Performance
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Episode 9: Sustaining Frontline Resilience

“Resilience” is the official buzzword of 2020 – just outpacing “unprecedented.” We’re all doing our best to keep moving forward as we face an uncertain future. What can organizations do to build resilience within their frontline teams? How can we help people develop the skills, purpose and connections they need to overcome current and future challenges?

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Episode overview:

I sat down with Dane Jensen, CEO of Third Factor, to explore the connection between pressure, performance and resilience. Dane outlines practical ideas you can use to create the conditions needed to build resilient employees, teams and organizations. 

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can build training for your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com.

Audio clips from Rocky 2 and Rocky Balboa are used in adherence with fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

About the Guest(s)

Dane Jensen

Dane Jensen is an expert on strategy and leadership, and a furious cross-pollinator between the podium and boardroom. As Third Factor’s CEO, he advises other CEOs and Senior Leaders in both sport and business.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Episode Transcript

Introduction:

You need to make sure your frontline employees are prepared for whatever comes next. So mark your calendar for September 28th and 29th for AxoniCom LIVE. The only conference focused on the needs of the frontline. This one of a kind digital experience will feature renowned keynote speakers, informative education sessions, interactive activities, and industry meetups to help you transform your business through your frontline. Grab free tickets for your whole team at axonify.com/conference.

JD Dillon:

Episode nine, Sustaining Frontline Resilience. Recorded on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Today I live in Orlando, Florida, right behind the Walt Disney World resort. But I’m originally from Philadelphia. And while it’s a diverse city with a variety of passionate communities and faiths, there is one religion that every Philadelphian follows. One spiritual guide that can always restore hope even in the most challenging times. Rocky. You see Rocky is more than just a movie character in Philadelphia. He’s the city’s patron Saint. We have a bronze statue of Rocky downtown. The art museum steps that Rocky runs up in multiple films are just as, if not more, popular than historic sites, like the Liberty bell. And if you want to get a Philly sports crowd, riled up, just play: [clip from movie]

JD Dillon:

There are plenty of movies set in Philadelphia. So why Rocky? Well, Rocky embodies the spirit of the city and its people. No matter how many times he gets knocked down, he just keeps getting back up.

Movie clip:

You me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life, but it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.

JD Dillon:

Rocky isn’t a superhero. He loses, he doubts himself. He needs help from those closest to him, but no matter the odds or how many times he has to fight Mr. T., Rocky always has the mental strength to get back up. Rocky is a lesson in resilience.

Dane Jensen:

People think that resilience is about growing a thicker skin. It’s about this ability to kind of withstand and not really for me. Isn’t what resilience is about.

JD Dillon:

Resilience has become perhaps the biggest buzzword of 2020 as individuals and businesses struggle to find their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. But how can we get beyond the buzzword to understand what resilience really is? So we can truly build resilient teams. And how can we channel our inner Rocky so that no matter how hard we get hit, we can get back up and keep moving forward. To learn more about the practical side of resilience, I spoke with someone who has dedicated their career to understanding the role of pressure in peak performance.

Dane Jensen:

These are muscles that can be built. Organizations can support frontline workers. And how do we actually cultivate the mindsets and skills that have been shown to correlate with resilience? These are not innate genetic gifts. These are muscles that can be strengthened.

JD Dillon:

Dane Jensen is the CEO of Third Factor. After getting their start supporting Canadian Olympic and Paralympic teams, Third Factor now works at the intersection of elite performance fields. Dane helps people improve their ability to perform under extreme pressure and create the conditions for people to build their resilience.

Dane Jensen:

Resilience is a muscle that is built in the troughs. It is not built in the peaks.

JD Dillon:

He’s also the author of the upcoming book, The Power of Pressure, why we break down and what we can learn from those who breakthrough. To turn resilience into a practical strategy for your business, you first have to understand what resilience is and what it’s not.

Dane Jensen:

My favorite way of defining resilience is to use a little bit of a metaphor. I do a bunch of work in healthcare. One of the facilities that I’ve done a lot of work for is a hospital called the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. And they focus on rehabbing really serious conditions like traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, that kind of thing. Because that’s their area of specialty, one of the things they really focus on is balance, mobility and falls, which is how do we help people rehab for balance so that they don’t suffer a devastating fall, which of course is significant during the rehabilitation for a stroke or a spinal cord injury. Historically how they have rehabbed for balance is to teach people really stable, defensive postures, like how do you stand in such a way that it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get knocked off balance?

