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Resilience: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

As managing partner, you and your team have prepared your workplace for a return to something that looks like “normal” or pre-pandemic operations. Cleaning and work schedules have been adjusted, hand-sanitizer placed strategically throughout the office, and furniture moved to allow for better spacing to promote the physical safety of your team. But what about preparing your people for a return to work? Employees have been through a year of unprecedented emotional challenge from COVID-19 fears and restrictions, exacerbated all the while by the reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, a contentious national election, an unrelenting series of natural disasters, and 20th anniversary reminders of the horrors of September 11. What has your management team done to ameliorate the impact of these events on a workforce ambivalent about returning to the office while still shouldering the weight of an unfolding national trauma?

If the answer is “not much,” then the 2021 Legal Summit Series webinar Building Workplace Resilience might be a good place for you and your team to start. Presenter Lesley Marlin, Associate General Counsel, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), frequent speaker on workplace culture and psychological safety, and 2020 TED Masterclass presenter on the power of resilience, offers a concise primer that will be helpful to both the organization and the individual recovering from the extraordinary events of the last two years.

Marlin begins by observing that every individual responds differently to trauma, but all bring their response into a workplace and organization that has also suffered greatly in its own right. People and organizations are under stress, and while stress can be harnessed to enhance performance, there is a need to balance stress in a way that enables it to be used motivationally without crossing over into anxiety and burnout. Enter the study of resilience, which Marlin defines as “the process of perseverance and adapting well in the face of significant challenges, adversity or stress.”

Resilience does not just happen, but needs to be built over time through practice. People and organizations, Marlin says, are less like Nerf balls that regain their original shape after being put under pressure, and more like wire coat hangers that need to be reshaped manually after being squeezed. Reshaping occurs at the individual level by harnessing “the power of me,” and at the organizational level by exercising “the power of we.”  Although there are some similarities, the processes for learning resilience is different for each level.

For individual resilience in the workplace, Marlin recommends training employees to use the 3 R’s: Reflect, Release and Restore. The first step is to pause when faced with a difficult situation to reflect or create some space to assess uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that have arisen from events the individual cannot control, to think about their impact and consider how best to respond. Once aware of the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that accompany stress, the individual should next consider how to release them and move beyond the “fight or flight” mode that often is triggered by adversity.  Only then can the employee take steps to restore their soul, regain positive energy and return to peak productivity. Restoration, Marlin teaches, is best accomplished by using the senses, focusing on what we see, feel, smell, taste and hear. To some this could involve an outdoor walk to smell the flowers. To others it could be found in a piece of chocolate, or through any other sensory experience that helps the individual to regain equilibrium and perspective.  

Practicing collective resilience in the workplace is a team effort which Marlin teaches using a framework she summarizes with the acronym DREAM: Developing Connections (with empathy); Reflect (to respond not react); Exploring Options (for creative problem solving) Acceptance (of circumstances, people and emotions); and Making Meaning (by ascertaining what the organization can learn or take away from the experience). 

This process begins at the top using empathy to develop connections. Marlin reports that a recent article in Forbes magazine cites empathy as the single most important leadership tool, particularly in organizations emerging from difficulty. She describes the empathic process and the brain science behind it, explaining how the exploration of options to solve problems creatively occurs best at the intersection of the rational/analytical right side of the brain and its creative/artistic left side. 

After taking the viewer through each step in the DREAM process for building a resilient workplace, Marlin suggests situations in which this framework might be applied, such as when some members of the organization might want to return to the office while others resist, or when the firm has lost (or gained) a significant client that might require restructuring of operations.

Access to the full 30-minute presentation, and a separate program on Creating the Resilient Law Firm of the Future can be downloaded for free by members or purchased by non-members here.