Increasing worker resiliency

Al Siebert, Ph.D.
The Resiliency Center
Portland, Oregon
Presenter, 2007 APWA Congress

In today's world of non-stop change, public works managers need resilient employees. In the past, public sector managers ran stable, efficient organizations that operated for decades without much change. Public sector workers did what their managers told them to do and were evaluated on how well they followed their job descriptions.

Today's public sector managers must implement frequent reorganizations and constant change with reduced budgets while trying to meet mandated objectives. These new conditions shifted public agencies away from needing cooperative, compliant employees, to needing self-motivated, change-proficient, adaptable workers capable of working in new ways without up-to-date job descriptions.

This new demand is distressing to many workers. When groups of public sector employees make lists of their challenges and difficulties, most report that they feel pressured to do more work, of better quality, in less time, with fewer people, in new ways, with a tight budget—while worrying if their jobs are safe.

Some workers succumb to this pressure, but others do not. The difference in how well the majority of the workforce copes with the pressures is affected by how well their managers strengthen worker resiliency and do not try to manage in ways that weaken worker resiliency. For example, public sector managers who dwell on trying to overcome employee resistance to change fail to do so because trying to get employees to stop being the way they are is a negative goal. A positive goal is to develop resiliency strengths in the majority of workers who are committed to their work and have positive attitudes about change.

Resiliency is not an ability one is either born with or not. Resiliency strengths can be developed, just as proficiency in any sport or activity can be learned and developed.

Public sector managers who proactively work to strengthen workforce resiliency gain many payoffs. Resilient workers hold up well under pressure, adapt quickly to change, get the right things done with fewer mistakes, and are sick less often.

Resilience, resilient, and resiliency refer to the ability to:

  • cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change,
  • sustain good physical and emotional health when under constant pressure,
  • bounce back easily from setbacks,
  • overcome adversities,
  • change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible, and
  • do all the above without acting in a dysfunctional or harmful manner.

How can managers strengthen workforce resiliency?

  1. Identify what resiliency strengths to develop in employees.
  2. Know what supports and what impairs worker resiliency.
  3. Manage in ways that strengthen worker resiliency.
  4. Be a good role model of resiliency.

For managers who want to strengthen workforce resiliency, here are practical guidelines drawn from the new field of resiliency psychology:

Support Optimum Health and Well-Being in Workers
At the most basic level, the people who hold up well under constant pressure live and work in ways that sustain their health and well-being. Wellness for them is a way of life.

Useful Action: Support work/life programs. Encourage employees to follow widely known practices for living a healthy lifestyle. Be a good role model of a healthy lifestyle yourself.

Provide Emotional Paychecks
Laughing, pleasant relationships, enjoyable moments, and feelings of job satisfaction expand a person's cognitive skills and strengthen resiliency. Cognitive skills mean that a person is more aware of what's happening around them, make fewer mistakes, accurately read numbers and instructions, remember all the steps to follow, have fewer accidents, stay healthier and have more endurance.

Negative emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety and worry constrict a person's cognitive skills and weaken resiliency. This means that a person misses important details, forgets some instructions, makes more mistakes, is more likely to have an accident or get sick, and doesn't hold up well under constant pressure.

Research shows that work teams observed to have many positive moments outperform work teams without many positive feelings during the day. Managers who threaten workers and intentionally keep workers fearful are irrational because negative emotions in workers increase the probabilities of mistakes, accidents, employee sickness, and having good people quit.

Here's an example of a public sector manager acting irrationally: At an all-day meeting for city maintenance workers a few years ago, I conducted a short workshop on how to keep a positive attitude in stressful working conditions. Afterward, I accepted an invitation to stay for lunch to hear the mayor come and talk with the workers. Before the major arrived, the Maintenance Department Assistant Manager announced to the group, "The mayor will be here soon. He wants to hear questions from you," and raising his voice in a threatening way, said "but don't anyone ask any dumb questions!"

