by Barclay T. Blair - Information Governance Initiative
on August 05, 2016
“Resilience” has become a buzzword, as all seemingly simple and intuitive psychological concepts do once they penetrate our public (and commercial) consciousness. The current buzz around resilience, whether applied to the environment, companies, or children, originated in the field of psychology with researchers trying to determine what makes one person seemingly bulletproof while another, who appears to have every emotional advantage, crumbles when faced with minor adversity. Resilience even has its own counter-buzz, signaling that it has conclusively reached memetic status.
Studies of resilience focus on how we respond to both “environmental” threats—problems that are chronic and less intense but no less difficult—as well as “acute” threats that cause shorter bursts of intense adversity or trauma.
Information leaders face both types of adversity. “House on fire” emergencies like lawsuits, investigations, and cybersecurity breaches represent acute, intense threats that can be all consuming but relatively short in duration. Information leaders also face chronic adversity and threat, often in the form of problems that continue to emerge and reemerge—including long-term efforts to build and enforce an information governance program; evaluating, purchasing, and implementing enterprise software; or guiding a years-long change management program, to name a few.
Norman Garmezy was a pioneer in the study of psychological resilience. His critical insight was that studying successful people could yield insights not likely to come from studying failure (the common approach at the time). His research led to the identification of several “protective factors” that resilient people have.
Not surprisingly, this research also found that pure luck is a big factor. Some people with an otherwise tough life find a great mentor, bond with an emotionally mature caregiver, find easy financial success, and so on. Others have no luck other than bad luck and it simply overwhelms them no matter what their other qualities.
Luck is no small factor in the lives of information leaders. Sometimes the server just blows up. Sometimes a crucial staff member falls ill or leaves. Management priorities change. Sometimes “mistakes are made,” and there is nothing that anyone could have done to anticipate or prevent them. Recognizing bad luck and not feeling responsible for it or allowing it to drive magical thinking about being “cursed” is a key “protective factor” exhibited by resilient people generally and resilient information leaders specifically.
All resilient people have common qualities. At the Information Governance Initiative, through our research and experience working with IG professionals—including those leading incredibly stressful projects like e-discovery in “bet-the-company” litigation and security breaches—we have learned that resilient information leaders also share many common qualities.
Here are three of those qualities. Join our webinar where we will reveal more details about these and the other six habits that resilient e-discovery leaders share. The 9 Habits of Resilient e-Discovery Leaders webinar is hosted by EDRM.
In the face of acute adversity, resilient e-discovery and information governance leaders avoid the misguided sense of heroism that is often associated with focusing on a crisis to the exclusion of everything else. American business in particular has canonized and internalized the image of the cowboy: the rugged individual with a complete absence of emotional need, a singular focus on getting the job done no matter what, and a superhuman ability to do it all himself. The lie of this myth is born out in study after study showing stress levels going up and productivity, health, and job satisfaction levels going down in workplaces that implicitly encourage, and explicitly reward, this behavior.
Neglecting personal relationships and sacrificing wellbeing by eating poorly and shirking exercise have real consequences over the long term—something that resilient information leaders recognize and incorporate into their working life, even when “the house is on fire."
Although times of crisis may demand periods of extreme intensity and long hours, they are not sustainable; nor, in most cases, is the damage of trying to sustain this posture—anxiety, insomnia, elevated cholesterol, depression—worth the reward.
Resilient people do not need to be gifted people. In fact, research from developmental psychologist Emmy Werner has shown that a more reliable predictor of resilience is the ability to put your skills to work effectively. For an information professional in the early part of your career, this means learning what your real strengths and weaknesses are, and seeking roles that play to your strengths and minimize opportunities for your weaknesses to limit you. This does not mean avoiding new challenges—in fact, a predictable quality of resilient people is that they seek out new experiences and challenges. However, it does mean understanding your strengths and seeking ways to learn about, identify, and apply them at their full potential.
For information leaders in mid-career and beyond, this also means having the wisdom to supplement your weaknesses by delegating, building a team that complements each other, and hiring deputies who have the strengths you lack but are necessary for e-discovery success. For example, if you have a deep technical understanding but are terrible at putting together a project plan, seek out those who are amazing project managers.
Fulfilling our potential as people, and as information leaders, is dependent upon our ability to absorb, bounce back from, and learn from mistakes and failures. One of the most powerful predictors of resilience is how we perceive potentially traumatic events. In fact, how you view an event, like a stressful and scary e-discovery demand, actually determines whether or not it is in fact ultimately traumatic.
The research gets even more fascinating, clearly showing that exposure to events that could be very traumatic does not actually predict how well a person will function in the future. Rather, the most reliable predictor is the way that person views, or “construes,” an event. This does not mean that we must be Pollyannas or deify the “power of positive thinking,” but it does demonstrate the objective effect that our response to difficult events actually has on whether or not we are traumatized by them. The best news is that the ability to construe potentially painful events in a way that minimizes their harm can actually be taught and learned—with practice and a lot of patience.
Our ability to bear adversity in both our personal and working lives is ultimately simple math: i.e., is the depth of the adversity greater than our resilience? Everyone has a breaking point. Highly resilient people have a higher breaking point. It is important, and I believe uplifting, to realize that these qualities can in large measure be learned. One powerful learning technique is modeling people we aspire to be like, and in the information governance community we are we are fortunate to have so many great e-discovery leaders who we can learn from as true models of resilience.
Barclay T. Blair is executive director of the Information Governance Initiative, a cross-disciplinary consortium and think tank dedicated to advancing the adoption of IG. Barclay is author of the books Information Nation: Seven Keys to Information Management Compliance; Information Nation Warrior; and Privacy Nation.
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