Aside

Resentment, Resilience and Rebounding

“It’s them, not me”.

That’s effectively what Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo (YHOO), has been saying in the few days since she’s been fired.

Well, she said it more “colorfully” than that to Fortune’s Patricia Sellers:

“These people f—ed me over,” she says, in her first interview since her dismissal from the CEO role late Tuesday.”

I find some humor in this response. Because what Carol told me when she fired me applies here: “Even if you’re right on the topic, but you don’t have followers, you’re effectively wrong”. It seems her Board of Directors was, well, not on board with her leadership. And her team was not following her, if Glassdoor is an adequate indicator. Some smart posts here, here, and here, question whether she was ever the right person for the job. I wonder now if the situation ever lent itself to a turnaround as I re-read this  advice, in an Open Letter to Carol Bartz. And even though it’s clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, I’m dismayed by her current approach which sounds a lot like “it was them, it was them, it was all them”.

This is not unexpected. Neuroscience research, tells us that an immediate challenge creates a surge of chemicals that promote the “fight or flight” response. It’s not hard to see the chemicals at work in what Carol is exhibiting right now. And, with some empathy, we can appreciate that any one of us could apply this approach when bad things are happening to, and around us. It’s just old-patterns at play; our first response might not be our best response.

Beyond the obvious lesson of “we must take our own medicine”, I’ve been wondering what other lesson this provides for the rest of us … When bad things happen – a failed start-up, a break-up, a calamity in our lives, a job-loss in private, or a public firing—how do we want to respond?

While this is not how I want to respond, I often start out with resentment. And resentment is perhaps even too soft a word actually. You might recall the story I shared recently where I just couldn’t get over the unfairness over a situation, where I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong. And so, I was stuck from making any forward motion until I got the much-needed kick-in-the-pants. In that case, I just wanted the bad-thing that was happening to just not-be. I’d rather not deal with the consequences and disruptions and need to change (so, if things could just kindly go back to the way things were…?).

In effect, I want to “leap back” to when the bad thing hadn’t happened, rather than into what is going on.

That’s why I was so fascinated when I first learned the basis for the word resilience, which is Latin for “to leap back”. Applied to my countless failures and desire for things to return to the original state, I wonder if that make my many initial responses “resilient”? But to be truthful, I know it doesn’t. Darn it. I’ve come to realize that to be resentful is to demand of the world that it change, rather than finding ways I could respond.

So, on deeper consideration, it seems that resilience is different than what the Latin basis tells us at first glance. Resilience is that, in spite of the loss or calamity or hardship, we are able to rebound.

Resilience is the opposite of being pushed around, and pushing back. It is the opposite of being thrown off course by what life’s calamities bring us. It is not retaliatory. Resilience does not demand that life’s experiences change. And, no, it is not resentful of what life brings your way. The description of resilience as rebounding evokes pictures of the Weebles, the 70’s toy, that “wobble but won’t fall down”. Lots of things can happen to Weebles, but they always returned to a stand up position, ready for the next adventure.

Rebounding is quite different than the resentment that Carol (or I, and many others) demonstrates when she says “it’s their fault”. Rebounding is not to blame others, but to find a resourcefulness inside ourselves that lets us ‘leap back’ into our own strength. To be resentful of what has happened to us, make us victims. Something happened to us, and we are powerless because it was ‘their fault’. To be resilient is to identify something in us that is stronger – a place that we return to, and holds a certain hope that we can handle any next calamity that much better. To be resilient is to be the hero of the story, knowing we are able to handle what is next.

What would it be like to be as resilient as, say, the Weebles? And what would be the things that let us have a center to return to – perhaps clearer priorities, perhaps a different or redefined sense of purpose, perhaps identifying some values that become central to the way one’s life is lived? With those in place, maybe each of us can be more resilient — springing back to our centers, being more of who we are, better at functioning and being, in spite of the loss or calamity. To be resilient then is to rebound into our own strength, back into our most capable selves, into our evolving and growing truth. It comes down to this choice: are we victims of what happens to us, or heroes of an unfolding story before us? I’d like to believe that it’s the latter, for all of us. For Carol Bartz of course. But, also, especially for all of us who have suffered loss. May we all be Weeble-like resilient, and see ourselves as having strength to be the heroes of our own next, unfolding story.

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12 Responses:

  1. Glen Lubbert. September 12, 2011 at 9:23 pm  |  

    I LOVED the Weeble’s when I was a young kid. Maybe they were secretly teaching us resilience??

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm  |  

      Seems like. And Star Wars was telling us to not give into hate or fear.

      Reply
  2. Larry McKeogh (@lmckeogh). September 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm  |  

    While certainly weebles are a good analogy and nice slogan, do they lend themselves to being pushed around because they will get back up?

