In our hurry-up, no-holds-barred, get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way world, many people still subscribe to Type A and Type B personality theory.
Type A people are thought to be characterized by out-sized ambition, high energy, and competitiveness. (They’re also thought to be susceptible to stress and heart disease.) More “relaxed” people are sometimes described as Type B.
But according to an innovative new framework, the future lies with Type Rs—people, businesses, families, and even entire communities that turn challenges into opportunities in times of upheaval, crisis, and change.
This new framework is explored in Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. The authors are a mother-daughter team. Stephanie Marston is a pioneering psychotherapist focusing on stress and work-life issues. Her daughter is Ama Marston, a strategy and leadership consultant who’s worked with many Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations. I interviewed the latter to explore the applicability of their approach to multiple situations.
Rodger Dean Duncan: A foundational thesis of your book is that Type R people (or organizations) use challenging circumstances as catalysts for growth–springing forward rather than bouncing back during tough times. What are some of the mindsets that seem to constrain people from “springing forward” in adversity?
Ama Marston: As individuals, leaders, teams, businesses, and even nations we resist change, particularly when it comes in the form of events or mounting pressures that are disruptive, stressful, and at times traumatic. Yet the desire to maintain the status quo and behave as we previously have is one of the greatest barriers to our ability to learn, grow, adapt, and better function in the face of new realities. An aversion to uncertainty or the belief that we should avoid it can also lead to unproductive decisions guided by fear or avoidance.
If we don’t acknowledge these changes and challenges and respond in ways appropriate to our shifting circumstances, rather than behaving as we always have, we’ll overlook opportunities and may even make matters worse. For instance, California faced a drought for several years before its leaders and policymakers were able to garner sufficient response and changes in behavior from the public and industry. This placed the state and those reliant on its agriculture at greater risk and compounded the drought’s impacts.
Another of our pitfalls is assuming there’s only one approach or solution to a given problem. This limits our ability to reframe and find appropriate solutions. And finally, we often look at success as being a matter of innate talent. Yet much of success comes down to skills such as our ability to cope with challenges, adapt, and stay engaged.
Duncan: You say “adversity is a terrible thing to waste.” Can you elaborate?
Marston: Adversity in its many forms provides important lessons and is often a catalyst for the next iteration of ourselves, our leadership, our businesses, our communities, or even the way we approach large public or global challenges.
Take Wendy R. Anderson. She was a rising star first in the U.S. Congress, then in the Department of Defense, and then as Chief of Staff at the Department of Commerce after the tragic events of September 11 that clarified her desire to serve her country. But after many years of working long hours in high-pressure environments, Wendy burned out. Her leadership style became rigid. She ignored signs that she was taking on roles and responsibilities that were not the right fit. Ultimately she decided to leave government, which was painful. But Wendy used the change as an opportunity for self-reflection. She learned new leadership and collaboration skills and revisited priorities for having a private life. She also used this difficult change as an opportunity to turn her career toward making films on current security issues and providing leadership on artificial intelligence at a tech start-up.
Duncan: How can people change the way they “see things” so they can increase their capacity for what you call transformative resilience?
Marston: The first step to shifting the way we approach adversity, challenges, and stress is to identify the frame or lens through which we view things. For instance, whether as individuals, leaders, or a group of colleagues when something difficult happens are we inclined to assume the worst and catastrophize? Or do we see possible opportunities? This can be particularly hard if a situation includes painful experiences ranging in intensity from the loss of a prized client or project to the loss of a job, a business, a colleague or a loved one. And it may take time to be able to discover opportunities. It can be easier to see our default mindset if we look at the past and our responses to different and perhaps less monumental events to see our patterns.
Duncan: Most people try to avoid—or at least decrease—stress in their lives. But you suggest that stress provides advantages. What are they?
Marston: Moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory through the release of a hormone called cortisol. And research shows that stress may increase the production of oxytocin, which makes us seek out and “bond” with others.
If we hone our skills to be able to identify it, stress can also signal the need for behavioral or systemic change before dysfunctions or outdated approaches lead to crises.
We are not, however, suggesting that people adapt to greater and greater levels of stressors regardless of what those are without examining the root causes. For instance, structural inequities such as racism and sexism are an ongoing source of stress for a large number of people as well as a source of discord and turbulence, which must be addressed.
Duncan: What are the three or four most important things an organization (including a family) can do to cultivate a culture of transformative resilience?
Marston: The starting point for any change is to identify the existing culture or default modes of operating. It’s also important to call upon stories that remind us of times when we successfully navigated difficulties—whether as a team, a business, a family, or even an entire nation. These stories bolster confidence. They also may provide insights on what worked or was helpful even if that means finding lessons and skills that are transferable between different contexts or circumstances.
When we face adversity or challenges as organizations or even families we also must be attentive to the fact that not all individuals within that group will have experienced a challenging event or a period of stress in the same way. We must be sure to acknowledge those different experiences at the outset of a process of continual learning, growing, and innovating.