How to be a resilient campaigner

A couple of weeks ago I was in the midst of a number of personal stresses. House-hunting, work-piling up and a sick child unexpectedly in hospital left me feeling somewhat overwhelmed. At the end of one particularly long day, I commented to a friend that I felt like I’d used up my last drop of resilience. Which made me think, is resilience a finite resource? Or is it something we can develop? As campaigners, we sometimes need bucket-loads of it. So how can we improve our capacity for resilience? And what responsibility lies with organisational leaders to ensure that we’re building resilient teams?

What is resilience?

Resilience is often thought of as the ability not to buckle under stress. Or to bounce back after a traumatic experience. The American Psychology Association (APA) defines it as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.”  We’ve all worked with people who seem more resilient than others: those that are unflappable in a crisis, or stay focussed and decisive in periods of intense and prolonged stress. Similarly we’ve probably all had moments where we’ve not coped. I remember once weeping helplessly in a corridor after a series of logistical setbacks – luckily a more experienced (and at the time more resilient) colleague stumbled upon me and assured me that we could find solutions to my perceived disasters.

Resilience is associated with the soft-skills looked for in multiple professions: from the civil service to tech development to police work. And it’s certainly needed by campaigners.  A major campaign launch or big push alone can lead to high levels of stress. Or sometimes our campaigns have negative impacts on other people’s lives which we feel responsible for. For example, campaigners working in solidarity with human rights defenders may have to crisis-manage if threats are made to a colleague. At Greenpeace I helped co-ordinate direct actions where activists were physically attacked. And even the wonks amongst us face challenges. I remember a colleague of mine at Global Witness describing the marathon negotiating sessions of the  Kimberley Process, which required huge amounts of stamina and resolve.

So are some of us just more inclined to be resilient or is it something we can learn and practice?

Psychologists associate a number of traits with resilient people:

  • A positive attitude
  • The ability to regulate your emotions
  • Recognising failure as a positive form of feedback.
  • An inclination to problem-solve in the face of a challenge.

Certainly some people are more predisposed to these traits. But as the APA says, “[Resilience] involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned or developed by anyone.”

Psychologists encourage a number of tools or practices that can be used to enhance personal resilience. These include good self-care – simple things like eating-well, sleeping-well and moving around a bit; building strong social networks that reciprocating help; and retraining the brain to see ‘failures’ as opportunities and to problem-solve out of a challenge.

Of course all of these can be approached as part of a personal development process. But equally they can be supported professionally by positive organisational culture and good leadership.

As campaigners working on urgent and overwhelming issues we often take on too much. Sure it’s important that we work hard and work smart. But if we’re always working to 100%, where are those extra reserves for when things get really tough? Simple things like discouraging a late-hours culture and lunching at desks can help preserve a bit of balance. Making it clear that it’s OK for team-members to go for a walk to clear their heads, might help them manage stress better. Some organisations now offer in-house yoga classes or provide meditation space to support better stress-management.

Similarly we can support colleagues to take time to help each other. Whether that’s helping the fundraising team stuff envelopes (if that still happens), or seconding someone to another office to support a major push. All this banks potential credits for when we need help. It also gives team-members a sense of being networked outside of their campaign silo. Not feeling alone can help us not to feel overwhelmed.

And developing a culture where failure is viewed as an opportunity is increasingly being attempted by campaigning organisations. Some of them still have a way to go. But they recognise that learning from failure can drive innovation as well as boosting resilience.  Through better evaluations, fail fests or simply senior leaders modelling good behaviour around failure, campaigning groups are supporting more creative and resilient teams.

Finally, (and I’ve blogged about it before) encouraging a culture of mutual respect and support will build more resilient staff. If people feel that their ideas and efforts are valued they’ll build a more positive view of themselves – which they can draw on when the shit hits the fan.

So no, resilience is not a finite resource. And we can all support our colleagues and organisations to be more resilient in our tough world of campaigning.

Cover photo: Joel Mendoza 2011. Published under a creative commons license.

Emily Armistead

Emily Armistead is a campaigns consultant currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. She blogs about campaigning for the environment, development and human rights.

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