Not all action heroes wear capes, tights and masks. Many of them work beside us every day. One of them is Beth Payne, a United States diplomat from 1993 until 2016 with assignments at the U.S. Embassies in Senegal, Rwanda, Israel and Kuwait and as the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, India. In 2003, she opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad, Iraq, where she received the State Department’s award for heroism. Not just because she saved lives, but also because she took her adversity, turned it around and used it to benefit others. This is the miracle of resilience and the majesty of heroism.
Early one October morning of 2003, Payne was in the U.S. Consul in Iraq when a rocket slammed into her hotel room and changed her life forever. In the mayhem, she helped a colleague who was severely injured and got her to safety. She then assisted dozens of other colleagues who had been wounded in the attack, ignoring her own fears and blood-covered pajamas. After the rocket attack, she pressed on, disregarding the emotional impact the traumatic event had on her, thinking her symptoms (inability to sleep, irritability and emotional distance) would go away in time.
Several years later, she was still struggling and getting worse. Thanks to a staff member at a wellness resort, she learned she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Luckily, she received excellent mental health care and fully recovered. This experience inspired her to explore ways she could have prevented her PTSD and to develop strategies for protecting other U.S. diplomats experiencing similar traumatic events.
She discovered a body of research on how resilient individuals and teams thrive despite adversity and chronic stress. They adapt easily to change, recover quickly from setbacks and collaborate effectively with others. Although she learned them the hard way, she decided to share many resilience skills and tools with others. She realized that when leaders cultivate resilience within their teams, their staff are better able to adapt to stress and adversity, are less likely to suffer from burnout and are more open to change. As a senior government official, Payne applied what she learned in her workplace and flourished as a leader. The teams she led thrived despite adversity and chronic stress.
In 2016, she teamed up with colleagues at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center to create the award-winning Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience to develop a comprehensive training program for other foreign affairs professionals. They identified key factors that help them cultivate resilience as individuals, teams and leaders. They trained U.S. Ambassadors and senior officials across the foreign affairs community, helping them develop resilient teams in order to better achieve U.S. foreign policy goals.
The outcomes of the design were resilience tools and resources for foreign affairs professionals across the U.S. government. All of us experience one type of adversity or another in our lives and in our careers, perhaps not as dramatic as Payne’s but nevertheless her experience embodies lessons we can all apply in the workplace. She designed an online resilience for Udemy called Resilience Leadership: How To Ensure You And Your Team Thrive In Adversity. Whatever work situation you’re in, Payne says, it’s important to learn resilience skills and tools to scale the obstacles. She offers these tips for resiliency:
- Self-Care. Daily physical activity, healthy eating, sufficient sleep and taking time to recover from stress are necessary for both short-term and long-term resilience. Study your daily and weekly routines and try to schedule the time you need to focus on each of these components. We often overlook the need to recover — which can be as simple as taking a walk in a park, meditating or working on a jigsaw puzzle.
- Problem-Solving. Your level of resilience directly correlates to your ability to maintain a sense of control, even over the smallest things. Spend time and mental energy on issues you can control and influence while letting go of things that are outside of your control (e.g., traffic).
- Meaning and Purpose. A person’s sense of meaning and purpose directly links to their resilience. Find ways to insert meaning and purpose into your daily life. For some, meaning and purpose come from religion or family, while others engage in service projects, volunteer work or hobbies. If you don’t find meaning in your work, consider finding another job or shifting your work focus. Be passionate about something. Be helpful to others.
- Social Support. In-person social interactions are essential to your well-being and resilience. The depth of individual relationships outweighs the number of connections one has. Nurture your friendships and family relationships and build support among your work colleagues. For fellow introverts, resist the temptation when feeling down to isolate yourself and instead spend time with a close friend who won’t drain you of energy.
- Positive Outlook. Maintaining a positive outlook builds resilience. Consciously focus on what is going well in your life and, as necessary, positively re-frame the parts that aren’t going so well. Positive re-framing might require you to zoom your perspective in or out or look at an issue from a different angle. Spend time every day thinking about what you are grateful for and then express that gratitude to colleagues, friends and family. Laugh often.
Whatever adversity you might face in the workplace—a toxic environment, an abusive boss, a co-worker angling for your job—you always have choices, says Payne. “We’re all human beings, and it’s okay to be vulnerable,” she said. “It’s a paradox, but resilient people don’t necessarily possess brute strength. They have resilience skills and tools. They have inner stamina, regardless of their frame, gender or size. They know how to say no. They are able to tell someone, ‘You can’t talk to me that way,’ and they’re able to quit a toxic job if necessary. So take off your armor but don’t allow yourself to be mistreated by anyone where you work.”