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Resilience is the key

17 May 10

Some advice on how to boost your personal resilience in the work environment, to cope with difficulties relating to clients, colleagues or the general economic situation

by Fiona Westwood

Recent economic pressures have resulted in many good lawyers being forced to deal with sudden and unexpected changes to their business and career plans, through no fault of their own. In such circumstances, people find it difficult not to lose confidence in their abilities and judgment. In addition, external regulation of the provision of legal services has resulted in solicitors having to come to terms with outside criticism and it is sometimes difficult not to become defensive and negative when faced with this. This article will look at the importance of developing the personal resilience that will help people cope well with and respond more positively to these adjustments, as well as tackle the everyday pressures of today’s professional practice.

Why is personal resilience important?

Personal resilience is particularly vital for professionals for a number of reasons. First of all, we have to make difficult and complex judgments where there is no “right” answer or predetermined solution, but only the “best answer” for that particular situation. Even the most businesslike client is emotionally involved in the work that we do for them and if they do not achieve the result they wanted, they are likely to look for someone to blame.

We may on occasion make mistakes due to having too much to do, being tired, as a result of inattention or being given responsibility for something outside our sphere of knowledge or ability. Because of the importance of our work, such mistakes can have severe repercussions for us and our organisations. In addition, we may be blamed for mistakes that are not our fault, and/or spend time and energy sorting out a problem that we would not have created in the first place.

We sometimes work in a competitive environment that creates in us an unwillingness to admit when we do not know the answer, so we fail to ask colleagues for help, with a resultant loss of perspective when problems arise. In the most serious situation, we can face the pressure of dealing with a formal complaint or claim against us, and become defensive and hostile to non-professionals attempting to judge the quality of our service provision.

This may seem a long list, and it is. Professional practice is not easy and we need to develop ways of not only coping with it, but more importantly succeeding in it. Developing our personal resilience will help us do both.

Positive thinking

Becoming more resilient brings with it a number of significant positives. For example, it allows us to:

  • be confident in our abilities and recognise our individual strengths, rather than focus on our weaknesses and mistakes;
  • accept our limitations so that we are comfortable with asking for help from others rather than attempt to deal with something outwith our knowledge and skills;
  • objectively assess the underlying causes of a difficulty rather than focus on its emotive and subjective elements;
  • take the positive out of a difficult situation or when something goes wrong rather than become defensive;
  • cope better with our feelings rather than attempt to ignore them;
  • make “better” decisions for us in the sense that they fit with what works for us and our core values rather than being directly or indirectly influenced by other people;
  • deal with the emotional and subjective aspects of professional life rather than become exhausted by them;
  • build working relationships with a wider group of people rather than only with those who resemble ourselves;
  • learn and adapt by applying our self-awareness and ability to seek help and support rather than repeat past mistakes and behaviours; and
  • continue to do our work well, build long-term relationships and enhance our employability rather than moan and complain.

Resilient people have therefore an inbuilt confidence and sense of direction. They have a core strength that allows them not to be buffeted by short-term problems and to keep a sense of proportion about their impact and knock-on effect on their future success and career prospects. Even when they are faced with an abrupt career or business change, they are able to remain confident about what is important to them and what they want to continue to do.

So how can we build our resilience?

Building blocks

Professional practice can be both a source of our ability to build personal resilience and the cause of a loss of confidence in ourselves, so it is vitally important to be able to take the positive out of our working experiences and make the most of our daily practice. In my experience there are five different elements to building personal resilience, all of which can be applied to what we do every day. These include:

  • developing self-awareness and being aware of the impact of our behaviour on other people;
  • taking personal responsibility for our own management and actions;
  • learning how to harness our feelings to build relationships with people and develop confidence in our intuition;
  • self-directing our learning and responding positively to feedback on our performance from other people;
  • and finally, using reflection to allow us to tackle problems objectively as they arise.

(a) Self-awareness

To develop personal resilience, it is important to be aware of our own strengths so as to be able to draw on them when we need to deal with challenging situations. We also need to know the areas where we may need to ask for help from other people. It is also essential to be sensitive to the impact of our behaviour on our clients and colleagues. I am sure that we can all think of people we work with who have no such insight, with the result that the rest of us spend our time managing the fallout from the problems they cause.

(b) Self-management

Professionals by definition take personal responsibility for their own management and actions. We are likely to be hard taskmasters and set high standards for our own (and other people’s) performance. We therefore have to be confident in what we do and perhaps more importantly why we do it. We also set the parameters for other people to follow and act as role models for trainees and newly qualified people.

(c) Feelings and intuition

Good professionals care about what they do, worry about making mistakes and enjoy doing a good job, so rather than pretend that such feelings have no place in the business environment, we need to acknowledge the impact of our feelings on how well we perform. We need to harness our enthusiasm and commitment to spur us on when situations become tense and difficult. In addition, it is important to develop confidence in our intuition, as it is an essential part of exercising good professional judgment that is based on a complex blend of our knowledge, skills and experience.

(d) Learn and adapt

It is important to self-direct what we learn and how we learn. No one can make us learn – we have to be motivated to do that for ourselves, knowing what we are interested in and what areas we want to develop. One essential element is that we must become able to respond positively to feedback on our performance, as it is all too easy to become defensive and not admit when we need help.

(e) Reflection

Lawyers often work in environments of “fault”. We cannot always provide what clients want, and there will be situations where we are blamed for something not achieved. I appreciate that many people do not like the idea of taking time out to reflect, but every professional needs to develop the ability to step to the side on occasions and consider what went well and what did not. Reflection therefore allows us to assess more objectively what happened, what could have been done better with the benefit of hindsight, and more importantly how to prevent its re-occurrence.

Take control

This article can only offer a brief overview of the importance of developing personal resilience in order to succeed in professional practice today. I have developed the subject in more depth in my new book (see “fyi” above). Everyone working in the law today, regardless of career stage or employment status, is facing unprecedented and radical change. Individually and collectively, we need to find a way not only to cope with this but also to take control of it. Developing our personal resilience will allow us to do that.

  • Fiona Westwood runs her own management and training consultancy, specialising in working with the professional sector. A solicitor with 20 years’ experience of private practice, she established Westwood Associates in 1994.

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