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The social chemistry of resilience

The inter-play between social incentives and stress in our brains provides light on why social relationships are critical to building resilience. Applying this psychology in the workplace, by establishing people strategies that focus on identifying and minimising social contributors to stress and creating mechanisms that promote social ‘coping’ will ensure we are increasing employee’s ability to respond well to adversity.

In response to the shifts associated with the future of work and the performance and psychological demands on employees that are growing exponentially, individuals need to be able to experiment, learn quickly from failures and recover with a willingness to try again in order to perform. Against the backdrop of heightening demands, 75% of the workforce are experiencing moderate to high stress levels. Given stress has been shown to negatively impact the type of agile performance needed, personal resilience is fundamental to ensuring that individuals not only survive but, more critically, thrive in today and tomorrow’s world of work.

What contributes to resilience?

Resilience, whilst underpinned by mental and physical health is more than just wellbeing. It is, at its truest, the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity. Think Darwinism – those who survive are those who respond well to change.

This type of resilience is complex and multifaceted with many psychological factors contributing to it. The role of personality has been demonstrated to contribute to how individuals deal with adversity, however having a high degree of emotional stability is not enough alone to create a resilient employee – thinking patterns, attitudes, behaviours and coping mechanisms all come into play too. Luckily, all of these can be can be built by everyone, regardless of personality. Research has supported the position that differences in the degree of control an individual feels they have and their ability to exercise self-control, emotional awareness and emotional management are just as important when faced with stress, adversity or change. Likewise, how we think has a part to play with problem solving, optimistic thinking, a commitment to overcoming obstacles and the reflective practice of learning from mistakes all being shown to correlate with resilience.

These factors are extremely important in helping to understand how to re-wire our minds and create new coping mechanisms (through effective techniques such as cognitive behavioural coaching and mindfulness), but there is one additional critical building block critical of resilience that is often glossed over, and therefore, what I want to focus on here: social relationships.

Since the time of our pre-historic ancestors, endurance has come from how people pull together. More recently, a wide range of studies that have found that positive social support and a strong, high quality social network (real relationships, not Facebook friends or Linkedin contacts which have been shown to have a detrimental psychological impact) are key to psychological resilience. And on the flipside, low social support has also been shown to be associated with heightened stress reactivity.

How do our relationships increase our ability to cope with adversity?

Brain activity and our evolution provide some clues as to the ways in which we are hardwired to connect with each other. As we adapted to live in societies, our minds created chemical ‘social incentives’ which would reward us with positive feelings when we acted in a way that promotes trust and loyalty between people. Recent neuropsychological studies have shown that there the inter-play between 2 ‘social incentive’ hormones, serotonin and oxytocin, and cortisol, the hormone related to stress, helps to explain the role relationship play in helping to build our resilience.

Serotonin relates to social pride. It triggers the feeling of happiness we get when we perceive others to like or respect us. It boosts our feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. One of the great things about serotonin is that it is reciprocal – not only does the individual who feels respected and valued get a serotonin boost, but so too do those doing the supporting or respecting. Serotonin has benefits for the workplace as it promotes clear thinking and has been shown to be linked to increased accountability.

Oxytocin is the hormone of friendship, love and deep trust. When we are with those we trust, oxytocin will not only be present but the longer our relationships last, the more oxytocin levels will increase. Oxytocin is produced when we feel that we belong – when we are confident we can face the dangers we see as a group. It is what underpins a sense of loyalty and inspires us to do things for others. Other than the great feeling it gives us, additional benefits are that it boosts the immune system and makes us better problem solvers.

Unsurprisingly, serotonin and oxytocin both account for prosocial behaviour. They reward us with a feeling of security, fulfilment, belonging, trust and camaraderie. Pretty powerful stuff, right? What is even better is that they also reduce stress, through their inhibition of cortisol.

Cortisol, the stress and anxiety hormone, is related to a feeling of threat or vulnerability. When we feel alone and unprotected, cortisol spikes. You probably know it as the ‘flight or fight’ hormone – when it is flowing through our bodies, we display self-protection and self-interest and paranoia set in. Whilst critical for survival, when in a regular state of increased cortisol, it has been shown to have many detrimental effects including reduced cognitive functioning, a negative impact on our immune systems and the depletion of emotional energy.

In situations where our social incentives are inhibited, i.e. when we don’t have strong social relationships, not only will we have an absence of our happy hormones serotonin and oxytocin, but due to a lack social support we feel more vulnerable to threats and therefore our cortisol levels increase. We then face a cyclical loop where our selfish behaviours and paranoia and cortisol levels keep pushing each other up and up and up….

How does this knowledge help with uplifting resilience?

