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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How to build your resilience as a leader

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Maja Djikic

Tough times can put resilience to the test.

But Dr. Maja Djikic, an associate professor and director of the Self-Development Lab at the Rotman School of Management, believes that difficult periods can also provide great opportunities for tremendous growth and transformation — both on a personal level, and within organizations. And leaders with a strong personal resilience can ultimately help improve an organization’s resilience.  

While personal and organizational resilience differ, both principles share the concept of not just coping with, but flourishing during unpredictable, changing and stressful circumstances.

Djikic says both personal and organizational resilience work in tandem, and when a leader lacks personal resilience, it can negatively impact organizational resilience as well.

“If you have very poor resilience as a leader, you will have capable and competent staff walking away from you,” she says.

Five key areas for better resilience

At a foundational level, Djikic there are five key areas that people in leadership positions should cultivate in order to better lead their teams. They should have:

  • A solid understanding of their personal motivations and goals, and the ability to prioritize them;
  • The ability to handle their own stress and avoid burnout;
  • The ability to process strong negative emotions;
  • The ability to cultivate their focus during times of stress, and be able to solve complex problems;
  • The knowledge of how to better adapt to change, which involves letting go of past learnings and developing new habits.

A leader who can self-reflect and hone these skills will be able help their employees to do the same, Djikic says. For example, learning to identify personal triggers that lead to stress can equip leaders with the ability to identify those same markers among staff, while those who can prioritize goals are better able to work with employees to set their own objectives. Ultimately, these key areas ladder up to what Djikic calls “the whole self,” which is required for any leader looking to help companies achieve organizational resilience.

Balancing personal and organizational wants

Djikic adds that it’s important for people in leadership to understand that there will be divergence between organizational and personal wants, and to plan accordingly.

She gives the example of a company that’s prioritizing customer service. This organizational shift requires a change to the way employees conduct their work, causing a misalignment between company priorities and employees’ personal career goals.

Rather than simply dictating new priorities to staff, leaders should approach their employees first to get a sense of their personal goals and how they would like to see the company achieve better customer service.

“The more there is a joint setting of the goals, the more likely there will be an alignment with people’s personal goals,” she says.

Navigating the inevitable bumps in the road

There will always be bumps in the road, Djikic says. The current return-to-office debate offers a prime example.

Leaders who are keen to have employees back in the office should be prepared to have conversations in a respectful and thoughtful manner, as well as entertain concerns and disagreements from employees. They should be prepared to lay out their company priorities — including sound reasoning for having employees back in the office. But they should also consider employee priorities as well, and be prepared to find compromises that work for all parties. Working through these disagreements and coming to a shared solution can ultimately bring team members closer together, Djikic says.

On the other end of the spectrum, when someone in a leadership position disagrees with the decisions that are being made within their organization — for example, asking employees to return to the office when they don’t agree with it themselves — Djikic says it’s important to have an honest conversation with the people setting the policies. Raise personal (and staff) concerns respectfully, and be prepared to listen and accept that certain organizational priorities may not align with personal beliefs. In speaking with those top decision-makers, be prepared to establish how much flexibility on any decision is possible (what sort of exceptions can be made to return to office plans, can transitions back be done slower) so you’re better equipped to work with those who report to you to find a compromise.

Ultimately, at both a personal and organizational level, flexibility is critical to the concept of resilience, Djikic says. When there is flexibility during times of pressure, the organization and the leader can bounce back with more strength than ever before.

“But if you’re in a very authoritarian organization which says, ‘here’s the rule and apply it,’ there’s going to be a lack of responsiveness and a lack of resilience,” she adds. “You can break anything if you make it rigid enough.”  

 


Maja Djikic is an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management and the director of self-development laboratory at the Rotman School of Management