Insurance professionals have long been told they need to adapt to industry change, or risk being left behind.
That calls for resilience — but is it really something we can learn?
Yes, is the resounding answer from Dr Sven Hansen.
Dr Hansen — a medically trained doctor and former PwC director — founded The Resilience Institute in 2002.
Now operating globally, the institute has worked with clients such as AXA, IBM, KPMG, PwC, Shell, the International Finance Corporation and ANZ.
Here is his advice for insurance professionals.
Q: How do you define resilience?
A: Our definition of resilience is quite clear and solid. We see it as four learned abilities: bounce, grow, connect and flow.
The original definition of resilience, which began to become popular in the 1970s, was focused on the term ‘bounce back’. In an engineering sense, if you take the wings of a jumbo jet and you bend them and let go, do they bounce back without cracks?
That makes sense to us intuitively, but the truth is, take [New Zealand Olympic gold medal-winning canoeist] Lisa Carrington: every time she gets out there and trains for a sprint, she breaks things.
She breaks muscle fibres; she breaks down capillaries; she causes damage; she burns her cells with enzymes and lactic acid. The next day, she isn’t back to where she was before the training, she’s actually grown. In a biological system, ‘bounce back’ is not possible.
When we go through adversity, we come out stronger, more adaptive.
The purpose of resilience is to help a working person understand themselves well enough to be able to match their skills to a meaningful task.
Someone who can front up and find their daily work satisfying, challenging, and rewarding, and use their skills. When you’ve had a day where some of it has been in flow, that’s the day you go home and say, ‘it was a tough day, but I love my job’.
Q: The ‘bounce’ element of resilience is particularly important. Can you explain how it works?
A: Just think Lisa Carrington again. After a race performed in flow, there’s only one thing in her life for the next 24 hours, and that is rest and recovery — what we call bounce.
She will have extremely strict routines of hydration, of eating, of massage, of stretching, of cold or heat, of sleep, of mental rehearsals and technique drills. All of that is done in a very relaxed environment. If she doesn’t do that, she’s not racing again tomorrow. It’s that simple.
Now, if you think about the average insurance professional, how many of them are deliberate about their recovery at the end of each day?
When we get home, we crack open a bottle of beer or have a glass of wine. We sit in front of the TV or we fret over our devices; we don’t deliberately allow for the bounce or renewal. Flow leads to the need for bounce.
When we bounce and recover, we will wake up the next morning feeling ready to go. That’s the growth — you set new goals.
MAKING A CONNECTION
Q: You mentioned ‘connect’ as part of your definition of resilience, what did you mean by that?
A: Connect is the most complex step in resilience. Lots of people say that we should ‘rise to the challenge’ and ‘meet change head-on’.
Actually, the best thing for us to do is to relax, feel what’s happening, be connected to the moment, slow our breathing, notice our feelings, notice our thoughts, connect to the people around us, and then connect to the task.
Q: What role does resilience play in a person’s ability to respond to change in the workplace?
A: The insurance industry is going through quite rapid change and in all kinds of ways: from shifting customer needs and expectations, to the move to online channels and automation.
I remember my first insurance purchase. This lovely guy came along, and he filled in all forms with us, and launched us into the game of insurance. Nobody does that anymore. If I was the guy who loved connecting with a potential new customer in person, I’ve just lost that: most of my job is done on computer now.
If I’m resilient or adaptive, I start to question, ‘what do I do now? How can I use my skills? Can I become a manager in the company? Can I learn technological skills? Or do I need to leave the company and start another job?’
A resilient person says: ‘I can’t do that anymore — all right, good. Well, what can I do?’ That's the beginning of flexibility.
As you practice it over and over again, you start to come to a position where you can say, ‘actually, there have got to be seven ways to solve this problem. If I put a team around it, there must be 15 ways of solving it.’ That’s the truly agile, resilient employee we’re looking for.
By comparison, the less flexible, less resilient person says: ‘you have taken away my job. This is typical of the business. They always do that to us. I’m angry and I’m quite sad that I’ve lost my job and I’m very anxious about what my future might look like.’
In this state, people lose their flexibility. They get stuck in anger, in sadness and in fear. They stop seeing solutions and only see problems.
NATURE OR NURTURE?
Q: Can resilience be learned or is it innate?
A: The human instinct is to say resilience is a talent. It’s in your genes. And that’s wrong.
Many people reading this article will say Lisa Carrington was born to be a world-class paddler. She just had that talent. That is how most people think about performance.
But when you research Lisa Carrington’s life, you will find that it’s deliberate, persistent and very carefully guided practice over years and years and years.
As another sporting example, look at the Kenyan athletes who dominate middle-distance running.
People always thought it must be genetics; there must be something about those Kenyan genes. Thousands of scientists have hunted through the genes for 30 years and they have never found a gene that makes a Kenyan athlete a faster runner.
Instead, there are two theories: one is that the area these runners come from is very high altitude, so their lungs develop as a consequence.
But I would argue the more important theory is that the average Kenyan in Eldoret, which is where many of these runners come from, has to run between 15 and 30 kilometres to school and back every day.
If you start running to school at the age of five, by 12 years old you’re already a pretty good runner. It’s practice, repeated practice.
In part two of our interview with Dr Sven Hansen, signs to look out for when a colleague or employee isn’t coping, and how we can build our own resilience at work and achieve peak performance.
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