The 3Cs of Thriving under Stress

By Heather Baldwin

Why is it that people like John McCain can withstand severe stress, such as being an enemy POW, and thrive in spite of it, while others wither at the mere mention of a corporate downsizing? The answer is resilience – the most essential determinant to overcoming obstacles on the job such as looming deadlines, combative meetings, impending layoffs and turbulent changes, say Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba, authors of Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You (AMACOM, 2005). The most successful people are naturally resilient. But if surviving and thriving under stress doesn’t come naturally to you, you can learn to embrace change by adopting these three attitudes, which the authors call the 3Cs.

Commitment. The attitude of commitment helps you fully engage in work and life. It means you are completely committed to your job, your family and the events going on around you, and that you will stay involved to the best of your ability no matter how stressful the circumstances. Commitment arises from your belief that the people and activities in your life have meaning and significance. For example, in the face of a corporate downsizing, resilient people not only want to stay involved with their work and coworkers, they might redouble their efforts to contribute to the company. Those who aren’t resilient – and therefore unlikely to attain long-term success – will be more likely to convince themselves that management is clueless and detach themselves from everything going on.

Control. The attitude of control enables you to take direct action to transform changes. In other words, you believe that stressful changes are “important and worthwhile enough to dedicate yourself to influencing them in an advantageous direction,” say the authors. “You are likely to say: Let me find or develop the resources to solve this problem. Of course, this attitude might seem easier to possess if you believe you can influence the outcome of a stressful change. But even when things are truly beyond our control, such as a corporate takeover, you can turn your attitude of control inward. In the case of a takeover, people with an attitude of control will start thinking through the likely implications of the changes, anticipate what additional changes might be coming and keep in mind what they can do to influence beneficial outcomes. Someone without this attitude will likely panic, withdraw and conclude that whatever is going to happen will happen so it’s best not care about it anyway.

Challenge. This attitude lets you embrace change as a normal life process. When stressful changes come, you approach them as a meaningful challenge by seeing opportunity in every difficulty. You learn from your mistakes and live by the old adage that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. People with a strong challenge attitude will see a company increasingly going into the red as one that can learn from its failures and emerge stronger. As a result, they continue struggling to see alternatives that could improve the situation. People without this attitude see the failures as an unchangeable sign of their and the company’s inadequacy.

When all three hardy attitudes are present at the same time, say the authors, “the person is courageous and motivated to take advantage of changes, however stressful they may be. This is the pathway to resilience.”