Saturday, January 6, 2007


In the 1970s, social science research on stress became fodder for human-potential movements that warned of its dangers. The prevailing attitude during this period advocated stress reduction over stress management. In 1974, one of Sal’s graduate students showed him a Family Circle magazine article that supported this position. It cautioned people against the perils of stressful experi- ences. The article even went so far as to suggest that people should avoid driving on heavily congested freeways whenever possible. Although most of us would like to avoid traffic congestion, getting to work and other important activities often rule out this option. Sal’s experience and research contradicted this article’s ideas. His studies found that creative people regularly look for new, meaningful, and fulfilling experiences, some of which inevitably cause them stress. In many cases, such people perform some of their best work under great stress. Take Michelangelo, for exam- ple. He was unhappy when the Roman Catholic pope ordered him to leave Florence and his employer, the Medici family, for Rome to carve the Pietá and paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. 1 Despite stressful work conditions and his desire to return to Florence, Michelangelo created marvels that the world still admires. This puzzling paradox led Sal and his researchers to the hypothesis that whether stressful changes enliven or destroy depends upon how one responds to them. They set out on a chal- lenging research journey that resulted in discovering how hardi- ness promotes resilience.
To test their hypothesis, Sal and his research team needed to study people who regularly experienced disruptive change. Sal turned to his friend Carl Horn, who was then an executive vice president at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) in Chicago, to see if IBT’s managerial staff could participate in the study. Carl opened the doors to what would become a landmark study and a fundamental part of Sal’s research into how different people handle stress. IBT’s impending reorganization made it the right time to do such a study. At that point, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and its subsidi- aries were a federally regulated monopoly. This immunity status eliminated both competition and dependence upon investors fo- cusing on the bottom line. But, looking to speed up product and service advancements, external forces pressed toward open com- petition through deregulating ‘‘Ma Bell.’’ This would pave the way for the telecommunication and Internet industries that we know today. Deregulation and Disruption In 1975, Sal and his research team began a twelve-year study paid for by IBT and the National Institute of Mental Health. 2 They eval- uated roughly 450 male and female supervisors, managers, and decision makers at IBT, through yearly interviews, psychological tests, medical examinations, and work-performance reviews. In 1981, six years into the study, the U.S. Federal Court or- dered the earth-shattering deregulation of the ‘‘Ma Bell’’ monopoly. Deregulation changes dismantled IBT’s long-standing policies and work norms in ways that greatly disrupted employees’ functioning. Managers sometimes had as many as ten new supervisors within a twelve-month period. Neither they nor their supervisors had any real grasp of what was happening. By the end of 1982, IBT had downsized from 26,000 to 14,000 employees. Some still regard the deregulation of AT&T as the largest upheaval in corporate history. During this time, most IBT employees endured massive levels of stressful, disrupting changes. Close to half of the employees in our sample lost their jobs. Two-thirds of our sample broke down in various ways. Some had heart attacks or suffered depressive and anxiety disorders. Others abused alcohol and drugs, were sepa- rated and divorced, or acted out violently. In contrast, a third of our employee sample was resilient. These employees survived and thrived despite the stressful changes. If these individuals stayed at IBT, they rose to the top of the heap. If they left, they either started companies of their own or took strategically important employ- ment in other companies. THE ROOTS OF RESILIENCE We studied our research data and IBT’s employment records prior to the deregulation to see if there were differences in personality and coping style that distinguished the vulnerable from the resil- ient employees. That’s how we discovered hardiness as the essence of resilience. Prior to reorganization changes, the resilient IBT group’s em- ployment data agreed with our test data in illustrating telltale pat- terns of adaptable attitudes and skills the less resilient employees lacked. Measured through various relevant questionnaires and in terviews, these resources surely helped in coping effectively with deregulation pressures. It makes sense that they fared better in performance, stamina, morale, conduct, and health, at work and at home, than did IBT’s less resilient employees. Three Resilient Attitudes Which attitudes distinguished the resilient employees in our study? Three key attitudes of commitment, control, and challenge came up repeatedly in the resilient group. We began to call them the 3Cs. These three attitudes combined to form a mindset of courage in the resilient employees. Through this, they could face the stressful changes and do the hard work of coping effectively with them. Let’s take a look at the specifics of these three attitudes: 1. COMMITMENT. When you are strong in the commitment atti- tude, you view your work as important and worthwhile enough to warrant your full attention, imagination, and effort. You stay in- volved with the events and people around you even when the going gets rough, and you sidestep unproductive alienating social behaviors, seeing withdrawal from stressful circumstances as weak. 2. CONTROL. When you are strong in the control attitude, you keep trying to positively influence the outcomes of the changes going on around you. Rather than let yourself sink into passivity and powerlessness, you do your best to find solutions to workday problems. In deciding where to apply your efforts, you determine which situational features are open to change and gracefully accept those outside of your control. 3. CHALLENGE. When you are strong in the challenge attitude, you see change as instrumental in opening up new, fulfilling path- ways for living. You face up to stressful changes, try to understand them, learn from them, and solve them. You embrace life’s chal- lenges, not deny and avoid them. This expresses your optimism toward the future rather than your fear of it. Two Vital Skills The courage and motivation of the three resilient attitudes bring about the skills of transformational coping and social support. 