Toxic resilience and how to avoid it

Building resilience among senior executives is a global imperative. Countless think pieces talk about how it is a key characteristic and predictor of success for high performing leaders. 

It is also one of the most common reasons people seek coaching, as they look for support in building their stress tolerance and becoming adaptable in the face of constant change. But is there a point at which resilience can become toxic?

What to do when leadership fails

Bad bosses creating toxic workplaces

When motivation turns toxic

A perfect storm

The expectations on leaders have never been more contradictory. We expect them to show more emotional intelligence than ever before, but we also expect them to make strategic decisions that deliver performance. All while balancing environmental, social and governance concerns.

Not to mention steering the ship against a backdrop of unprecedented disruption and economic uncertainty. And, of course, we often expect leaders to be ‘the visionary’ – a description which is often disconnected from the truth of what the individual really feels inside.

It's a perfect storm of pressures, that has caused many business leaders to develop a kind of resilience that sets them on a fixed course towards unhappiness, isolation and burnout.

This is toxic resilience: a symptom that takes hold when leaders de-prioritise their needs for the sake of the business, stretch themselves to their limits and slowly burn themselves out.

Many also unwittingly send a message to their team that this is the way to progress, as a result unintentionally burning their best people out by fostering a relationship between overwork and career success.

How do we solve this?

Recognising the signals

The first step is spotting the signs. In coaching, these are some of the things that show up:

The ‘hero complex’

As one client said: “Everyone is looking to me for help and I’m the only one who can solve their issues. If I don’t, no one else will.” Problems arise when leaders see themselves as the only one who can ‘save the day’ – as someone who needs to have all the answers, and who always has time for everyone else. But the truth is, the less visibly they harness support from others, the more they signal to their team that this is what they should aspire to.

A ‘final straight' mindset

I often hear things like: “This might not be the ideal solution, but right now I just need to suck it up and get to the finish line.” With this mindset, all people do is overcome one challenge, only for another to take its place. And if each challenge leaves an emotional or psychological debt, it won’t be long until the reserves run dry."

Constructive inner critique boils over to become a destructive inner critique

I hear: “I’ve got to do well at this, falling short isn’t an option.” The key to overcoming this is to consciously explore the standards we hold ourselves to. Are these standards realistic, and warranted? Can we really tell the difference between the external pressure, and the pressure we put on ourselves? Distinguishing between the two is important.

So what do we do?

Better leadership of self, before others

By practicing a more respectful self-dialogue, leaders can guide themselves through adversity, rather than forcing themselves through it. Based on experience in the coaching room, these are some of the mindset shifts and actions that can help ensure toxic resilience doesn’t take hold:

  • Creating a safe space to be open, honest, and vulnerable - show your team how to be vulnerable. Don’t tell them, show them.
  • Validate concerns – acknowledge that any concerns you may have are valid, and find appropriate channels in which to express them. This not only supports your mental health, but will help validate the feelings of your team too.
  • Put your own life-jacket on first – great leadership starts with ourselves. So before you jump to meet the needs of others, make sure you have understood and prioritised your needs first. If you send an email at midnight, even if you tell your team you don’t expect a reply, what does that show them?
  • Consider one-to-one coaching – leadership coaching is deeply personal and taps into our beliefs, self-doubts, mindset, perspective, values, behaviours, and even personal life. This makes it a vital tool for getting to the roots of our decision-making and training our gut instinct. It will help you build a deep-rooted trust in your ability to handle the unexpected.

Just as every leader’s individual brand of leadership will be different, so too will their journey toward better self-leadership.

Time, reflection, and space to talk is what brings the greatest change. Being the best version of yourself is a journey, and we have to allow the same space we would give to others, for that version of ourselves to emerge.

By Naysan Firoozmand, VP & global head of coaching at Hult EF Corporate Education