October 30, 2019

The Resilient Decision Maker: Joseph Lampel, Aneesh Banerjee, Ajay Bhalla

Resilience is one of those qualities that we tend to think of as being inherent. Some people are resilient, while others aren’t. In their new book, The Resilient Decision Maker, authors Joseph Lampel, Aneesh Banerjee, and Ajay Bhalla set forth the idea that resilience is something that we can cultivate and grow across all areas of our lives. They demonstrate how we can build resilience in different areas of our lives and what that resilience, in action, might look like when faced with various challenges–how we can be more resilient people and more resilient leaders, more resilient at home, and more resilient in our work.

In this book, the authors steer us away from aspirational ideas about what we should look like as we navigate the various challenges in life, and instead, look at what we can be like as resilient human beings who are both cognitively and emotionally driven.

Why Resilience?

Nikki Van Noy: In your book, The Resilient Decision Maker, you guys are talking about this idea of resilience, which I feel is something we don’t necessarily hear a lot about. Talk to me about, “Why resilience?”

Joseph Lampel: There are a number of reasons why resilience is, I think, important. It’s always important but really important today, and that’s because we have a number of myths about strength, and about ability to deal with walls, the ability to make decisions swiftly, decisively, the ability to have foresight, and to basically, if you wish, never have to really deal with challenges that knock you back.

There is this kind of aspirational ideal of what decision-makers should be. That idea of it is quite at odds with what decision-makers are really like, and what they have to put up with. I think that’s why we decided to write this book, because we had so many people that we met. We work with companies and the decision-making process that we saw there was very different than the kind of decision-making process that often you have in both the popular media and of course, even the textbooks that we actually use to teach our students.

For that reason, we thought this was a very important topic.

Ajay Bhalla: I think to add to what Joseph has said already, that often we don’t pay attention to that, as humans, we all make mistakes. They are part of the repertoire of decision making, and the tolerance level for those mistakes is pretty low, and they’re supposed to reflect not in a good light. Resilience is one capability of individuals–the decision-makers and managers to be able to bounce back from mistakes. We appreciate that things will go wrong, and they often do go wrong, and resilience is one such capability that managers need to nurture more and more in today’s world.

Nikki Van Noy: All right, so, listeners, you probably noticed that we have multiple voices here today, and I’m actually joined by the three authors of this book, which is sort of an unusual scenario. I’d love to hear from each of you, starting with you Ajay, why you came together and how you came together to write this book?

Ajay Bhalla: All three of us have a long history of working together, but more importantly, we’ve been looking at this subject as a team. Aneesh has years of corporate experience, Joseph has both corporate experience and been involved very closely working with managers. Myself, like Joseph, have been working very closely with managers, and I also come from a family business myself, and we’ve been seeing this day-in and day-out in terms of when we work with executives and what is it that makes a successful manager.

When we look at what makes a successful manager, we often look toward the textbooks. When we look back at our experience, it tells us the contrary. And so, we’ve been looking at this research topic for over 10 years, and a number of projects together. About two years ago, we started to feel the need that we should dive into doing something together, and that perhaps a book was the right outlet to address our audience.

Nikki Van Noy: Aneesh, we haven’t heard from you yet, I’d like to direct this next question to you, which is, as you guys came to this idea of resiliency, was it something that the three of you noticed separately and came to separately, or did you each come to the idea of the importance of resiliency in your own way?

Aneesh Banerjee: Like Ajay was mentioning, we have been working together, and one of the projects that we’re working together was around employee ownership. We started investigating employee-owned businesses, and we found out that employee-owned businesses tend to be more resilient than other types of businesses.

We started investigating it at the organizational level. That was a common realization for all of us, that we were interested in understanding why some type of businesses, most notably employee-owned businesses, why these were more resilient than others? This investigation essentially led us to look at resilient individuals.

While this track was evolving in our minds, I think the other track Ajay hinted towards, which is that we do a lot of executive education, and we realized that there was essentially a gap between the rational business world, where we essentially teach in our classrooms how to make decisions rationally, but in reality, especially in the times that we live in, things are changing so fast that it’s really the mental grip, the mental ability to withstand some of these changes and challenges that are going on around you.

That’s when we realized that the next unit of analysis is really around individuals and decision-makers at the individual level and their resilience. We started this journey together from organizations as a unit of analysis. Then we dug deeper into teams and then to individuals, so it was a common journey together.

