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2023: can we please have our mojo back?

22 Feb 2023

The history of the last 15 years reads like a script for the ultimate disaster movie. The near collapse of the international banking system led many governments to introduce austerity measures which undermined the state’s capacity to protect vulnerable citizens even in good times, let alone when forced to contend with a deadly pandemic. In this country, matters have not been improved by a quixotic decision to self-sabotage our most significant trading relationship, nor by the demise of a monarch who had served as a life-long comfort blanket for many of her subjects. More devastatingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its impact on European living standards, coupled with the reintroduction of fears of nuclear war, have reinforced the impression that all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death – have been released from their stables simultaneously, to destroy any possibility of us enjoying a healthy, peaceful and prosperous existence.

Working with organisational leaders throughout this tempestuous period, we have seen them facing adversity in many forms: during the financial crisis, it might have been having to abandon cherished plans, seeing your reputation shredded or even your career ending prematurely. Responding to Covid presented leaders with a different set of challenges: having to make unfamiliar decisions, sometimes with (literally) life or death consequences, adapting to new ways of working and living, and offering effective support to others at a time when their own self-confidence was in short supply.

The response of different leaders to these trials and tribulations was equally varied: some were floored, others galvanised. Personal resilience, an aspect of personality largely ignored by psychologists until recently, became a hot research area. With the support of the Local Government Association, we were able to study the determinants of resilience, as well as ways of measuring, and boosting it. More than 50,000 people assessed their own levels of resilience at various points during the early years of the government’s austerity program. We also interviewed a selected group of highly resilient individuals to find out what underpinned their ability to bounce back from adversity, and what techniques they used to sustain and boost their powers of recovery when the pressure was on. 

Statistical analysis revealed that personal resilience is made up of five separate though interrelated elements: optimism; individual accountability; solution orientation; management of stress and anxiety; and openness and flexibility. Generally speaking, experiencing adversity seems to strengthen rather than weaken an individual’s ability to cope with it – but only up to a certain point. The same applies to teams and whole organisations, which gives rise to the suggestion that whole populations – including our own – may currently be suffering from ‘adversity fatigue’, a condition which might link a number of widely reported phenomena. These include: a reluctance to return to work or at least to the office; unwillingness to make long term commitments, whether financial or emotional; and a tendency to shrug off appeals to increase productivity, to embrace new ways of doing things, or just generally to pull ourselves together!

But have we really given up? To do so would involve abandoning some attributes and skills regarded as most characteristic of homo sapiens. First and foremost, we are learning beings. We have a phenomenal capacity for diagnosis – for understanding what went wrong, analysing cause-and-effect and making improvements. We are also the most highly evolved species on the planet. Our flexibility and intellect give us the capacity to generate solutions to even the thorniest problems. And whilst we don’t have a monopoly on communication, the gift of language enables us to share our ideas with people across the globe. So the evidence suggests that we are uniquely equipped to undo some of the damage we have inflicted and solve the problems we have created. However, historical, political and psychological forces conspire to create disagreements about cause-and-effect, and about what should be done to deal with problems. Whilst we have the necessary tools at our disposal, we simply cannot agree on the strategy. Why? Because of the extreme difficulty we experience in trying to resolve the perpetual conflict between two of the most powerful, and contradictory, drivers of behaviour – competition and collaboration. The conflict in Ukraine is increasingly being cast as a struggle between autocracy and democracy. These political concepts may not be interchangeable with competition and collaboration, but the need to reconcile them has moved from being a psychological conundrum to representing an existential political imperative. Now, more than ever before, it’s time to collaborate.

2023: can we please have our mojo back?
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