How to face adversity and change in higher education with resilience

In times of stress and uncertainty, university leaders must model calmness, clarity and confidence in their ability to respond to and recover from challenges, writes Sonia Alvarez-Robinson. Here, she offers practical strategies based on her own experience

Sonia Alvarez-Robinson's avatar
27 Feb 2024
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Change is a natural part of any organisation’s life cycle. Yet, today the shocks and chronic stressors seem to be pressure-testing the resilience of higher education communities. From 2020 to 2022, the pandemic, social justice concerns and economic downturn dominated our attention.

The challenges include demands for greater efficiency and more personalised services for students without proportional increases in staffing or organisational capacity. Turnover at the top leads to chaos and uncertainty among middle managers and front-line contributors. Universities are not insulated from the trauma and violence plaguing their surrounding communities, and many face declining enrolments or find themselves scrambling to accommodate increased enrolments. Other daily stressors include having to make do with inadequate infrastructure, economic uncertainty, ideological polarisation, values incongruence, conflict and violence, curricular changes, automation and artificial intelligence.

So, while we may not know exactly what is over the horizon, we can be certain that something will challenge our resilience. Forward-thinking organisations build an organisational resilience plan aimed at ensuring that their missions can be delivered in the face of potential challenges. Resilience plans can be at the individual, team, divisional or institutional level. At any level, leadership is key to the success of any resilience plan. At times of stress and uncertainty, leaders must model calmness, clarity and confidence in the ability to respond and recover from adversity.

Resilience is professional and personal

Resilience involves the application of skills, strategies and solutions to navigate adversity, challenge and change. For women like me, resilience is professional, and it is also personal. I have spent most of my 30-year career helping organisations manage change. During those years, I was on my own roller-coaster ride of life’s ups and downs. Personal challenges included job loss, widowhood, domestic violence, discrimination and family health issues. All these helped me become better at leading my teams through difficult times. It was my own hardship that provided insights I needed to help others in the organisation become more resilient themselves.

Women in organisations, especially in leadership roles, can face greater challenges in harnessing their personal resilience. Research has shown that women can be harsher and more critical than men of their own capabilities and less compassionate with themselves. Moving through adversity often requires the confidence to face a challenge directly and to learn from mistakes without dwelling on them. I have seen many women give and do so much for others, at the expense of their own well-being. As leaders, we must be intentional and self-aware, so that we do not get stuck in a negative cycle of rumination that makes us emotionally depleted.

Five key elements for building resilience

In my course called Strategies for Building Individual and Organizational Resilience, at Georgia Tech, I developed a model for building resilience that has helped our students, faculty and staff to navigate adversity, challenge and change in healthy and productive ways. I find it particularly relevant in today’s higher education environment. It involves five key components (I call it the FIRST model).

1. Find your locus of control

We must focus on and put our energy into what is within our control. For example, we can’t control the weather, but we can put systems in place to notify people when storms strike. As a leader, my job is to help my teams let go of worrying about things that are outside their control and engage them in planning concrete actions that address what they have the power to manage.

2. Investigate and manage your fear

Change and uncertainty can be scary. We are often afraid of the unknown, so we run from it rather than leaning into it. We must investigate how our fears drive our actions and decisions. Often, our minds conjure up the worst-case scenario and we spin ourselves into anxiety. For example, I worked with a woman who was anxious about a new boss. She let fear overtake her thinking and put all her energy into leaving the organisation, instead of preparing to show them what she could do.

3. Reprogramme negative and defeatist thinking

For women, quieting the internal voices of self-criticism and learning constructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety can be a challenge. First, we must learn to be aware of how we are programmed and what our “go-to” thoughts are. Sometimes we are conditioned to believe that we are not good enough or capable of leading through difficult times. We must challenge that mind-set and develop self-compassion.

4. Seek healthy support

Leadership can be a lonely place, especially for women. None of us should have to navigate adversity alone, especially those of us who are responsible for the well-being of others. So find a coach, a counsellor, a member of the clergy, a friend or anyone who is neutral to the situation but cares about you. It is hard to ask for help, especially if you believe you have something to prove. Don’t let that stop you from making connections and getting the support you need.

5. Take time for self-care

Leading others through difficult times can take a lot out of you. I use the “halt” method to take care of myself. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am angry, I calm myself through breathing techniques. When I am lonely, I call a friend. When I am tired, I take a nap. Resilience is built through rest, nutrition, connection, hydration and exercise.

While we can never be certain exactly what will happen next in the world, we can be sure that we have a role in building resilience as women, and leaders, within our organisations. The more we ready ourselves for adversity, the better that we can respond to, and recover from, these experiences. I have heard it said that “resilience is a state, not a trait”. Resilience is a skill that can be developed at the organisational and the individual levels.

Sonia Alvarez-Robinson is associate vice-president (strategy and organisational effectiveness) at Georgia Tech.

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