Joseph Lampel: Can I add something else in terms of resilience? A lot came to us during the 2008 financial crisis, and I think it was at that point that we could really see that resilience was really crucial. After a long boom where it seemed that success was maybe not guaranteed but was a fairly high probability, we moved into an environment where suddenly, people were confronting extraordinary challenges.

However, I began to think about this even before that. I was doing work in the film industry. I’ve been doing work in the film industry for a long time, and I spent some time with film producers in London. One thing that struck me talking to them, is the extraordinary resilience that you have to have in the film business if you’re a producer.

They will spend months, if not years, together on film projects. You have to get the actors, the script, you have to get investors–this is a very complicated kind of system where things can easily go wrong. And indeed, many of their projects would collapse, and collapse at the very last minute. Sometimes the key actor backs out. The investor will back out. Something just went wrong in terms of their ability to schedule everything and they would simply have to let go of the project, and I was struck by the fact that they bounce back. They didn’t move too much, they sort of took it on the chin, and they moved on to the next project.

What I was struck by is their ingenuity, to take projects that fell apart and use different elements to bring it together to a new project. To survive in that business, it was very clear to me, you had to be very resilient. That resilience, at that point, I didn’t think of it so much conceptually, I just saw it as a personality type. I think it became clear when we began to work on resilience after the financial crisis, and looking at companies, for example, in the case of employee ownership companies, and their resilience.

There we were doing more scientific work if you wish. Measuring things, trying to get to the bottom of it. Certainly, looking at other work we did, I think we could see the relationship. That was for us, something very important, in terms of an insight into the nature of resilience.

Aspiration Ideals

Nikki Van Noy: That makes a lot of sense. I know that at the very top of this conversation, Joseph, you were talking about how we have this aspirational ideal of what decision-makers should be like. And then, Ajay, I believe it was you who mentioned this idea of being rational. Does rationality tie into our ideas about what we think decisions should be based on, and are there any other elements that might come into play when we’re thinking about these aspirational ideas of making decisions?

Joseph Lampel: I could say a few words about that. The aspirational idea, argues implicitly, if not explicitly, that one should have total control of one’s emotions. At the extreme, they should completely cut off from one’s emotions. This is an attempt to argue that the rational, i.e the cognitive, and emotional are separate and should be kept separate. So that the extent to which our aspirational ideas of resilience, it’s often aspirational ideas of completely removing emotions from the equation, and just being a purely rational, cognitive, intellectual individuals.

It is that idea we really are tackling, if not attacking. We are trying to, change the image, and trying to argue that the two interact, and they go together. The reality of decision-making is, you cannot separate the emotional from the cognitive. Resilience is the ability to deal with both, and to deal with both as resources, and bring them together. They both sometimes deplete, they run down, and sometimes they go up, sometimes they go down, but that is really the nature of resilience–bouncing back with a sustaining sense of purpose. The bouncing back implies that you are able to overcome, and deal with the emotional, while also retaining the cognitive.

Nikki Van Noy: Aneesh, do any examples of this come to mind for you?

Aneesh Banerjee: Sure, let me take what we call in the book, different kinds of challenges, and let me take one example of a trivial challenge. I was recently at a conference where I was speaking to finance managers who, believe it or not, have a tendency to shoot from the hip, so to speak.

I was speaking to them about a trivial challenge. For instance, a nasty email that you get from someone, and I was asking them, how many of you, and be honest, how many of you are likely to respond to this nasty email almost immediately? It’s a stinker, and you have to respond back immediately.

A lot of them said, “Yes,” but interestingly, some of them also said, “Maybe 10 years back, but now I know better.” In essence, the whole idea of resilient decision-making is not to succumb to the flood of emotions, in this particular case. But take a step back and slow down the decision-making process. You do not have to respond immediately to this kind of an email, it’s a trivial challenge, but it presents a challenge.

You can slow down the decision making, take the step back, and respond after a few hours, or maybe half a day, and you would make a better decision. Interestingly, the example that I was giving, the people who said, “Not anymore, maybe 10 years back.” They essentially said that they learned the hard way. They learned it because they now have the wisdom to understand that this is what calls upon the resilience and the decision-making to slow down and not respond immediately.

