The thought-habits of resilience

17th November 2020

One day when I was a child a tortoise crawled into our garden. A hole had been drilled into its shell, so my father explained that this must be someone’s pet tortoise. He tied string through the hole and attached the other end to a stake he knocked into the middle of the lawn. For three days our new pet grazed inside the circle, held back by the string.

Then we felt sorry for the tortoise, missing its family, so dad untied the string. BUT for the rest of the day we were astonished that the tortoise remained within the circle! It did not know it was free. The next morning it was gone, so presumably during the night it had put a foot outside the circle and discovered to its surprise that it was free.

Many of our staff go through life like that tortoise, with imaginary strings holding them back in the form of out-of-date beliefs about themselves. These imagined strings are thought-habits – assumptions that determine how we interpret the world around us and our own abilities.   For example, many people believe that they are no good at numbers and their minds freeze when faced with a spreadsheet. This often arises through poor quality teaching of mathematics and may have nothing to do with their natural ability or potential.

Many are held back by a sense of low self-esteem. At the moment some of us may believe that we cannot cope with crises, and that the continuing threats facing us in Covid-19 are so catastrophic we cannot face the present or plan for the future.

In this third column in a series on the mental health of entrepreneurs, I suggest that business leaders can grow resilience in themselves and their teams by encouraging thought-habits that open opportunities where others may be seeing only endings. The psychologist Martin Seligman found that we develop “learned helplessness” when our beliefs about our problems are characterised by three P’s: Problems are permanent (we think our problems will last for ever), pervasive (they affect everything in our lives), and personal (they are our own fault rather than a consequence of the situation we find ourselves in). Learned helplessness is associated with less success, worse health and general discouragement.

Covid-19 has gone on longer than most expected. Some of us fear that it is permanent and the familiar life we treasured will never return. It is easy to believe that it is pervasive, affecting work, home and recreation. And while it is clearly not our fault, we may punish ourselves with the thought that our personal response to it is weak and ineffective.

The antidote to learned helplessness is to see our problems as temporary, specific and situational. Do you remember how terrifying HIV/Aids was? Twenty years ago it was killing about half a million South Africans every year. It is still with us, with about seven million people HIV+, but we have learnt to manage it and it no longer terrifies us. The Covid-19 crisis should absolutely not be underestimated, but it will pass in one way or another. This problem is temporary.

Part of coping with the pandemic is to talk about it in words that create a constructive set of thought-habits. Losing the old “normal” means we might be able to create better elements in the new normal. We may be forced out of a rut into opportunities we would otherwise have missed. We can learn new skills and new ways of coping that make us stronger.

The good news about habits, including thought-habits, is that they can be changed! The team can be helped to pay attention to their resources and opportunities rather than their deficits. Much of leadership happens in the mind.

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He  is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 16 November, 2020 and is republished with permission.

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