Dane Jensen:

What they’ve actually started to do, which is a little bit counter-intuitive is they will now loosely tether the patient to the ceiling and then they will have somebody just shove them over. You might go, okay, well, why would you take somebody who’s just suffered a stroke or a spinal cord injury and literally shoved them over? What they’ve actually learned through research is that stable, defensive postures are great until they’re not. They’re actually quite brittle. Once you get off balance, you tend to tip over. It’s actually much more effective to have people relearn what does it feel like to be off balance and then rebuild the stabilizer muscles that fire to bring you back into balance. And so I really think about resilience more as those stabilizer muscles. It’s not like, how do I stand? What’s the posture that makes sure that I never get knocked off balance? It’s about when I get off balance, do I have the stabilizer muscles that fire that allow me to recover, that allow me to regain balance?

JD Dillon:

Resilience isn’t just a personal attribute. There are actually layers of resilience within an organization that all must be considered.

Dane Jensen:

There’s the individual and their capacity for their own resilience that they can stabilize when they’re knocked off balance. There’s also resilience at team level, which is related to, but actually not the same thing as individual resilient, resilient teams share some unique characteristics that are a little distinct from individual resilience. And then of course there is the organization’s resilience to things like demand shocks and supply chain issues and you know, all of those things that kind of exist at the strategic level.

JD Dillon:

At every layer, resilience is about transformation. Moving from a feeling of helplessness, to a real connection with our self efficacy or our belief in our own ability to solve a problem or reach a goal. This is an especially important concept for people working on the frontline who are facing pressure in their jobs in entirely new ways.

Dane Jensen:

The impact of pressure on people is directly correlated to the degree with which they can control and influence it. And so because of that, people that are on the frontlines that maybe have a lower span of control in terms of the decisions that are being made around job design, compensation, organizational structure, all that kind of stuff, they are much more at risk of the negative impacts of pressure because their span of control tends to be a little bit lower.

JD Dillon:

With limited span of control over their workplace circumstances, how can frontline employees connect with their self efficacy in order to build resilience?

Dane Jensen:

Broadly speaking, there tend to be four ways that anybody can connect with their self efficacy. One is the choices I have over the stress that I’m carrying around. So the first choice that we have is to eliminate unnecessary stress. And when we are in times like the one that we’re going through right now, my thing is always, this is the right time to clean out your closet. But you do not want to be lugging a 50 pound bag through the airport of life right now, if you can check it at the gate. We can’t eliminate all the stress in our lives, right? Especially right now, there are many things that are outside of our control. But the second thing that we can do to connect with our self efficacy is self care. One of the last bastions of control is the degree to which I’m sleeping, I’m moving and I’m making healthy eating decisions.

Dane Jensen:

Organizations have a real role to play with this, both in terms of job design and making sure they’re building opportunities for rest and recovery, but also in terms of what are the things that they’re doing to support wellness of people on the frontlines. The third thing that really allows people to connect with their self efficacy is social support. When we are knocked off balance, when we’re going through periods of disruption, it’s almost like we are circus performers who are between trapezes. So I’ve let go of one trapeze, the other one’s there. I can see it, but I haven’t quite grabbed onto it yet. And there’s this moment where I’m kind of suspended 40 feet midair. What is it that allows a circus performer to be suspended in midair 40 feet high? It’s if there’s a safety net there. For individuals that safety net is made up of the people who care about and love them unconditionally, who don’t care, how the quarter goes or whether the sales goals are hit, or whether I get the promotion or not.

Dane Jensen:

It’s that ultimately there is that safety net that is there to catch me if things don’t go well. What we want to be really doing is making sure that the folks that we’re leading and managing, but also generally, the individuals in our care, are able to make those social connections, to build that safety net, to reach out with and engage with the people that are going to support them. And then the fourth thing that we can do is we can build the inner skills that support resilience under pressure. And this is one of the things that is always within our control. These are the skills like perspective, changing how I look at a situation. These are skills like imagination, which is tuning into what am I imagining about the future? And am I imagining the stuff that’s going to support my performance or be corrosive? Am I keyed into my inner thermostat and making sure that I’m making the decisions that are turning it up and turning it down appropriately.

