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While the Covid pandemic has brought heartache, disruption and a sense of overwhelm to millions, others seem to be managing unscathed. In fact, some people seem to be thriving.
It reminds me of an economic downturn years ago. At a business conference I talked with executives from dozens of companies.
Some of them said things like “These times are really tough. Sales are down, our market share has shrunk, and we’ve having to lay people off.”
At the same conference, leaders from companies in the same industry told me things like “These times are really tough. But we see it as an opportunity. We’re ramping up our product development, we’ve expanded our marketing department, and we’re very optimistic about our future.”
Same economic environment. Same industry. Same customer base. Very different outlooks.
All of these were fine people who wanted nothing but the best for their stakeholders. Nobody was morally superior to anyone else. But the difference in their response to trouble was striking. Some chose to hunker down to weather the storm while others chose to turn their sails into the wind and navigate to even greater success.
An explanation for this can be found in the work of Dr. Steven J. Stein and Dr. Paul T. Bartone, authors of HARDINESS: Making Stress Work for You to Achieve Your Life Goals.
Stephen is a clinical psychologist and founder of Multi-Health Systems, a leading assessment and behavior analytics company. Paul is a Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University. He has taught leadership and psychology at the U.S. Military Academy and was research psychology consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General.
Their insights on hardiness apply to people everywhere, from the boardroom to the kitchen table.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You say commitment, challenge, and control are the key ingredients of hardiness. Please give us a brief definition of each.
Control is the ability to control what’s going on in your life, the belief that what you do makes a difference in how things turn out. Being high in control means you like to take action to solve problems and get things done.
Challenge is about flexibility. People high in challenge like to try out new things. They see stress as not necessarily a bad thing, but something that is challenging that they can deal with and learn from.
Commitment is about having a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life. People high in commitment are engaged and interested life and the world around them.
Duncan: How does hardiness differ from resilience?
Paul T. Bartone: Many factors can help people to be resilient, which is the ability to bounce back quickly from hardships and adversity. For example, social support from friends and family helps people to be resilient under stress. But hardiness is the main internal or “inside the skin” factor that leads to resilience. Resilience is the “what”… bouncing back from stress. Hardiness is the “how”…. How people get to be resilient in the first place.
Also, most definitions of resilience refers to returning to the state you were in prior to a stressful or traumatic event. What we find with hardiness is that it enables people to flourish beyond their previous state.
Duncan: Is hardiness a matter of nature or nurture—is it inborn or is it something that can be taught? Or both?
Stein: We like to think of hardiness as a combination of both nature and nurture. There are some people who are naturals at using one or more of the three Cs.
Psychological qualities, just like physical ones, are partly determined by our genes. But that’s not the whole story. Hardiness develops from a person’s experience. If children are encouraged to try new things and are supported in their natural tendencies to explore and exert control over their surroundings, they will develop a hardiness outlook or mindset.
At the same time, the current environment also has an influence. The people around you, your work or school environment, and especially your superiors, can have a big effect on your hardiness attitudes of commitment, control and challenge.
Duncan: Do the three Cs operate independently, or in synchrony? How does this work?
Being high in challenge means you’re willing to stretch yourself to try new things, and eager to learn. You can adapt and adjust quickly to new and difficult situations. And as you expand your challenging experiences and learning, you further reinforce your sense of commitment and control. So, the three Cs really work together in the hardiness mindset.
Duncan: What professional or life roles seem to require hardiness more than others? Why?
Bartone: It’s beneficial to be hardy no matter what your job is, since every job involves stress of one kind or another. But hardiness is especially important in high-stress, high-risk jobs like the military, or for example astronauts going off on deep space missions. These are jobs where it’s important that you like challenges and are highly committed to the mission.
The same is true for first responders. There’s evidence that high-hardy people are more adaptable and adjust more quickly to changing situations and demands. It turns out that’s just the kind of astronaut NASA is looking for.
We find that first responders—police, combat soldiers, medics, firefighters—are required to be hardy due to their constant interaction with stressful events. We also found that occupational groups such as physicians, lawyers and others with much autonomy and interaction with others do better when they are high in the hardiness mindset.
Research with professional athletes helps explain why hardiness is so beneficial in high stress occupations. These studies find that performers high in hardiness do experience stress and anxiety before an event. They interpret their anxiety as a positive force that helps them perform better. They see their anxiety as being “pumped up” for an event, rather than nervous about it.
Hardy performers experience the normal body stress reactions, but they interpret things differently, in more positive terms. This helps them focus on the performance or problem. It also helps them return to a normal, non-anxious state more quickly.
Duncan: When people are able to increase their hardiness, what differences should they expect to see in their work performance?
Bartone: People who have grown in hardiness are more proactive in facing problems and challenges in their lives, and in taking steps to solve their problems—whether they be financial, work-related, or around relationships. They are less inclined to avoid or postpone dealing with the problem. Perhaps as a consequence, they feel greater confidence in themselves and believe they can handle whatever comes their way. They are also more flexible, and tolerant of disruptions and schedule changes. They are more self-aware and reflective, and more aware of others.
People high in hardiness are more motivated in their work. They are curious, like to experiment and try new things. They take control over situations and tend to be more proactive.
Hardiness is also somewhat contagious. Hardy leaders encourage these same attributes throughout their organizations.
Duncan: What role does hardiness play in the satisfaction people derive from their personal lives?
Stein: People who are hardy derive more satisfaction from life. They feel their lives have purpose and meaning. They proactively deal with the daily stresses of life. They take responsibility for their actions. They also want to learn more about themselves and the world around them, including the people in their lives.
Duncan: How does hardiness relate to overall physical health?
Bartone: Our bodies react physically to stress, and this is usually a good thing if we’re dealing with a serious threat. The normal, healthy stress response involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that help prepare us for “fight or flight.”
Digestion stops, heart rate increases, and glucose is released so our muscles can react quickly. Once the threat is passed, our parasympathetic system kicks in to put the brakes on the body’s stress response. This is all normal and healthy.
It becomes unhealthy when the sympathetic stress response goes on for too long or is too extreme. This can happen with modern day stressors that are chronic, like driving in traffic or working for a toxic boss. And this can lead to all kinds of health problems, from high blood pressure to ulcers, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, not to mention anxiety, poor performance, and plain unhappiness.
Hardiness operates as a buffer, helping to keep you healthy in the face of stress. Scientific research has shown that people high in hardiness don’t experience such extreme or prolonged stress reactions. When stressful situations arise, they recognize them as more manageable right from the start, even as valuable opportunities or challenges to grow and learn from. They believe they have the resources and strength to deal with problem situations, which right from the start reduces the stress. And their bodies return to normal more quickly.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.