On the Clock

Living in the Gray Zone

How you embrace the unknown says a lot about your resilience.

The week was mapped out perfectly: you’d handle sales calls today, write the progress report tomorrow, and then attend a brainstorming session. Then, an hour into your Monday, the boss calls and tells you to scrap your to-dos and prioritize an urgent project that has just come down from above.

Sounds familiar, right? In an age where work is more disruptive and demands are constantly changing, unpredictability is the name of the game. Indeed, changing job demands are one of the top stressors for professionals, contributing to an increase in workplace stress of nearly 66% compared to five years ago, according to a Korn Ferry survey. Which is all the more reason that being resilient—or able to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity—has become one of the top traits that hiring managers look for. “It’s like constantly living in a gray zone,” says Nancy Von Horn, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

Learning to live in that gray zone is crucial for advancing your career, and you can learn to do so by developing what psychologists call the six competencies of resilience: self-awareness, self-regulation, mental agility, strengths of character, connection, and optimism. Here we offer three tips on how to use these competencies in your work life to improve your resilience.

Develop a good-time tribe.

Competencies: optimism, connection

One of the best ways to overcome a hurdle or simply look at a problem differently is to have a group that you can turn to when you’re feeling concerned. Von Horn refers to this as her “good-time tribe.” These friends and advocates can be coworkers or friends with whom you can vent and discuss issues. While it sounds simple, such a tactic works: in a review of studies on developing resilience, the American Psychological Association found that one of the primary factors in building resilience was having “caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family.”

The key is to surround yourself with people who can offer positive feedback to counter the negatives that you’ve already created in your mind, career experts say. By doing this, you’re hitting on two of the core competencies in resilience in the workplace: optimism and forming connections with others.

Build a happy file.

Competencies: strengths of character, self-awareness

One of the keys to being resilient is being able to drum up examples of good things when you’re not feeling your best. This is where a happy file comes in.

Put together a file that proves your success or leaves a smile on your face—a fantastic performance review, an email from a customer who praised your service, a photo of you and your colleagues having a good time. This file becomes a pillar of what’s known as strengths of character—ways to show your talents and abilities and reinforce the message that you can do it. It’s a powerful way to mentally remind yourself that you do have a pile of successes and those can’t be taken away, even if the current hurdle you face seems overwhelming. It also provides self-awareness, which can help give you perspective and provide patterns for you to see how you handle emotions and behaviors.

Ground yourself in reality.

Competencies: mental agility, self-regulation

When we’re feeling down, it’s very easy to try to put things in perspective—but often in unrealistic, worst-case terms. “At least I don’t have cancer,” you might tell yourself, or “at least I’m not stuck in a war-torn country.” While it’s great to remember these facts, it’s not ideal for developing resilience because we respond better to situations that are personalized.

To stay grounded, use your mental agility—or your ability to think creatively to find solutions and try new strategies—by remembering things that worked in the past. When you faced a new manager with a sadistic streak, how did you circumvent them? When you dealt with that heartbreaking breakup, how did you recover? “It probably isn’t your first crisis or stressful time,” Von Horn says. Thinking back will provide you with blueprints for how to manage your current conundrum. It also prevents overthinking and overreacting based on impulse instead of logic—which is the foundation of self-regulation.

Sidebar: The Six Competencies of Resilience

Adapted from the US Army’s Master Resilience Training program, these six components can help professionals push through the gray zone

1. Self-awareness: Acknowledging your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors so that you can gain perspective before moving forward.

2. Self-regulation: Regulating emotions and feelings so you can better communicate and stop counterproductive thinking.

3. Mental agility: Being able to think nimbly and adapt, particularly when faced with unknowns.

4. Strengths of character: Recognizing your talents and abilities, and using these to overcome difficulties.

5. Connection: Establishing relationships with people that help you communicate better and offer advice in tough situations.

6. Optimism: Staying hopeful, even when situations seem dour.

take our career resiliency quiz
take our career resiliency quiz