So, that would be an example of a trivial challenge which calls upon resilience.

Forms of Resiliency

Nikki Van Noy: This brings up a good point that you guys, in this book, discuss various types of challenges and then with that, different forms of resiliency. Can you talk to me about some of the different types of challenges, and then the sorts of resiliency they’re accompanied by?

Joseph Lampel: Well, we make a distinction between active and reactive challenges. Active challenges are challenges that you bring about yourself. If you start a new business, or you take on a project. By the very nature of this action, you’re going to create challenges because you’re trying to launch a new product that will create a set of problems and a set of issues that you have to tackle. If you had not done that, if you’re not started a new business or launching a new product, those issues or problems would not exist.

That’s why we call them active. In effect, you create your own challenge, by virtue of the fact that you take active action. Reactive challenges, on the other hand, are challenges that occur to you or impact you, without you having had anything to do with the challenge. Obviously, one can take the obvious thing such as a natural disaster or things like losing your job.

That is a reactive challenge, and the point is, both require resilience. We actually talk about the difference between active resilience and reactive resilience. They’re both somewhat different because they come at you from a different direction. The point is, on the other hand, within each one, there is also variation. You have momentous and you have trivial. You have momentous active challenges and trivial active challenges. You can have momentous reactive challenges and trivial reactive challenges.

Aneesh mentioned getting an email which would be irritating, and that’s kind of a trivial reaction challenge–something that you don’t anticipate and comes at you, and makes a demand or brings bad news in a small way, it’s not a big thing, but if it accumulates it can really affect you in a very particular way.

For example, if you start a business, and there are big issues–you have to deal with the supplies not being delivering, and other quite critical things. It could be small things such as employees not showing up and being shorthanded. That’s really the nuance between the big and the small momentous and the trivial active and reactive.

The book deals with resilience first. It is different types of challenges, a different magnitude of challenges, but then it tries to go further and look at different levels of challenges, and resilience in terms of individual resilience, team resilience, and leadership resilience.

We try to dig deeper into what it is that makes an individual a resilient decision-maker. What is it that makes for resilient teams? So, we go in quite a bit of length talking about how in teams, we help each other become more or less resilient.

You bring your resilience to the team and to some extent, we talk about players and believers in a team, people who believe what the team is doing, and people who say, “What can I do for the team?”, and then people who say, “What can the team do for me?”, and about the dynamics that occur at this point.

Then we talk about leadership resilience, which I think is very important, and we make a distinction between leadership resilience and individual resilience. Of course, good leaders are people who can look at the world, see things deeply, have a very good analytical capability, and are able to move rapidly to a decision. Those are the classic good decision-making qualities.

A resilient leader is somebody who helps other people make good decisions. They have the ability to give their resilience to others and help others make decisions. They are able to lend their emotional and cognitive resources to others and that is what makes them a resilient decision-maker.

Aneesh Banerjee: If I can quickly add something around that, which is worth mentioning. The book is really structured in three parts. The first part is the conceptual foundations of resilience. All of us are academics and we do a lot of education. We are also quite well plugged into industry, and we realized that a lot of people do want to understand the conceptual foundations of resilience and challenges.

So, the first part of the book lays this foundation. The second part of the book, like Joseph was mentioning, deals with the three units of analysis. The first one is individual resilience, then team resilience, and then leadership resilience.

The third part of the book is where we say, “How do you get to know where you stand in the three dimensions of resilience? What is your individual resilience, your team resilience, and your leadership resilience?”

Then figure out how you can grow some of this resilience in the near future. So, our book is really structured into three parts. The conceptual idea, resilience at the three levels, and how to know and grow your resilience.

Active Versus Reactive Challenges

Nikki Van Noy: It seems to me that it would be easier, in circumstances where I have active challenges, to exemplify resilience because I have some sort of choice in the matter. I am curious about how people build up these skills for the reactive challenges when you have no control, but still, strive to enact this.

Aneesh Banerjee: Maybe I can start. One of the things in our book that we say is that you can know and grow your own resilience. So, the first part of growing your own resilience is to understand where you stand in these different kinds of situations. One of the things we have in our book is an instrument by which any reader can actually assess where they stand. We have benchmarks for what kind of behaviors would qualify as resilient behaviors.