1. TRANSFORMATIONAL COPING. The resilient IBT employees transformed stressful changes to their advantage. First, they en- tered into a thought process that placed the changes into a broader perspective, taking the sting out of them, so to speak. A common way they broadened their perspective was to see a particular stress as happening to lots of other people. This made them feel less alone in their pain and struggle. As the broader perspectives made the stressful circumstances a bit more tolerable, they could then think about them long enough to deepen their understanding of them, which led to well-considered, innovative plans and problem- solving actions. This is a classic hands-on approach—get a firm grip on change and what it really means, then turn the situation to your advantage—as opposed to breaking down or acting precipi- tously in the face of change. 2. SOCIAL SUPPORT. In handling stressful changes in this direct manner, the resilient employees interacted by engaging others rather than by alienating them. They also attempted to resolve in- terpersonal work conflicts by interacting constructively, assisting and encouraging win-win solutions for all. They believed that problems are opportunities to strengthen relationships. Moreover, no matter how difficult things got, they sought to preserve rela- tionship bridges because it was worthwhile and important to their growth. Chuck W.: A RESILIENT MANAGER We interviewed Chuck repeatedly during the study. His attitudes and coping resources showed his resiliency and they stand as clear examples of what this book is meant to convey. Although an engineer by trade, Chuck became an IBT cus- tomer relations manager. Prior to the deregulation, he exhibited the three resilient attitudes—commitment, control, and chal- lenge—toward his work. This small, neat man in his midfifties introduced himself as someone who enjoys solving problems. His eyes lit up as he described customers’ needs, investigating and mending customer disputes, and working out company service capabilities and obligations. He seemed to thrive on changes that made the most of his talents and capabilities. Chuck clearly antici- pated the deregulation’s more stressful aspects, but saw it as a stimulus to his and the company’s growth. 1. Thriving on Change Shortly after the deregulation upheaval, Chuck said he experi- enced customer relations work as more challenging than before, although still manageable. Finding strategies to solve these new, professional challenges fascinated him. He astutely grasped cus- tomer concerns and problems arising from such changes. With greater marketplace competition, for example, customers had more places to take their business. Chuck knew that these cus- tomer concerns would emphasize his job position, making his role more central within the company. He also knew he needed more effective coping resources to handle the added pressures, and he formulated ideas to address these issues. While many employees around him bemoaned the deregula- tion, and tried hard to hang on to the good-old days, Chuck looked to the future. He sought to understand the ways in which the deregulation would shift business concerns and practices and how this might open up new, prosperous ways of doing business. In particular, he anticipated that IBT would have to be much more proactive in order to retain its large customer base, now that it was competing with start-up companies. Rather than panicking about the deregulation and seeing it as a threat to IBT’s business, he put it into perspective and saw it as a natural evolution of the telecommunications industry that could, in the end, work to everyone’s advantage. He could now analyze the pros and cons more objectively, deepen his understanding, see ways to solve the problem, and act accordingly. 2. Taking Decisive Action Chuck understood that the new competition in the telephone in- dustry probably meant an eventual decrease in the price of services for customers. But, he did not see this as the main area of his concern, as IBT was already offering rather low prices for services, not having had to worry about its bottom line. What seemed more immediately important to him was ensuring the satisfaction of IBT’s customers with the services they were receiving, so that they would not switch to a competitor company. To facilitate this goal, he set up an action plan that surveyed existing clients, to find out what they valued about their telephone services and what they wanted but did not have. The survey’s tone was friendly, and it aimed at communicating to the customers IBT’s strong interest in providing them with the best-possible ser- vice. The plan included maintaining the services that were valued, and in addition, working on providing or improving the services that were lacking or inadequate. To keep them on board, Chuck’s plan included regular information updates as to the progress of the service improvements to customers. Having gone this far in his deliberation, Chuck took his overall plan to his supervisors. Most of them were preoccupied by the swirling disruptions brought about by the deregulation, and had a difficult time taking his plan seriously. But, Chuck would not take ‘‘no’’ for an answer and persisted until his supervisors finally ac- cepted that they needed to try to keep their customers happy, even though they were not happy themselves. Finally, they adopted his plan, put him in charge of implement- ing it, and allocated the necessary resources to him. This effort paid off, as it became clear that customers appreciated what they saw as the company’s loyalty to them and reacted in kind. Soon, the comments customers made about the improvements they de- sired began to drive IBT’s research and development, ensuring its competitive success in the future. In this evolutionary process, Chuck became an increasingly central figure. He feels great about what has happened. 3. Resilience at Home Chuck also responsively attended to his family’s needs, despite his strong commitment to work. His two children were just about to enter college. When they moved out of the family home, Chuck’s wife planned to return to school to finish a college degree she had long ago interrupted. Although this change inconvenienced him, he supported his wife’s personal development. Chuck considered ways in which they could maintain their loving, close relationship, despite spending less time together. He imagined involving himself in community organizations to make good use of his time alone. 4. Looking to the Future In the final interview, we asked Chuck to describe how he felt about the company’s changes. He thought he would continue what he had started. He enjoys his work and wants to continue to help IBT to serve the public well. As to his family, he said, ‘‘I look forward to seeing my children marry, have children, and to my wife and I becoming grandparents.’’ Chuck liked his life as, all along, he pursued the goals he valued. ‘‘I enjoy a genuine life, full of challenges, meaning, and pur- pose, and look forward to more of it,’’ he stated. Chuck rarely got ill, and although he was tired at the end of the day, he was content.
