Building Antifragility Goes Beyond Resilience

Our Waggl Wellspring series shares trends in workplace engagement and well-being. Sources include academic and industry researchers, visionaries and neuroscientists. First we outlined the influence of servant leaders. Then we focused on how empathetic leaders build resilience. Now we outline how building antifragility goes beyond resilience.

This pandemic is causing us to examine our fundamental human values. Leaders are struggling to guide their people through uncertainty now, and into the future. Having resilience keeps us steady in a storm. But what empowers us to get stronger through a storm? As a leadership practice, believing in “silver linings” and “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” seems trite and lightweight. But building antifragility is based on these beliefs. 

Aiming towards antifragility brings determination, focus and purpose through challenges. It also acknowledges that leaders can’t have all of the answers to every roadblock. This lets leaders learn from their organization’s collective intelligence. This also gives them the freedom and agility to develop real influence.[1]

Building antifragility through adversity

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb says “The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.” Antifragility isn’t just bouncing back to a previous adaptability and strength. Developing antifragility builds a stronger foundation. Rather than a rigid foundation though, we create a more fluid base that “rolls with the punches.” Epidemic Leadership’s Dr. Larry McEvoy refers to this as evolving from the “foundation of resilience towards a systemic outcome of resilience.”[2]

Aiming to build antifragility also goes beyond finding a “new normal.” The goal isn’t to find a new reliable status quo. Instead, the author “Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner.”[3] In this way, antifragility means “befriending uncertainty.” 

We accept and even celebrate ambiguity as a starting point for every thought and action. In this way, we make antifragility a core value. When leaders model this value, they guide their people to practice this as well. In this way, organizations can develop perpetual adaptability through each challenge. 

Antifragility through weights, art, war and more

Taleb compares antifragility to lifting weights. When we lift weights, the stress breaks down our muscles, and our muscles become stronger. Japanese Kintsugi pottery is another example of antifragility.[4] Kintsugi artists repair broken ceramics by filling the cracks with gold, silver or platinum and create sturdier pottery. 

Today, Croatia and Greece are demonstrating antifragility in how they’re weathering the pandemic.[5] During Croatia’s war of independence, and Greece’s debt crisis, both underwent extreme upheaval. They had to develop new skills, mindsets and systems to keep going. Now, their citizens are cooperating well, and keeping the virus relatively contained. 

For example, this Croation barber shares: “I was a kid, I remember playing soccer and seeing mortars falling out of the sky…the discipline we all learned [now] helps us get in line and creates some sort of forced unity.”[6] Similarly a Greek massage therapist, who lost her business three times, now states, “We’ve been through a lot, we are hardened, so I think we’re going to be able to rebuild.”[7] Both are demonstrating antifragility as the stoicism and fellowship gained through past upheavals. 

Antifragility is intensely human

For example, experiencing grief can be a path towards antifragility. One writer demonstrates this in Losing My Mom to Alzheimer’s, Then Finding Her Again. She describes going through “guilt, inadequacy and anger” throughout her mom’s long illness. Ultimately, after her mom passes away, the writer experiences a “pure, uncomplicated sadness of loss.” She shares “I wish someone had told me about the beauty that waited at the end of this journey.” Her newfound lightness and gratitude integrating with her grief demonstrate profound antifragility.  

And speaking of profound antifragility, healthcare workers are magnificent examples. Most undergo intense, ongoing training. This fuels their heroic endurance, skill and compassion during the acute stress now. (With deep respect for healthcare workers, it’s important to add that recovery time and support are also critical to building antifragility.)[8]

We can honor antifragility

This pandemic is creating widespread confusion, anxiety and grief. The extent varies from person to person. But no one has the choice to sidestep it. Going through this together though is building our collective antifragility. We can choose to recognize and value this as an opportunity or a burden. If antifragility is growth through challenge, then honoring this growth can encourage us to keep going. 

Leaders honor this antifragility by first acknowledging that they are on this path themselves. Then they can honor their people for being on this path. When leaders honor their people for this, they validate this path. The author of Antifragile is the New Resilient states, “individual awareness is always the first step towards a collective cultural shift, and knowing antifragility is the end goal makes it possible to start doing the work required to get there.” 

How can we build antifragility?

The first step is to ask ourselves this question often. Seth Godin refers to this as “Visualizing what’s possible. Deciding to do something about it. Wondering (to ourselves and then to the world, ‘how can I make this better?’)” 

We are already reconsidering what is essential, whether it’s consumer goods, daily activities – and even grooming! Let’s also reexamine our values. We can ask what really matters now, in 3 months, 6 months or a year. These are the values that will develop our individual and collective antifragility.

Asking ourselves this may seem simple, but personally I find this challenging. I keep thinking I’m missing the puzzle piece that will explain everything. (And missing puzzle pieces are no joke!) I keep studying articles, blogs, podcasts and social media to find the brilliant new value. What I keep finding though isn’t rocket science, and has always been true. 

What I keep learning from my research is to approach this crisis “with compassion, honesty, and openness. We will emerge from this as better leaders, better people, and better companies.”[9] To become antifragile, “We must dwell in this pause — accepting all its pain, doubts, fears, confusions, questions — with an open mind, open heart, and open will.”[10] 

Many organizational leaders are taking this pause. They are pausing to ask their employees what they need right now.[11] This applies to both working effectively and maintaining well-being. Then they are responding honestly with whatever information or support they can provide at that point in time. 

They are also pausing to ask their people what has been working well. This brings collective intelligence on how to move forward. It also brings their people’s appreciation for being included in the conversation. And this brings leaders’ relief to confirm they’re heading in the right direction.[12]

Antifragility as a universal value

We can build antifragility as a universal practice. This won’t overcome uncertainty and prevent challenges. But this is how we’ll evolve through this crisis as leaders, employees, adults, parents and teachers. This is also how we can guide future generations: “The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof of existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.”[13] 

We are all finding our way through this crisis. During my own slightly frantic research, I’m finding inspiring visionaries. Learning from their insights and approaches can be considered a “silver lining” in this crisis. They’re asking questions like “what helps us perform, learn, and be vital and energized in these circumstances?”[14] Not having all of the answers doesn’t have to be a burden or weakness. It can be an opportunity to recognize how we can rely on the wisdom and expertise of others. Appreciating this reliance can be a strength that builds our antifragility. As one visionary says, “None of us have the answers. But if we live into the questions, I trust that the answers will emerge from our collective intentions and actions.”[15]

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash.

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