Now, bear in mind, this is not a test. This is not an assessment to tell you that you’re right or you’re wrong. This is, really, a reflective exercise where you take a deep breath, even a good glass of wine, and then you sit back, and you go through this instrument in an effort to understand where you stand in your own resilience. And based on where you stand, you might find that some people have reserves of resilience.

You may find that you already have some reserves of resilience, but then the question is how can you grow your resilience from where you are, and depending on where you stand on that spectrum in the book, we do advise different techniques by which you can grow your resilience. So, for instance, if you think you have a tendency that whenever there is a reactive challenge you freeze up and you’re unable to make a decision, then we have some suggestions as to how you may be able to overcome these.

I would like to highlight that what we offer in this book is not really a formula. We are not saying that “If you follow this formula, you have a resilience pill,” for instance. What we are offering is, really, a path, in some ways, a journey, and you have to follow that journey yourself.

Nikki Van Noy: So, what I am taking from that, which I feel is a message of hope actually, is that resilience is not necessarily something that is innate to us, but it is a muscle that we can build. Am I understanding that right?

Joseph Lampel: That is correct. You know, it is interesting that people used to think resilience was innate. Even today there are some people who claim that some of it could be built into your DNA, but we disagree, in part because we think that there are different kinds of resilience, as we mentioned, and in part, because there is not a lot of evidence that this is not the case. Resilience is something that can be built up, something that can be developed, and it doesn’t just belong to extraordinary people.

Many people we celebrate–heroes, great explorers, scientists, political leaders, and great business people, demonstrate or exemplify resilience, and so at some point, there is a tendency to think that resilience belongs to exceptional people. Well, we say, “No, the evidence is very clear that it does not only belong to exceptional people.” It is possible for everybody, but of course, there are different levels of resilience. Some people have more resilience or less resilience.

The book is a message of hope because it says, “Yes, you can grow resilience. You can get to know and grow your resilience.” Knowing your resilience is the first step, and then growing it is the next step. One of the things we argue in the book is that a lot of people don’t know their own resilience. In part, because you could say they are overly influenced by the aspiration model of decision making and action.

Because they are overly impressed by that aspirational model, they tend to, therefore, feel that they cannot measure up to it, but in reality, if you begin to see decision making in the full, both the cognitive and the emotional, then you begin to realize that you are very much part of it. So, the question then is to get to know your resilience. We have tools to try to help people do that, and then try to grow your resilience, so in other words, go further.

Nikki Van Noy: The other thing I really like, Ajay, and I believe you spoke to this at the top of this interview, was that there is the idea here of building up our tolerance level for mistakes so that we can bounce back, and to me, that just strikes me as such a human idea, that, yes, we are all going to make mistakes, and not make the wrong decisions sometimes.

Ajay Bhalla: Absolutely, and I have noticed that in the thick of it, whether it is a big event in our lives or sometimes even small events or trivial events, when you’re in the thick of it, it sounds like the most important thing, be that an email, being in a confrontation with a colleague, or anything else. At that point in time, the flood of emotions can actually overcome your ability to think rationally, and part of resilience is recognizing the cycle that you are going through.

A lot of times training that muscle of sitting through your emotions, working through that cycle, and preparing yourself better.

A Message of Hope

Nikki Van Noy: I am curious, as you guys have been working on this book, looking at research, working with people, have you felt your own levels of resilience growing, and if so, how has that impacted your lives?

Joseph Lampel: I can speak for myself and say the answer is yes on both accounts. So, starting with knowing your resilience, the book in effect is an exploration of resilience in the large sense that, you look at the evidence, you look at historical examples, but it’s inevitable, you think about yourself while you are doing it. You think about your own resilience, thinking back on situations that you’ve been in, thinking about situations where you felt that you were short of the aspirational model and basically berated yourself for not being “stronger.”

Writing the book made me realize, in fact, that I was walking through exactly the processes I was describing. So, it got me to understand my own resilience better, to know it better. I suppose that moving forward, it also started me thinking about how to grow my resilience. So, in that sense, the book has been, if not aspirational, certainly very influential in the way I think about myself.

Nikki Van Noy: How about you, Aneesh or Ajay?

Ajay Bhalla: As we were starting this process a lot of miss-happenings happened in my family. So, I was dealing with the grievance, and working on this book idea of resilience, and at that point in time, I was going through the process, which I was describing earlier myself, of working through my emotions, trying to do activities which will help me replenish my emotional resources. I think the book is basically, for me personally, a message of hope.