JD Dillon:

We have to remind frontline employees that resilience and the ability to handle high pressure situations isn’t an inherited trait. It’s a learned skill.

Dane Jensen:

Perhaps one of the last bastion of fixed mindsets is the area of pressure and resilience. A lot of people have a bit of a fixed mindset when it comes to my ability to handle pressure. Some people are just born with ice in their veins. Like that’s not me. I’ve got a strong startle response. I’m not the person that you want manning a shop in a crisis. What we’ve learned over three decades of working with Olympic athletes in Canada in particular is that resilience is a muscle that can be built.

JD Dillon:

Helping employees improve their job. Performance is a lot like helping sports professionals improve their athletic performance. There are great lessons to be learned from athletics. When it comes to building a resilient mindset.

Dane Jensen:

There’s a program in Canada called Own The Podium. It was established when we won the bid for the Vancouver games, which took place in 2010. Prior to Vancouver, Canada had hosted twice and was the only country that had hosted and never won a gold medal on home soil. And so Own The Podium was stood up to say, okay, this is not going to happen again, right? We are not three-peating and building on our lead in this particular area. And one of the things that they really looked at in service of helping Canada win more medals was what they called the conversion rate. If you’re an athlete who finishes in the top five in the world the year before an Olympic games, what percentage of those athletes convert that top five at a world cup or a world championship into a top three at the Olympics, into a medal. Canada at the time was sitting at about 26% conversion rate.

Dane Jensen:

Now just for comparison, Germany was in the 90s and the US was converting at 104%. So this was not good. What they identified was actually one of the biggest contributors to this was mental performance. If you can do it at the world cup or the world championships, and you can’t do it at the Olympic games, this is not about hitting the gym harder. This is about, can you perform when it matters. Own The Podium’s big investments for the past 25 years has been partnering what are known as mental performance consultants, essentially sports psychology folks, with athletes from a much younger age. So when they have a targeted athlete, that’s on track to win a medal, let’s put a mental performance person alongside their strength and conditioning coach, their technical coach, their masseuse, you know, all that stuff. We’ve seen the conversion rates go from 26% up to about 80% in the span of 1 year. If you give people support, if you give them the tools, if you do all of this stuff that we do, when we’re helping people learn technical skills, you can move the needle on this stuff. You can get better at recovery when you’re knocked off balance.

JD Dillon:

While the goal in sports is an outcome to win a championship or a gold medal, the day to day focus is on the small things that ultimately build up to the desired outcome. The same needs to be true in the workplace.

Dane Jensen:

When we get focused on outcomes, we want to redirect our attention to behaviors. Let’s make sure that we’re focusing on the right things, and we’re not pounding people over the head with dashboards and outcomes and metrics, we’re actually getting in there and trying to focus on what are the behaviors that we’re looking for that are going to actually lead to the outcomes. Because anytime we are focusing attention on outcomes, that’s when pressure starts to feel a little bit relentless because I can’t actually influence the outcomes directly. So one of the core tenants of sports psychology is consistently redirecting attention away from outcomes and towards behaviors, routines, skill practice, deliberate acquisition of skills, all that kind of stuff.

JD Dillon:

Frontline employees need practice just like athletes, and an important part of workplace skill development is coaching.

Dane Jensen:

Somebody who is able to take a big end goal, like become a better communicator, become a better listener and break it down into, okay, what are the behaviors I’m coaching to. To go back to a sport analogy, if I’m coaching somebody on the 100 meter dash, I’m going to develop very different drills if the issue is getting out of the blocks quicker, versus the issue is running all the way through the finish line. So I’ve got to be able to break down that end goal of, okay, we want to shave a 10th of a second off your time to, okay, what are the things that we’re going to drill in the gym day in and day out?

JD Dillon:

We also have to make sure our training and coaching are focused on the right behaviors. Dane shared an example from a financial services firm that leveraged their top performers to figure out which behaviors would really make a difference to their business.