After the mayor gave a short talk and thanked the group for their hard work and dedication, he asked for questions. He was surprised (but I wasn't) when the group remained silent. No one spoke up with a question, even when encouraged by the mayor to do so. Afterward, I asked the assistant manager why he thought no one asked the mayor a question. He said these employees didn't have "the smarts" to ask good questions.

Managers who demean employees create a negative workplace atmosphere that undercuts mental alertness and resiliency in employees. A manager who creates a positive, appreciative work atmosphere increases mental alertness and strengthens resilience in employees.

Useful Action: Your governmental body supplies the dollar paycheck for each worker. It is your job to provide each person with an emotional paycheck. You do this by purposefully arranging for the people under your direct control to experience the following feelings each week:

  • their work is important and meaningful
  • personal responsibility
  • recognized for achievements
  • valued and appreciated
  • sense of accomplishment

All these job satisfactions are feelings. To accomplish this requires good emotional intelligence in a manager—an import area of professional growth for you to be developing.

Emphasize Problem-Solving Responses
Resilient people, when faced with difficulty, focus on problem-solving the challenge. The least resilient people become overly emotional, portray themselves as victims, blame others, and dwell on their misfortune.

You increase workforce resiliency by arranging for workshops on effective problem-solving methods. Content should include logical "left brain" methods, creative "right brain" methods, group brainstorming, and how to find simple, practical solutions.

Useful Action: When you invite people to bring their minds to work and invite them to help solve the problems, they feel more job satisfaction and are more committed to making the solutions work. You accomplish this when faced with a problem by asking yourself, "Am I being paid to solve the problems, or am I being paid to see that the problems get solved?" (See sidebar below.)

Metropolitan Bus System: The new operations manager for a metropolitan bus system studied the budget expenditures and saw that the annual cost for paper towels in the operations budget was over $25,000. "Why is this cost so high?" he wondered.

He spent many days in the bus barns observing the drivers and the bus cleaning crews. When the drivers came on duty, he saw each one pick up a new package of paper towels from the supply room on the way to their assigned bus. During their shifts, the drivers would break open a package of towels and clean up messes left by passengers on the handrails and seats. At the end of their shifts, the drivers would leave the partially used packages of towels on the bus.

The bus cleaning crews removed the partially used bundles of paper towels and threw them out. When he looked in the dumpsters, he saw large stacks of unused paper towels thrown into the trash.

Here was the problem. One package of towels for each driver, every shift, every day, added up to a major expense. He talked about what he'd observed with his boss, the drivers, and the cleaning crews. The solution they decided to implement was to install towel dispensers and on each bus and give the cleaning crews responsibility for keeping the dispensers filled. The cost of paper towels dropped immediately, saving the transit system over $6,000 a year.

This manager followed all the steps for rational problem solving. He identified the problem, was clear about the desired goal, collected information, discussed several solutions with people who had to make a solution work, and measured the results.

Encourage Self-Motivated Learning
Highly resilient people continuously learn new ways of doing things, enjoy new experiences, and often change how they interact with their circumstances. The least resilient people drift into a "calcified" condition where they try to avoid change and new experiences.

A problem with traditional training is that it conditions employees to be passive learners who wait to be instructed on what to do. In contrast, self-motivated, self-managed learning leads to a person becoming more skillful, professional, change-proficient, and resilient year after year. This means that traditional training methods and managing with instructions are self-defeating when used to try to increase workforce resiliency.

Useful Action: Appreciate employees who are curious and ask questions about why things are done a certain way. When something goes wrong, make them talk through what they learned from this so that the same thing won't happen again.

A marvelous blessing we humans carry inside ourselves is the ability to free ourselves from old, ineffective behaviors by learning new ways of doing things at any age. Resilient people enjoy learning better ways of doing things. Encourage workers to ask questions. Asking good questions is a far more useful skill in today's world than knowing answers that someone taught. Habitual curiosity leads to orienting quickly to new realities, and playful curiosity can lead to practical problem solving—one of the most basic resiliency skills.