It is a journey which one goes through and things will bounce back, and they often do. All you need to do is recognize where you are, and the cycle never stops. It continues.

Joseph Lampel: If I can add something to what I said earlier. One of the things in the book that we deal with is something we call, “the resilient decision-making zone”. The resilient decision-making zone is the idea that you have when you are confronting a challenge. Why is the tendency to make rash decisions? Because, the stress, the challenge, is putting so much pressure on you that you want to end it as quickly as possible.

Emotionally and cognitively, you find it very difficult to continue thinking about the problem and deal with the issues. You want to finish them off very quickly, and you make a rash decision, which you truly regret. The opposite is being unable to make any decision at all, because this is a situation where your resilience is low, so you simply don’t make any decisions. You procrastinate, you postpone, you avoid.

What we’re saying is that, to some extent, the trick is to try to be within these two bad outcomes. To move between them in some ways. When we worked through that, we saw that, certainly in the literature at least, and also, I could see it in myself because I am very much prone to that. I am the kind of person who feels the pressure and the challenge. In the past, I could slip back on decisions that I made and were the wrong decision, the bad decision, because I wanted to it end as quickly as possible–the stress involved in making decisions.

Sometimes I was procrastinating, or I was freezing. Like somebody that climbs a ladder and there is a strong wind. You hang onto the ladder, not find the resilience to come down and get it over with. This is something that, from our personal experience, came into the book, into what we call the resilient decision-making zone.

Nikki Van Noy: Perfect. Aneesh, do you have anything to add about your experience with this?

Aneesh Banerjee: Yes, absolutely. For me, writing this book has been transformational, and in many ways, that is one of the reasons why I would also recommend this book to people who are a bit like me. Like Ajay was mentioning like Joseph was also mentioning, I have worked in the industry for quite some time, and all of us, we do a lot of executive education. We understand execs.

I know that a lot of my executive students are also in the same boat–they appreciate the importance of resilience, but they do not know where to start their analysis from, and the book offers that. The book offers a conceptual analysis of, “What is resilience in the face of different types of challenges?” The book offers a practical approach to understanding resilience in their own context. The second thing the book offers is an assessment so that you can know your own resilience.

Once again, through the book, I understood what my own level of resilience is, and I would say, people who read the book, they will also have a benchmark about what their own level of resilience is. And last but not the least, like you mentioned, once you know where you are in your resilience, you have the opportunity to grow your resilience by taking some steps and again, I am practicing what I am preaching in some ways, and I am following my own advice.

In many ways, the book has been transformational for me, and for that same reason, I would think it would also be an amazing help to a lot of people out there.

Nikki Van Noy: The subtitle of this book is, “Navigating challenges in business and life.” And, to be honest with you, when the phrase, “business and life,” is in a subtitle, it often doesn’t strike me as authentic, because so many topics are just inherently more applicable either to business or to life. It can be tough to straddle.

This idea of resiliency and decisions and what you guys are talking about really does strike me as being applicable to both business and life, probably in equal amounts.

Joseph Lampel: Yes, I think you are absolutely right. It is applicable to both, and I would go one step further and say that business and life cannot be kept separate. They cannot be divided, and one of the things we say in the book is that you have to accept that they are not going to be divided. It is another prescriptive idea we often get–you know this is business, this is personal, this is life, this is business, and I keep things separate. “Don’t bring your problems to the office,” or something like that.

But in reality, we’re human beings. Of course, we are going to bring problems to the office. We may not want to share it with our co-workers, fair enough, but we cannot create compartments of business and life, because our emotional cognitive resources are in both and they flow from one to the other. If we do really well in business, it probably makes our personal life easier. It makes it easier for us to deal with that personal challenge to some extent because we feel better about it.

We feel more confident about ourselves. We feel we have a greater ability to deal with challenges. I mean, likewise, if we can deal with challenges in our personal lives, sometimes that helps us know and grow our resilience in general, which we bring to our business. So, in that sense, that is why we put both in the title, and one of the other reasons was because of many of our examples, many of our stories, do not separate business from life.

We didn’t have the typical “only business” examples, what we have in all of our examples is showing that the individuals involved, or the teams involved, both applied life to business and, through that, applying their abilities in business to life.