This isn’t just interesting science, it has a critical real world application for organisations who wish to reduce the effects of stress on their employees. Addressing resilience holistically must consider how to minimise the social contributors to stress and how to encourage the social mechanisms that encourage oxytocin and serotonin production and promote ‘coping’.

Identify and minimise social contributors to stress

First, take a look at what is contributing to the production of our feelings of stress or anxiety –

what is making individuals feel ‘under threat’? Understand if your organisation is, even by accident, contributing to feelings of threat due to a feeling of isolation, alienation or social risk. For example, does your culture place emphasis on competition in a public forum? Think about your structure and address any changes needed to ensure that it promotes informal networks of talent working together. Take steps to ensures those most at risk of isolation, such as technical experts, are presented with the right opportunities to build the relationships they need. Make sure any internal selection procedures for the most prestigious projects or client accounts don’t ultimately leave most of the interested parties feeling rejected.

Once the ingrained threats are addressed, look to build resilience further by…

Creating mechanisms that promote social ‘coping’

Fostering the conditions that stimulate the release of social incentives relies upon looking in-depth at both the size and structure of the networks within your organisation and the quality of interactions within those networks. When doing so, you need to be considering if the activity you see is facilitating:

Social support. All employees need to have the opportunity to participate in strong networks of positive relationships. By this I don’t mean comforting hugs and cheerleading, but deep relationships which provide the individual with the safety net to turn to help them bounce back and grow in the face of adversity. Relationships strengthen and become more intimate over time, so make sure that the organisation allows project teams to invest in the longevity of their connections, and that the business provides social opportunities not just for expanding your network but for existing relationships to deepen as well. Ensure employees know who to turn to for support, and that it is not just ok but encouraged to do so.

Sense of belonging. Create a team identity that nurtures individual identity and diversity rather than tries to replace the unique self-concepts individuals’ have formed over time by asking them to adopt a shared group identity in place of their personally held beliefs about who they are. Group identity doesn’t need to be about everyone being the same – find the threads that weave their unique differences together. Find ways to foster belonging to increase trust so people don’t need to spend their limited resources protecting themselves from the perceived threat of others. Ensure everyone sees a place for themselves in the evolving organisation. To do so they need to understand the unique strengths of those around them, and how their skills set contributes to the broader capability that is equipping the organisation for the future. To consider how powerful a sense of belonging can be, think about how the Tata steelworkers mind-set of togetherness contributed to their resilience and loyalty to the business, as they readily offered pension reductions to protect the business’ future and their colleagues’ jobs.

Trust. Grow a culture that promotes trust. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the culture is, as long as it is positive and generates trust through psychological safety and inclusion. Provide opportunities for individuals to form personal bonds that create trust. Give them the tools and environment needed for open and honest communication. Are people able to have conversations in which they truly listen? Ensure leaders show people they are trusted by giving them accountability and autonomy and fight back the urge to step in when things are veering off course. This research at Google into high performing teams shows the impact that team cultures that create psychological safety and trust can have on the teams’ value creation.

Vulnerability. A word with positive and negative connotations. What you are aiming here is for the type of vulnerability that generates intimacy and compassion between people, and therefore has positive benefits, rather than a feeling of vulnerability to risk or threat. Critical is the concept of bringing one’s whole self to work and the role of the environment and culture in making people feel comfortable to do so. Additionally, pay attention to the role of formal and informal leaders - those who are in position of influence cannot expect others to display vulnerability unless they do so themselves. Do your leaders bring their whole selves to work and encourage others to do the same? One thing to look out for: one of the biggest inhibitors of vulnerability in organisations is an extremely strong drive to achieve (or perfectionism). Make sure your culture makes it ok to fail and to fail publicly. Otherwise, vulnerability and intimacy will be slow to grow. For more on vulnerability, it’s power and how to create it, check out Brene Brown’s work.

By focusing on minimising the social contributors to stress, and increasing social support, belonging, trust and vulnerability not only will individuals anxiety levels be reduced, but due to the production of the ‘happy’ social hormones, employees will experience and uplift in satisfaction, engagement and motivation ultimately contributing to an uplift in performance.

Take the first steps…

At a time when the need for us to come together is paramount, both in organisations and societies, businesses and individuals will benefit from building the relational foundations of resilience. As an organisation ask yourself what you can do more of to promote your employees’ resilience through your culture, ways of working and their social relationships? As an individual, ask yourself what you can do to foster more intimate relationships to promote your own resilience? (introverts, this doesn’t exclude you – it is about quality of relationship, not necessarily vast numbers of relationships). And ask yourself, what are you doing for those around you to help support their resilience?


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