Institute of Directors meeting nearly 20 years ago, he joked that one of the products sold at his jewellery stores was 'complete crap'. Within weeks, his impressive retail business empire was crumbling.

Writing at the end of last year in the Daily Telegraph, a revived Ratner offered some useful insights to those who would like to be more resilient. The key thing, he said, was not to stay in the gutter. 'As long as you are down, you will be kicked, so you need to get back up.'

How can you go about doing this? It helps, he wrote, to put things in perspective, and to have a sense of humour. 'It took me seven years to get over my mistake, but I laugh about it now ...

The sort of headline that 18 years ago would have made me feel like someone was sticking a dagger in me makes me chuckle ... Setbacks are part of life - part of business, politics, sport, everything,' he added. 'Life isn't fair. The only way to weather the storm is to own up and move on.'

General Electric's boss Jeff Immelt also takes a hammering from Wall Street and the media from time to time. He sees the ability to bounce back as one of his greatest strengths. 'You've got to be able to do this,' he says. 'Leadership is really a journey into yourself. I take all criticisms personally. I think about them, and I go to bed at night thinking: "Oh God, what a failure I am." And then I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say: "Hello, handsome!"' A leader's confidence is vital. 'You can't sit there in front of over 300,000 people and say: "I don't know what to do!" You have to say: "We're gonna nail this one, and here's why."'

Of course, some people will find this easier to do than others. Fascinating research by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, Massachusetts, last year revealed that certain generations may cope with tough times more easily than others. In the context of the recession, and looking at different generations of workers, researchers found that staff of all ages report a fall in employee engagement.

Yet older workers seemed to be 'weathering the economic storm' better than their younger colleagues. Generation Y - broadly, the under-thirties - reported the greatest decrease in engagement. Slightly older Generation X workers - 30 to early forties - reported less of a decrease, while Baby Boomers and others - mid-forties onwards - said that their levels of engagement had hardly declined.

'Some older workers have been through recessions before, and that gives them experiential resilience,' argues Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work. 'Younger workers just don't have the depth of experience, which leaves them feeling less engaged in their jobs.'

America's older workers seem to have 'a battle-tested perspective on the peaks and valleys of the market', she adds. Pitt-Catsouphes advises making the most of age diversity in the workplace to 'leverage older workers' experience to help younger workers manage through turbulence. That sense of resilience can help keep organisations energised and passionate.'

That which does not kill me makes me stronger, Nietzsche said, and Boston College's research seems to support this. To be truly resilient, it helps to have come through tough times before. But what if you need people to be more resilient now? It is not much use hoping that today's troubles will toughen people up and leave them stronger afterwards. Perhaps, when hiring people, employers should be looking for signs of inherent resilience.

In their new book, Resilience - Bounce back from whatever life throws at you (see p34), Jane Clarke and John Nicholson argue that resilient people tend to be optimistic. They are open to ideas and 'embrace positive change'. They write: 'We have also noticed that people who display these characteristics usually have two other things in common. They are energised rather than over-run by crisis, and other people actively choose to collaborate with them.'

Back to that elusive optimism again. Clarke and Nicholson say that the ability to frame thoughts positively, even at moments of great stress, marks out the truly resilient. So whereas pessimists might feel isolated and believe that they are the victims of injustice, optimists feel sure that there are others who will help, and that by taking action, destiny can be changed.

The authors recommend the work done by psychology professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania on 'learned optimism' - the more positive attitudes we can try to develop. Seligman has described a five-stage ABCDE process: A is for Adversity - acknowledge the reality of the situation; B is for Beliefs - explore them, understand how you are reacting to the situation; C is for Consequences - how bad are they really?; D is for Disputation - challenge your negative beliefs and find more positive alternatives; E is for Energisation - watch your energy levels at all times.

So far, so simple. But resilience is anything but. It can't be wished up with more 'positive thinking'. We may have quite deep psychological experiences and characteristics that prevent us from achieving - or enable us to have - resilience. Journalist Yvonne Roberts' excellent paper for the Young Foundation called Grit - The skills for success and how they are grown is a subtle and carefully researched piece of work that challenges many of the preconceptions we may have about resilience.

For example, many people believe that the development of self-esteem is vital if we are to be resilient in later life. But, as Roberts points out, you can have too much of a good thing. Some people are being encouraged to feel good about themselves for no particular reason, and that sets them up for greater difficulty in due course - see Boston College's findings on the distressed members of Generation Y.

She quotes Seligman, but in a different key. 'Children need to fail,' he has written. 'They need to feel sad, anxious and angry ... When they encounter obstacles, if we leap in to bolster self-esteem ... to soften the blows and to distract them with congratulatory ebullience, we make it harder for them to achieve mastery. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building-blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.' In other words, resilience stems from well-founded optimism, developed after overcoming challenges and testing our mettle.

But Roberts offers encouragement, too. Resilience is, in fact, 'ordinary magic', she writes, drawing on a phrase coined by professor Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota. The good news? 'Resilience usually arises from the operation of ordinary adaptive processes rather than extraordinary ones,' Masten says.

So let us focus on the ordinary and the everyday in our quest for greater resilience, and not on some imaginary and impossible-to-recreate Dunkirk spirit. No: resilience is a practical matter. We must hope that we'll all be able to show some when it counts. But the key advice can be summarised in three words, which anyone should be able to remember. KBO: Keep. Buggering. On.

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