Dane Jensen:

They didn’t try to create the behaviors out of whole cloth and say, okay, here’s what our research has identified are the best practices. What they did is they observed the people who had the best outcomes, what were they doing consistently? And it was less about creating new behaviors and saying, okay, can we take the stuff that the best people are doing and consistently cascade that through everybody in the organization. It allowed the folks to be both data-driven to say, Hey, we’ve gone off of top decile sales performers. We’ve observed what it is that they do that’s a little bit different from everybody else. That’s what we’ve codified into best practices, because we know it works in your organization with your culture and your geographies with your IT systems. We’re not trying to bring in somebody else’s best practices. And when they effectively rolled that out, they basically elevated the performance of the bottom 90, not all the way to the top 10%, but it brought so much up with it that it actually was transformational for the organization.

JD Dillon:

This example shows us that building frontline skills like resilience doesn’t require making up entirely new concepts. It’s about getting past the noise to find the high impact skills that actually make our people and organizations successful.

Dane Jensen:

A lot of strategy is that people try to be painters when they should be being sculptors. Painters it’s like, okay, I’ve got to create something from nothing. I’ve got to add stuff to the canvas. It’s all about what are the colors that I’m bringing. Sculpting is more, what do I need to remove in order to get at the stuff that is ultimately in there, but maybe hidden by the other stuff. A lot of the best practices are kind of hidden in that block of marble that is an organization and it’s our job to just chisel away the rest and then go, okay, what’s left. And can we cascade that through the organization?

JD Dillon:

Building resilience isn’t about a moment in time. It’s a longterm effort. This is especially true during the pandemic as frontline employees have been working in extremely difficult circumstances for months with no clear end in sight.

Dane Jensen:

If you look at the people who have done research into the emotional impact of crises, what they will tell you is that when the crisis hits perhaps counterintuitively, actually there is an upward tick in emotion, motivation, momentum. And I think we kind of saw this, right? The barriers to execution fell in most organizations, people accomplished heroic things. Now I worked with a client that installed 90,000 plexiglass shields at point of sale in the matter of six days, right? There were heroic things that happened. What the research would tell us is that this honeymoon phase, which is characterized by community cohesion and a high sense of pride and determination, doesn’t last very long. After we moved through that period, we start to slide down into what is unfortunately, a much longer period of what the researchers called disillusionment. Before we eventually moved back up to rebuilding and reconstructing.

Dane Jensen:

We are staring down the barrel of a potentially quite long period of disillusionment because there is still tremendous uncertainty around, will there be a second wave? Will the schools reopen in September? Will we have to roll back some of the opening up that’s happened and then return to maybe more stringent measures? And I think all of this has the potential for people to start to disconnect and go, you know what , this just keeps dragging on and on and on. And, you know, yes, I could be upbeat and motivated for a certain amount of time, but that’s starting to wane. How do we put the routines and structures in place that to the best of our ability, help people stave off disillusionment? The main antidote to disillusionment is meaning. If I, as an individual or through my leader and their ability to channel it for the team, can connect to the stuff that I am focused on on a day to day basis up to the stuff that really matters to me, that is the antidote to disillusionment.

Dane Jensen:

We need leaders who are realistic on the frontlines, which is to say that yes, meaning and purpose is important, but it’s not going to be a constant state of connection, right? There are going to be lots of periods of times over the next few months where it’s just going to be slogging through the crap, and it’s not going to be particularly fun. It’s not going to be particularly meaningful. And so in organizations, I think we want to be talking about this as, okay. There are going to be periods that just suck. Are we doing enough to create moments of meaning within this journey of disillusion.

JD Dillon:

This idea of moments of meaning reinforces just how vital it is to take a human centric, frontline forward approach to building your workplace strategies.

Dane Jensen:

Meaning tends to come from either growth, contribution or connection. Growth gives meaning to pressure, because if I’m getting better in a way that matters to me, like if I can see how this period of growth is giving me a new skill or more capacity or something that might serve me well later on in life, then at least the pressure has meaning. I see what I’m developing as opposed to it’s just sitting on top of me. The second way that we give meaning to pressure is that people see that by carrying this pressure, they are contributing to society. They are making somebody else’s life better. They are building. I mean, this is at the heart of why health care workers are willing to suit up and spend 10 hours a day in PPE under really difficult conditions, because that pressure is in service. It is contributing to society.

