What can polar explorers teach us about resilience?

Curium | 05 Jan 2021 | News | General

As we head into another lockdown, we ask what can polar explorers teach us about resilience as we find ourselves in similar conditions of isolation, by Principal Consultant Kate Bailey and Learning & Development Coordinator, Olivia Levanen.

Happy 2021! It’s good to see in a New Year after such a tumultuous 2020. But we find ourselves facing continued restrictions, potentially stretching out until the Spring. Yet more months of enforced home working and reduced social interaction is going to be tough. And if you’re in a leadership role, it is becoming even more challenging to manage a team remotely and keep their motivation and spirits up.

To help us all get through the next few months, we set off to find what approaches could be useful to support leaders in being resilient and, in turn, feel more resourced to support their teams better. Our journey led us to research into the experiences of astronauts, sub-mariners and polar explorers. These are individuals and teams who, by the very nature of their expedition, experience isolated, confined and extreme environments. Their day-to-day environment consists of a small working and living space, an absence of day/night cues, confinement, isolation from all interaction with the external world and monotony in routine. Research has shown that this can result in increased anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress. Sound familiar?

Ok, so the situation we are in, isn’t quite as extreme. But add in the background uncertainty of the global pandemic and economic impacts and you can see how there are parallels, especially the impact on our mental health.  So, what coping strategies used by polar explorers and astronauts teach us about leadership and resilience?

Building trust and clarity: Firstly, in these extreme environments, a resilient crew member is someone who understands his or her role and responsibilities, has trust and confidence in his or her fellow crew members, and is willing to help and support others. It’s important that your team are clear on their mission and the role they play in it.

The importance of ‘mission control’: the astronauts’ relationship with Mission Control is crucial. By Mission Control showing that they are there for the astronauts, providing both technical support but also emotional, the crew members reported being less stressed and felt more able to cope. Be your team’s Mission Control, by recognising it’s not just about the tasks they have to do but also connecting with them on a personal level. This requires checking in with your team regularly, having open and honest conversations about their worries and building trust that you’re all in it together. Just having these types of conversations more will help to boost resilience. And remember, you need your Mission Control too – who can you have those conversations with to boost your resilience?

Ability to manage emotions: Living under these conditions can take their toll emotionally. Polar explorers have found that writing a daily journal offers a cathartic route to express their feelings and helps them to process their thoughts, frustrations and worries (as well as filling their time). Keeping a regular log – on paper, online, or by video – can help people process their experience and create a sense of order in what can otherwise feel like a chaotic time.

Keeping motivated:  Living in isolated conditions will inevitably cause low motivation at times. It’s important to recognise that your mood will go through peaks and troughs so be kind to yourself  – and your team. But here are ways in which you can help keep motivated. Astronauts get energy and motivation from thinking how important the mission is and how it benefits the world. As human beings we’re programmed to want purpose. So, helping your teams think through ‘the why’ (as Simon Sinek puts it) and recognise their contribution as important and purposeful will help improve motivation.

Set small, achievable goals: Research has also shown that setting regular goals can help with motivation. Get your team to break down their big tasks into smaller, daily tasks and this will help them feel they are succeeding more. This will help to build motivation over time.

Locus of control: Being adaptable is a core skill for explorers. And to do this, they foster a fundamental understanding that there are aspects of their environment that they can’t change. Adopting the mindset of “change what you can’t accept, accept what you can’t change” can help shift your focus away from the situation we’re in, to those elements that you do have direct control over – for example, how you manage your work on a day-to-day basis and how you interact with your team. Listing out the elements that you CAN control, rather than worrying about the ones you can’t, will help you feel more resilient.

Optimism:  Submarine crews, on their long missions, have found that promoting an optimistic outlook can help them cope. They encouraged positive thinking during the voyage by looking for the up-sides in any situation. That’s not to say you ignore the downsides but by framing things in a more optimistic way, it can help lift you and your teams mood.  Sharing positive stories and expressing your gratitude increases social bonding but also decreases feeling of loneliness. So make sure you highlight your own and others’ success and show your gratitude to your team for their hard work.

So there we have it. Who knew – we can all be astronauts, polar explorers and sub-mariners! Hopefully these simple yet effective tips will help you and your team to get through this testing period. Here’s wishing us all a safe, healthy and productive voyage through to the other side.

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