Last fall, we hosted psychologist, researcher, and CEO of Kintla, Bill Redmon, for a talk on building resilience. As many of us find ourselves working under unprecedented circumstances, we wanted to share his strategies for caring for your mental well-being, building an environment of psychological safety for those you work with, and continuing to deliver work under pressure. Thank you to Bill for generously allowing us to write this up. You can read more of his work on Kintla’s blog.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to show toughness during challenging times and to recover from setbacks and change. Resilient people are crisis problem-solvers and often become go-to leaders in their companies.
Resilience helps you move past the state of panic (“What’s going to happen to me?”) and the temptation to turn inward in isolation with your thoughts, which is the opposite of what we need to do in order to bounce back. Resilient people connect with and learn from others in respectful ways, continuing to take in ideas even when stress levels are high. They convert what they’ve learned from failures into the fuel they need to move forward.
Why does resilience matter?
Research shows that resilience has a powerful positive impact on both personal and business success. If you can regulate stress under pressure, you maximize your IQ (really!) and your creativity. Showing resilience as a leader also releases the maximum potential in others and catalyzes collaboration. Resilient leaders create high-performing teams where people are not afraid of being threatened or criticized by cultivating psychological safety.
However, it’s not possible to overcome stress through intellectual power alone. You have to learn to deal with your biology to tamp down your instinctive stress response.
We tend to over-intellectualize leadership. While there are many great books on leadership out there, simply reading them all won’t turn you into a great, resilient leader. To grow as a leader and help your teams navigate difficult times, you must acknowledge the emotional component of being human.
There’s a quote from Mike Tyson  that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When high-impact, stressful situations catch us off-guard, all our intellect goes out the door and we react in ways our thinking brain would never let us.
Resilience is about building neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life . It’s been shown that daily stress added up over time has a profound longterm effect on our neurobiology, manifesting in actual physical changes. Some people, in fact, become highly sensitized to stress because they haven’t been able to manage it in the past. Resilience helps you to be less sensitive to stress over time. It takes longer for a stressor to activate an extreme response from a resilient person. So building resilience gives you a long-term advantage.
And, to be clear, it’s not the stress level in your environment that matters, as we often have little control over that. It’s all about how you deal with it. We will share a toolkit of bottom-up, top-down, and relational approaches to handling stressful situations.
Decoding the Ancient Brain
The primitive brain functions reactively and automatically. It’s what keeps us breathing and keeps our hearts beating; thank goodness we don’t have to think about those things! But it can also be disadvantageous. The primitive brain is on the lookout for threats — whether strong emotional threats or physical threats — that it needs to save us from. Think of this as the primordial protective instinct against being devoured by a saber toothed tiger. This is where the fight-or-flight reaction originates. All input into our brains gets processed bottom-up through this part of our brain, and, when it’s deemed stressful, often never makes it to our logical thinking brain, which is where we analyze, reflect, solve problems, and do complex thinking.
As your emotional state changes based on input to the primitive brain, so does your thinking power. Threat inputs progress along the spectrum from feeling calm, where you can be creative and analytical, to a state of alertness, which moves you into the concrete and practical, escalating to being alarmed, causing emotional and reactive responses, and finally outright fear, which transitions you into making automatic and unconscious decisions.
The “lizard brain” is always lurking, waiting for a signal to hijack your system and turn you into a reptile. If you can hold off the threat by reprocessing information — resilience — you can keep the pipeline to your thinking brain open and maximize your thinking power.
We are always somewhere on a spectrum of stress levels, from disengaged (grey zone) to regulated (green zone) to highly stressed, which we call the “red zone.” When we are in the “green zone” of being regulated, we are present, alert, and relaxed. We are at our best in terms of productivity and health in this green zone. In the red zone, however, stress triggers the primitive brain to take over and we lose our higher order thinking power. Feeling threatened or facing failure causes us to become defensive, activating those “lizard brain” protective measures. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the “grey zone” of disengagement, we also perform poorly; here we may find ourselves checked out, bored, distracted, or tired as we function on autopilot.
To maximize your performance, it’s important to notice where you are on the grey→green→red stress spectrum and work to regulate into the green zone. Possible triggers for a stress reaction can include inputs from your inner life, work life, personal life, or the balance of your work and personal life. What are your early signals of stress? How can you tell if you are dangerously disengaged? If you can learn to detect your triggers, then you can employ steps from the following resilience toolkit to return from the red zone of stress to the green zone of regulation, where you’re able again to be productive.
Your Resilience Toolkit
If you allow yourself to get deeply into the “red zone,” biology takes over and your thinking brain switches off. The primitive brain my save you from getting hit by a car, but it doesn’t help us at work because it shuts down the thinking that we need. Here are some ways to redirect your stress response to open up your pathways to critical thinking.
Bottom-up: Start by managing your body and physical stress by sending safe signals to your brain.
- For yourself: breathe deeply with long exhales — the length of the outbreath determines how relaxing the breath is. Relax your muscles. Take a quick walk. Reduce or block noise.
- For others: use a calm voice and smile. Show that you’re listening by using open body language. Take walking meetings to combine these techniques.
Top-down: Shift your thinking to decrease stress and develop a growth mindset.
- For yourself: acknowledge reality by naming your stress states. . Label negative thoughts and re-appraise them in a positive way. Focus on the big picture; how might you view this situation when you are 90 years old? Express gratitude.
- For others: help them re-frame their negative thinking. Add (gentle, appropriate) humor to shift the mood. Envision stress as an opportunity for energy and power. Eliminate the usage of catastrophic wording.
Relational: Increase positive interactions with others to build resilience and maximize cognitive power. Your resilience level is corresponded with the number of positive reactions you have with others in a day. In the primitive brain, the knowledge that someone cares about you actually increases your chances for survival.
- For yourself: have quick, positive conversations with people you trust. Ask others for their help and advice. Talk openly about your stress. Take advantage of digital social networking opportunities.
- For others: offer to help others. Remind those around you of their successes. Offer empathy rather than judgment; “you need to calm down” is the worst possible thing you can say to someone.
Building New Habits: Shifting Your Daily Rhythm
- Define what a good day looks like for you. 
- Identify possible disruptors so that you can prepare for and manage these. It’s critical to have figured out how to handle a trigger before you are in the moment. Identify techniques for when you can leave the situation, such as slipping out for a brief walk, AND for when you can’t, as when you’re in the middle of a meeting.
- Map patterns in your day-to-day. Consider heatmapping your calendar; at the end of each hour, what stress zone were you in, and what put you there?
- Make small changes. Don’t try to change your whole life all at once! Change 15 minutes a day, going after your biggest stress trigger first. It’s reassuring to note that it only takes 90 seconds to reset your brain’s state if you’re not too deep in the red zone.
- Reflect continuously. Keep a log or journal. Approach building resilience as a project. Gaining resilience will offer major returns for your health, your career, and your general feeling of well-being.
With this new knowledge of the importance of resilience, what signs will you look for to determine if your stress is regulated? If you’re a manager, how will you notice whether your team is regulated? How can you begin to change your daily operating rhythm to overcome stress with regulation? While many factors in our current climate are outside of our control, there’s never a wrong time to begin addressing stressors to flex your resilience muscles.