“Every day you read what a terrible age we live in. Well, I’ve heard that all my life,” said Horton Foote in a 1988 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “I don’t think any age is any worse. There are just new [and different] problems is all.” Foote, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, died recently at the age of 92. Many of his plays drew upon the memories of preceding generations of relatives, who inhabited the small towns and by-ways of Texas. Foote and his family had certainly seen hard times, such as war, drought and the Great Depression as well as personal loss. Some could not cope with their losses, but some, like Foote, did.
Foote’s words, now twenty years old, remind us of the resilience of the human condition. We are very capable of enduring hardship. And for the most part we bounce back. Managers need to kindle this spirit of resilience in the workplace. Here are some suggestions to perpetuate it:
Gain perspective. The magnitude of this recession is unprecedented to anyone born after 1945. Millions of people have lost their jobs and many more will do so. Yet, if the past is any indicator, most companies will survive and new ones will be born. More importantly, we as a people will persevere.
Show resolve. If you have a job, and the majority does, apply yourself to helping your organization succeed. Management and employees need to work jointly. Employees are not beholden to management or vice versa. Each is beholden to the other.
Share stories. Foote was a gifted storyteller. Many of his plays dealt with adversity and loss. The heroes of his dramas learned how to survive. Managers can borrow from a playwright’s example by collecting the stories of people who are making it. It may be possible to turn a portion of regular staff meetings into story time. Not as a means of kvetching but as a means of coping; and, more importantly, as means of learning from the example of others.
Nurturing resilience is not simply an exercise in making people feel better. It is a way to keep them engaged in the work. When a manager devotes time to share his stories, he demonstrates care and concern. It also encourages employees to feel better disposed toward working for that person. In a world of increasing uncertainty, working for a boss whom you trust is a plus.
This resilience is good for the organization, but it is also good for individuals, especially those who may one day lose their jobs. If they have made it through trying times in their current job, they can do the same in the next job. Such fortitude may also keep their spirits up as they look for that new job.
In Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, a young boy is curious about the past of a recovering alcoholic country-western singer, Mac Sledge, who has moved in with the boy’s mother. As Mac (played by Robert Duvall) strums his guitar, the boy asks him if he thinks he will ever be rich again. “Well, I tell ya what, Sonny, I don’t lay awake nights worrying about it.” Mac then sings and calls out chords on his guitar. A music lesson proceeds, just as life does.
First posted on HBR.org on 3.09.2009