Dane Jensen:

And then the third thing that gives meaning to pressure is connection. If I’m under a lot of pressure, but it’s bringing me closer to somebody, I’m forming a meaningful bond, a meaningful relationship, that can be a tremendous source of meaning as well. At an organizational level, if we’re looking at how do we stave off disillusionment over the coming months, I think we want to be pretty proactive in going okay, am I making sure that people are seeing how this is helping them grow? So if I’m a frontline supervisor, do I have a really good sense of everybody’s goals? And can I see a path to help them develop in a way that actually matters to them over the next couple of months. Then there’s contribution. Do I have the ability to paint a really clear line of sight for people from how the pressure that they’re carrying is ultimately contributing to society or someone beyond the walls of the organization. And then connection, and this is the toughest one, I think right now. It’s, as organizations, how do we continue to create a sense of connection in the midst of government mandated social distancing or shelter in place? And I think this is the one that we’re all still figuring out together. There’s lots of interesting ideas, but it is a lot harder right now.

JD Dillon:

To help people build a sense of connection and find their own meaning during this very challenging time, we have to keep them involved. We have to communicate consistently and effectively with the frontline and provide the training and support they need to do their best work. But we also have to be honest and open about the realities of our situation and how it may impact the frontline. This idea of balancing realism and optimism is referred to as the Stockdale effect.

Dane Jensen:

Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a pilot who was shot down at the start of the Vietnam war, he was held for eight years until the war ended. When he got out and he emerged largely unbroken, he said from the moment I was captured, I recognized that at some point in the future, this would be a distant, painful memory. And it would be a period that I would not trade because it would have contributed to making me who I was. When Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale for Good Degrade, he said

Audio clip:

Later when we were up the hill, I asked him, I said, Admiral Stockdale, who didn’t make it out as strong as you? And he said easy. It was the optimists. I said, the optimists. You sounded optimistic. He said, no, I was not optimistic. I never wavered in my faith that I would prevail in the end, but I was not optimistic. I said, what’s the difference? Oh, the optimists always thought we’d be out by Christmas. Of course, Christmas would come and it would go. And then we were going to be out by Easter and Thanksgiving and then Christmas would come again and they died of a broken heart. And that’s when Admiral Stockdale grabbed me by the shoulders and said, this is what I learned. When you’re facing, you’re imprisoned by great calamity by great difficulty by great uncertainty. You have to, on the one hand, never confuse the need for unwavering faith, that you will find a way to prevail in the end. With on the other hand, the discipline to confront the most brutal facts. We actually face, and we’re not getting out of here by Christmas.

Dane Jensen:

For me, it was this ability to hold all of what was true. See brutal reality, warts and all, this is gonna be long. It’s going to be painful and I will prevail. This will turn me into a better person.

JD Dillon:

We’re all living in a world of uncertainty. We’re concerned about our health, our families and friends, our jobs. This uncertainty echoes especially loudly on the frontline as workers face brutal realities every day. As managers and learning professionals, we can either allow uncertainty to beat people down, or push back and seize the opportunity to help people build the skills that will ultimately help them work through this challenge, as well as those to come in the future.

Dane Jensen:

As an organization, we are going to make sure that we are not wasting this opportunity to help strengthen you, to help build your stabilizer muscles, to build the resilience capabilities that are going to serve you for the next 20 years, the next 30 years, because this is the perfect lab for us to focus on building resilience, to give people new and different skills for connecting with their self efficacy. The stuff that is the connective tissue that is going to underpin our ability to be adaptable and change for the next 20 to 25 years.

JD Dillon:

Thank you to Dane Jensen for sharing his practical insights on building frontline resilience. Be sure to keep an eye out for Dane’s new book, The Power Of Pressure, why we break down and what we can learn from those who breakthrough coming in March, 2021. You can learn more about Dane’s work online at thirdfactor.com and on Twitter via @danejensen. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to hear more frontline forward stories, subscribe to The 80 Percent on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for another story about how organizations are helping frontline employees make a difference in their companies and communities. Until then be kind to the frontline.

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