Sport and Business

In the last week I have given two talks in which I have outlined how the research we are doing in sport has applications to work and life more broadly. The first talk I gave was the inaugural talk for the Stoke ‘Psychology in the Pub’ series organised by Professor Karen Rodham. It was held at the Glebe pub and was great to chat to colleagues and the public about our research and the implications for stress management techniques – while having a very effective stress management technique regularly provided. On Friday I gave a talk to staff at UK Sport about resilience (a positive response to stress) and this was held at Bisham Abbey in one of the grandest rooms I have ever spoken (although it lacked a bar – so the Glebe pub won on that criteria).

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The grandeur of the room was probably not matched by the talk but I enjoyed it and it was great to share a Q&A session with staff and elite athletes about the issues covered. I discussed how we can think in a resilient way, help others be more resilient, and structure our working day (and life) to be more resilient.  I will revisit these topics in future blogs in more detail.

But I thought I would take the opportunity to revisit (reuse!) a blog I originally wrote with a colleague Dr Steve Suckling and which he published as part of his blog in June. Below is an abridged version of the blog in which we integrate Steve’s work on uncertainty and our work on resilience and apply it to organisations.

An organisation’s vulnerability can be measured by its approach to risk. If the organisation is governed by rigid procedures and processes then breaks to routine methods caused by unforeseen events are far more likely to result in catastrophes and the breaking of an entire organisational system. The reason the system breaks is because the people and culture are not capable of improvising under stress and so incapable of adapting to rapid change. This is the opposite of resilience and is basically a dysfunctional response to risk.

No matter how much an organisation attempts to identify and minimise risks it can’t avoid the uncertainty of the future. Unfortunately the complexity and aesthetics of risk models, manifested in daily procedures and processes, create a false sense of security- the future is in the bag and adherence to routine minimises risk. This approach can work for long periods of time, but the moment something unexpected happens people are instinctively scratching around for a manual which does not exist, instead improvisation is required.

Constant adherence to routine generates too much certainty into how the future will play out- you’ll always have that job, you’ll always keep your best customer, that market is secure, and that warning system always work; and this blunts error detection (see Crandrall et al 2006, Rugg et al, 2013 for examples). Not exposing people and organisations to tests means that when these future expectancies eventually get violated (and they will) they become framed as threats, and framing situations as threats is not conducive to improvising- people simply don’t have the confidence and range of trials to draw from required to improvise.

How does an organisation transform its approach to risk as a means of building resilience? Firstly, uncertainty needs to be embraced, an acceptance that routines and procedures will eventually hit their limits, and improvisation, and the innovation which springs from it, will be needed. Risk doesn’t just need to be written in a file or modelled, it needs to be practiced. Practice can take the form of resilience training where people are exposed to extreme events (in scenarios for example) which require thinking beyond the formal, routine is obliterated and its fragility exposed. This training in itself can produce innovation and insight, as Nassim Taleb advises in Anti Fragile– if you want to innovate, first get yourself into trouble. However, it’s important to remember you’ll never master or fully anticipate risk; it is something which waits in the future not the empirical past.

The psychological element is vital; moving outside of routine requires risks to be framed not as threats but as challenges. Identifying risk as a challenge (as opposed to a threat) provides the resilience to deal with the risk. In our research we see individuals responding to stressful events, such as something unexpected and potentially harmful, in a challenge state when they are confident, feel in control and have an approach focus, wherein they are focused on what can be achieved not what might go wrong.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. Collecting physiological data of this nature gives us an insight into to the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response the person is experiencing. When exposed to a stressor an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. When a person is threatened there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the stressor.

In our research CV reactivity to the psychological stress has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and motor task with those exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state and performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). In short how we approach unexpected, potentially harmful, events can determine our resilience. Being resilient, and displaying a challenge response to stress, does depend on our psychological characteristics and our past experience as mentioned. However our research also outlines how leaders in organisations can help develop resilience in their teams.

In our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to psychological stress by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). Prior to a stressful task if we emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, participants respond physically with a challenge state. As a leader in business, emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help develop resilience in use the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.

The framing of shocks and unexpected events as challenges potentially goes beyond leadership in the context of organisational behaviour in two ways. Firstly, the ability to absorb unanticipated risks by adopting a mind-set which allows problem solving as oppose to re-consulting the procedures can drive innovation. Tidd et al (2014) observes that innovation happens in tough times (recession) and is most likely carried out by those who see adversity as a challenge as well as a necessity- post traumatic strengthening (Taleb, 2013). Within an organisation, ideally, risk should actually strengthen the organisation (ibid), producing novel and innovative ways of working.

Secondly, people and teams focused on overcoming challenges-let’s call it problem solving- may actually reduce the cognitive load on leaders during tough times. In addition to potential innovation, this could potentially free up the time of leaders to focus on strategy, morale (both internally and shareholders) and communication. In closing, let’s say that uncertainty can be practised and then unexpected events may actually be welcomed.

I think this blog nicely illustrates how our work on resilience can be applied to one aspect that is important to organisations.  That of decision making.  Applying our research to wider areas is something we are increasingly keen on doing and we are developing a range of corporate programmes based on our research. If you are interested in these programmes then please get in touch.