BY JOSH GLAZEROFF
Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The year 2020 was one awful thing after another; 2021 is, well, it’s hard to say yet—more of the same? Getting better? 2022 is still too far away to be certain. What does that mean for us and our teams?
When it comes to resilience—defined by retired FSO and resilience expert Beth Payne as “the capacity to adapt successfully in the presence of risk and adversity and to bounce back, or forward, from setbacks, trauma and high stress”—doing more now for ourselves and our teammates will help us far into the future.
Many of you are familiar with the State Department’s Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (known by its acronym, CEFAR), a tremendous resource for all personnel that is based at the Foreign Service Institute. Some of you are already practitioners and proponents of meditation, jigsaw puzzles in the office, walks and virtual coffees. These tools are not new, but focusing a discussion of resilience on our roles as leaders is. Why should leaders focus on resilience? Why should you care about resilience?
Are you or your teammates dealing poorly with stress and anxiety? Are you or your teammates having mood swings often? Out sick a lot? These are all signs that you or your staff members are not resilient. When we take care of ourselves and set boundaries on what we are going to take on at work, we are more adaptable and collaborate more effectively. When we have a strong social network, focus on the positive, and reflect on meaning and purpose in life and at work, we are better employees.
Taking the time to assess our standing in these areas and address our weak points will pay off this year and in the years to come. Talking about resilience with the other members of your team can be a force multiplier for the entire organization. Beyond the actual human understanding of those with whom you work, you will end up with a more effective team. A resilient team is one that is creative, adaptive and ready for all of our multitudinous challenges. Such a team is more likely to be successful and meet those goals you set for it.
So what can we do about it? What should we aim for? Borrowing an approach from Beth Payne, I will frame the discussion in terms of the “7 Cs of Team Resilience”—culture, communication, competence, connections, commitment, coordination and consideration.
For each of these, the challenge is to take immediate steps that build resilience and make us stronger as an organization going forward. For each, I am thinking of what practical actions I can take as a leader to improve.
Do you work in an office where everyone is comfortable sharing their experiences and stories? Do you have shared values, identity, history and purpose? Culture in an organization is a foundation for resilience. Those who feel grounded in their teams are more willing to share what is happening for them, address difficult situations and find solutions to problems, both personal and professional.
How do you get people to share more? One idea is to hold small gatherings with some frequency. Whether it is an informal coffee or a book club, you can give your team a chance to interact and build a basis for future discussion. A particular annual party or a well-known weekly event make the calendar a culture-builder. In our office we celebrate one of the lesser holidays each year by having a team member dress in an animal costume and serve a pancake breakfast (yes, it’s true!). What is your team’s culture like?
Talking about resilience with the other members of your team can be a force multiplier for the entire organization.
I freely admit that communication is not my strength. However, there is no way to get around it. If you want team members to be well informed; if you want them to share their views and engage in dialogue; if you want them to question old ways of doing business, then communication is essential. We need to vary our methods and make the effort.
In the days of 100 percent virtual work, that takes even more dedication. Online coffees aren’t great, but they can mean a lot. Figure out how to do those holiday parties. Make one more call to someone you haven’t seen. Find out how everyone’s family members are doing. In our office this past year, we have had a series of teleconferences discussing different elements of diversity and leadership. Discussions were personal at times, but everyone had an opportunity to share. As you’ll see below, we really must connect to keep our teams resilient.
How highly do you rate your team’s competence? Do team members have the capacity and skills they need to meet demands, particularly during times of crisis and high stress? Think now about how to build these skills. Training is essential; taking the time for it is a difficult choice, but one that pays off over the longer term. Beth Payne reminds us to take time to “sharpen the saw.” If we don’t do that, we will hamper productivity in the longer term.
Identify what skills your team members lack. If they are teleworking—and, thus, saving commuting hours—it may be the perfect time for them to work on those areas. I am fortunate to oversee my bureau’s learning and development group. That team fosters participation in governmentwide programs, State Department exchanges and detail opportunities, and also hosts periodic webinars on topics including “executive readiness”—all with an eye to building skills for the future.
There is no doubt: We are in the business of making connections. I remind myself of that as often as I can, especially when it comes to my own team. Again, it is important to make time for those virtual coffees now and get to know everyone, particularly those who have joined since the pandemic and you haven’t met in person.
Check in on Microsoft Teams with people after a weekend. Share fun pet photos; take an extra moment to tell a story with a colleague and figure out now what you have in common. At the beginning of the COVID-induced shift to maximum telework, our office shared favorite recipes, sent lighthearted memes and celebrated future dream vacations we could all connect with.
The members of an office with true commitment to each other and to a shared mission will keep their promises and protect teammates from harm, even when it is hard to do so. One of those areas we often associate with successful sports teams; this is no less relevant to our work teams. There are myriad ways to support one another with time, money or effort. Respect and loyalty should be there for all. Team members look out for each other, “have their backs,” and, if needed, step in to take on their tasks.
Commitment also extends to the organization’s mission. Think about identifying an area your team can commit to, and then reinforce its importance often. In the Consular Affairs Bureau, we talk often about our global impact. We are truly changing Americans’ lives, with an especially huge role in bringing 100,000 fellow citizens home during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. We also emphasize taking care of everyone on our team, particularly if they are facing a difficult personal situation.
Figure out how to do those holiday parties. Make one more call to someone you haven’t seen. Find out how everyone’s family members are doing.
Are your team’s goals coordinated? This is one area my team knows I love to focus on. By writing good goals with measurable indicators, I find it easier to know if we are successful and to tie each day’s efforts to longer-term objectives. To maximize coordination, we generate a poster with the goals for our office each year and share it widely. There are lots of resources in this area, and goals are part of all bureaus’ strategic planning. Do you communicate (see above) the importance of these goals enough? In enough ways? Something to consider for the 12 months ahead.
Last on the list, but by no means least, is our consideration of team members and how we support their personal needs, as well as professional goals. This has been the hardest for the State Department in recent months; our personnel simply have not been supported by leadership.
Now is the time to regain trust and return the focus to the strengths of our career staff. You, too, play a role in that every day. Although sorely tempted to jump right into work matters, I try to begin every call with a colleague with a real question about their non-work life. I want them to feel safe talking to me and sharing those problems that affect their lives.
What should be our overall goal for resilience leadership? Can you see yourself with a resilient team? I can, but getting there post-COVID is a lot harder than it was in years past. It is going to take time and effort to build capacity in my group and to meet all the elements of the “7 Cs.”
I have planned some virtual discussions, and I aim to see all of those who may be in the office in person when I am there. I try to ask about family and health and well-being before jumping right into work topics, and I often just say “thank you.”
I would like the 100 people in my office to feel comfortable dealing with challenges and to work as effectively together as possible. Do I wish the same for the department as a whole? Of course I do, but it depends on each one of us to make this a reality.
Think about the steps you can take. Do some reading on this topic. Make a connection with someone who is also working to improve resilience. Reach out to CEFAR for the latest materials. Be a leader in resilience for your team and for the rest of the organization.
By investing now in our human resources, we will see results for years ahead.