A professional growth area for you to develop is to learn how to manage with questions. If you want resilient employees, keep in mind that you can't continue to manage workers like they were managed in the past.

Flexibility is Essential
Adapting to new circumstances is the key to survival in all of nature. If you always respond one way and never do the opposite, you will sometimes be helpless to stop yourself from automatically reacting in a self-defeating manner.

The flexibility found in highly resilient people comes from their complex inner nature. Here is a partial list of counterbalanced personality qualities typically found in people who overcome setbacks to achieve solid career success. They are both:

  • creative and analytical
  • serious and playful
  • hard-working and lazy
  • sensitive and tough
  • cautious and trusting
  • unselfish and selfish
  • self-appreciating and self-critical
  • optimistic and pessimistic

(How many of these pairs of counterbalanced qualities describe you? Can you add more?)

Counterbalanced personality qualities are signs of advanced emotional intelligence. Your resilience in rapidly changing circumstances comes from having many such pairs of traits, whatever they may be. The longer the list of pairs of counterbalanced, paradoxical traits you recognize in yourself, the more emotionally complex you are and this can increase your chances of successfully handling any situation that develops.

Useful Action: Be a good role model of flexibility. Sometimes take effective action by doing the opposite of what you typically do. Appreciate and praise workers who handle a situation by being very flexible.

Balance Positivity with Negativity
Managers with positive attitudes typically handicap themselves by having a negative attitude about negative thinking. The downside of this is that when managers suppress disagreement and negative thinking during meetings, they create a condition called "groupthink" that can lead the group into making bad decisions.

Power is derived from being at the choice point between counterbalanced forces. A sign that managers have developed advanced emotional intelligence is that they feel comfortable with and can counterbalance positive thinking with negative thinking. Barbara Clark, former City Treasurer in Portland, Oregon, says: "A negativity specialist will make you think through your plans better, point out flaws, and warn you about what could go wrong. I would thank the Lord when I had a negative thinker in my department!"

Useful Action: Appreciate and value individuals who are negativity specialists. Thank them for speaking up about what might go wrong. If no one voluntarily expresses negative views, appoint someone to be the "devil's advocate" when developing new plans. Doing this will help you avoid expensive problems later and negative media publicity.

Bounce Back Stronger
Resilience means being able to bounce back from setbacks that may feel totally overwhelming at first. When resilient people have their jobs disrupted, they handle their feelings in healthy ways. They allow themselves to feel anger, loss, and confusion, but they don't let it become a permanent feeling state. After expressing their feelings they quickly accept their new reality, and figure out effective ways to handle the new situation.

Useful Action: When you and your workgroup are forced to cope with disruptive change, make it okay for people to express their feelings for a short while. Then ask questions that focus the group on problem-solving what you can all do to cope with the immediate challenges. Later, when the time is right, ask what good can be found in this difficulty.

Every rough challenge brings with it the seeds of potential positive outcomes that would not have been possible if things remained as they were. Resilient people handle major difficulties easier than others. They expect to overcome workplace disruptions in ways that work out well, and find that the struggle to overcome difficulties can develop new strengths. Resilient organizations have stories of how rough adversities in their past turned out to be valuable experiences.

Today's reality is that we live in a constantly changing world. Some people make their lives difficult by resisting or fighting changes—others adapt and flow with change. Public sector managers and employees who function at high levels of resiliency are best suited for a world of non-stop change. They adjust quickly to new circumstances and move confidently through chaotic turmoil to reach good outcomes. Managers who understand the importance of workforce resiliency can help employees (and themselves) navigate through rough periods of change skillfully and without great distress.

Al Siebert, Ph.D., is Director of The Resiliency Center in Portland, Oregon. He is internationally recognized for his research into the inner nature of highly resilient survivors. He was a presenter at the APWA Congress in San Antonio and has extensive experience conducting workshops for public sector groups. His book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks won the Independent Publishers 2006 Best Self-Help Book Award. More information about resiliency is available at his website:

(c) Copyright 2007, Al Siebert, Ph.D.