Chuck was in the minority of our research sample. For every per- son like him, two people had poorer performance and health as the continuing stress overwhelmed them. Even prior to the company deregulation, the nonresilient em- ployees were vulnerable rather than hardy. They disengaged from stressful work events by avoiding and detaching from them as much as possible. They argued, ‘‘what good can possibly come about through change?’’ They had difficulty imagining how stress- ful circumstances could bring them anything other than pain. ‘‘Most things are out of your control,’’ they’d say. They saw little reason to struggle. These vulnerable employees lacked courage, motivation, and strategies to turn stressful changes to their advantage or grow in the process. Many of them waited for the dust to settle by down- playing or denying the significance or existence of changes. Choos- ing instead to distance themselves from stressful changes, these employees let unessential activities preoccupy them, or used vaca- tion or sick days to escape their work responsibilities. Some vulnerable employees exaggerated the impact stressful changes had on them. The more passive of these nonresilient em- ployees felt like victims and tormented others through whining or complaints. Others, more aggressive, blamed workplace problems on their coworkers, supervisors, and employers. They competi- tively bolstered their self-esteem through emphasizing others’ problems. In doing so, they sometimes tried to make others appear weak, foolish, and in need of their help. To them, this was easier than reaching out to others as equals. As you probably have already surmised, the nonresilient em- ployees fared badly in the company’s efforts to deregulate and re- organize. They performed poorly, and frequent stress-related health problems compromised their job security. When there were personnel cuts, the company was most apt to terminate these less hardy employees. Andy B.: A NONRESILIENT MANAGER Among the managers we studied, Andy was clearly low in hardi- ness. In our various interviews with him, Andy, a carefully groomed and dressed forty-three-year-old, sat stiffly at his desk, alert and ready to answer our questions. His eagerness to please, and his polite and proper behavior, made him appear younger than his chronological age. As a residential-telephone service line manager, Andy turned upper management directives into job orders for his subordinates. He precisely described his job as predictable and unchanging in routine. ‘‘I’m a link in the chain of command,’’ he stated, ‘‘I know each day what I have to do and how to do it.’’ He worried about workplace unruliness that would accompany the deregulation. When the deregulation hit, the many changes disrupted work- place procedures and goals, and flying by the seat of one’s pants became the company norm. At that point, Andy’s worry turned to fear. His growing responsibilities required more creativity on his part. He was less and less efficient, and at times, confused about what to do next. Andy yearned for the good-old days of more precise company objectives and plans. Job security now weighed heavily upon him. He worried about his performance and hoped supervisors still thought well of him. To allay the threat, Andy lost himself in his work. He sometimes wished for early retirement, especially in the hope of return- ing to normal home life. At home, he spoke of nothing else except work problems, and despite his wife’s reassurance and comfort, he still felt anxious and worried almost all the time. Although he appreciated her efforts, he also blamed her for insufficiently at- tending to his needs. When he felt most out of control, he verbally struck out against her, and felt very guilty for doing so. ‘‘I hate hurting her,’’ he stated. Andy’s parental responsibilities overwhelmed him as well. ‘‘Al- though my children do well,’’ he stated, ‘‘they still need my help and guidance.’’ He doubted that he was up to parenting them dur- ing the stressful times he had to endure. When we asked Andy about his future plans, he had little to say. Thinking that far ahead disturbed him, but if pressed to re- spond, he disliked appearing vulnerable and out of control. He wished for more predictable work situations in order to prove his worth. Andy let work problems influence how he felt about himself, which took a toll on his health. On health questionnaires, Andy reported irritability, insomnia, heart palpitations, and periods of appetite loss. Routine health tests, provided by IBT’s medical de- partment, showed increases in Andy’s heart rate and blood pres- sure, and following the deregulation, he developed a stomach ulcer. SUMMARY Here you have two clear-cut case studies of the different sides of resilience at work. Chuck W. survived and thrived during the IBT upheaval through his strong hardiness—his attitudes of commit- ment, control, and challenge, and his well-developed coping skills. He is a good example of what we are talking about in this book. On the other hand, Andy B. had little resilience to begin with and his ability to cope evaporated completely in the face of stressful changes. We have learned a lot since those early years at IBT, especially about how hardiness works to preserve one’s performance, health, morale, and conduct. Back then, we had some idea of the need for hardiness in the workplace but were less aware of its broader meaning and application.

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