How to Incentivize Resilience as a Managerial Trait


We want to believe all managers are now “resilience coaches”—it’s something we have said in the digital ether of Neuroleadership Institute video calls, no doubt—but we have to clear a few hurdles before we get there.

The first hurdle

We know from some Dorie Clark work that most managers spend a chunk of their days on calls and answering emails, and those are predominantly more task and logistics work functions — which is how many managers do conceptualize their jobs.

The second hurdle

Are these front-line people managers even resilient themselves? And if they’re not, can they train the trait in others?

The third hurdle

Incentives. Managers are typically incentivized to hit certain numbers, be those in terms of revenue, output, growth, or specific other KPIs. They focus their energy and attention on those elements tied to their incentive structures. We’ve been talking about that since 2009’s “Managing With The Brain In Mind.”

An important caveat at this point: we don’t necessarily just mean financial incentives, although that could be part of it in some organizations. We mean incentives in the sense of “total rewards,” i.e. a more brain science-driven, full-stack approach to the various ways we “compensate” people for work.

How do we clear these hurdles?

We can clear the first hurdle by re-contextualizing to managers why they make more money, or at the very least, use this approach for the managers whom money is a driving factor. Here’s a good snippet from a Wharton article on loneliness that helps frame it up:

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this an issue to address at the individual level, or should the company be concerned as well?

Ozcelik: I think both, but definitely on the side of the manager because they are getting the extra salary to take care of the work environment and to make sure that things are running smoothly.

“Take care of the work environment.” That means more than just KPIs. KPIs are a huge part of it, yes, and modern management thinking over-focuses there at the expense of people issues, but you are getting the extra salary to take care of the full work environment, which does involve people and their perceptions and reactions to stress, isolation, competing commitments, mental health, and more.

How do we incentivize managers to care about resilience, then?

First, realize it’s possible. See above for the research.

This also helps with the development of resilience in managers. Think of resilience moving through an organization almost in a waterfall fashion; executives work on it with their lieutenants, and it flows downward so that as each level feels more capable around being resilient, they can help train the next level. It’s not perfect, no, but if approached this way, it doesn’t create a situation where managers are attempting to foster a skill in others that they themselves lack.

The specific approach will vary by the culture of an organization, undoubtedly, but there are some guidelines:

Change how managers are evaluated: A weighted portion of the evaluation, perhaps 25-40%, should be from direct reports around questions of support, taking time out to talk to them, setting priorities, guiding, and more. In this way, a manager who is a complete KPI-slayer can still do well for themselves on incentives, but they can’t get the full pie without guiding and talking to their employees about issues beyond deliverables.

Offer managerial training on conversations, resilience, and more: There’s been lots of research about the leadership training gap, with some putting it at 12 years (first managerial promotion at 30, first training at 42) and Zenger Folkman has it as 20 years. Either way, it’s not too pretty. Managers need to be trained up because management is an entirely different role than being an employee, and we’re at a managerial zeitgeist right now where the best organizations will focus on a new role for managers. Offer incentives for these trainings if need be, including additional PTO.

The power of the nudge: At an executive sponsorship level, explain the need for resilience in employees, and explain the ties between resilience and a healthier bottom line. Once that message is out there and endorsed by the top decision-makers, the next step is gently nudging managers that others are focusing on resilience development—and that you need to as well, but you can take your path to it. Maybe for you, developing resilience in employees is about offering “mental health days” on Fridays; maybe for another manager it looks like consistent, well-structured 1-on-1s. But nudge managers that other managers are, in fact, focusing on these aspects of their job.

Spotlight managers who are developing resilience in employees effectively: Mention them in all-hands. Show what they’re doing. What’s their approach? How often are they meeting with employees? What’s the agenda? What are they offering employees to counter stress? Offer mini-case studies to the organization in terms of fostering resilience. That’s an additional nudge.

The bottom line

This is a managerial turning point. The best organizations will focus on front-line managers caring deeply about employees like never before; they will move into “The New Normal” or “Build Back Better” more equipped for where work is headed. Their incentive structures will be a total rewards structure, not simply a “more for me” approach.

Focus on these elements now, because we’re at a tipping point for the future of work and what management needs to look like.


Authors: Ted Bauer

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