    I had a similar conversation earlier today. The gist of it was about being grounded. Having strong roots and knowing where you are at. When you meet those people you can tell they are “present” and have a sense of self.

    Something as public as this firing was can rattle anyone. What happens next indicates the depth of those roots and gives you a window into a person’s inner psyche.

    The contrast I see here is that you’ve managed to use these experiences to help yourself and others grow from them. The jury is still out if Carol can follow suit.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 13, 2011 at 3:00 am  |  

      Being grounded…being clear and purposeful, having a guiding set of principles…all things that can help us bounce back. We can tell yes, both in others and in ourselves…

      I’ve heard this described as having a good inner life, because when we have the inner strength, we have more to draw on when we serve and lead with purpose…

      I hope that just because you/I/others are resilient, we don’t get pushed to the edge more…but perhaps we might put ourselves in more demanding situations because we have a sense we can handle it…

      Reply
  3. Vincent Curren. September 13, 2011 at 2:47 am  |  

    I feel the need to state what I think is an obvious lesson from Ms. Bartz’s firing: Don’t fire people over the phone. It’s cold, disrespectful, and unmannerly. And the fallout often works out poorly for the person doing the firing and for the company itself. (Another classic case: the NPR – Juan Williams example.)

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 13, 2011 at 2:54 am  |  

      True, not a great call…but I can imagine we’d still be seeing this reponse even if everything was done with honor.

      Reply
  4. Chris Glennie. September 13, 2011 at 7:02 am  |  

    Can’t help feeling that this is what Churchill meant when he said ‘Success is going from failure to failure without loss of momentum’. If anyone was resilient, he was!

    Reply
  5. Alex Dogliotti. September 13, 2011 at 11:46 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer! I LOVED your article. I loved because the concept of having a ‘place to return to’ is super important also for companies. You know those companies who fear their own customers and spend ages debating how to handle negative feedback on social media before even opening a FB account? After reading your article I thought: ‘Those companies don’t have a place to return to!’. They are afraid of their customers because they can’t reconnect with themselves because they don’t have core values with which their customers can identify.
    I’m more and more convinced traditional companies structured around pure product/service will not survive in the next decade or two . They must come up with some type of dialogue with people, and not necessarily customers only.
    Some companies already started to change (i.e. American Express and Salesforce). The question at this point is, how will others top that?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 13, 2011 at 4:23 pm  |  

      Beautiful insight.

      Social is not about transparency alone, or marketing alone… it is an opportunity to be (an overused word, surely, but appropriate here) authentic and then to become more fluid in how they work with others (including consumers) to co-create products, ecosystems, experiences.

      They are afraid that when they open up to the world, there will be “nothing” there. It’s the same fear that people have of course (that we are all frauds) but on a much different scale…

      Am going to be thinking about this one for a while.

      Reply
  6. Todd Gorman. September 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm  |  

    Love your illustration: that Weebles taught a generation of children not only about physics, but also psychology!

    Would it be safe to observe that some people have a preference for internalizing or externalizing, and the best reaction to people like Carol is to give them space for a while, and not judge anything too harshly? (Whereas others might retreat into a stew of misery, and six weeks later, end up with an ulcer?) You say that the solution to facing hardship is to look within and draw from within, something that may run counter to the tendencies of people who externalize.

    I see loss of control and acceptance of reality as underlying themes here. Successful people get to be very good at controlling outcomes, and find it difficult to accept matters that remain beyond their control (despite their best efforts). Life gives us results, period — whether or not those were the results we wanted. Both success and failure can give us problems, just different types of problems. The best way to regard any results is to try to stay emotionally neutral.

    Exiting a bad situation always creates the opportunity to put yourself into a better one (I continue to iteratively re-learn this one myself). I think of Al Gore, the contested election, and the core of values he retreated to in its aftermath. The outcome eventually was a Nobel (and a book on reason). I could not imagine this result would have happened if he had taken office as president.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm  |  

      Of course. And I hope my post had empathy for Carol.

      Our first response isn’t our last response. And I love the Al Gore lesson as an alternative to consider.

      Though I’m not sure it is to be emotionally neutral but to ride the wave of emotions — to tide out grief, loss and then come to a place where we recenter. To deny those emotions could cause them to go underground and displace us in other ways. But to accept them is to then own them into our experience so we have empathy for others and connection to all that is. To acknowledge the emotions, and then find a way back to our center…that seems the challenge. At least for me. Perhaps for others.

      Reply
  7. Christine. September 14, 2011 at 9:35 am  |  

    Thank you for another great motivational post. Resilience is the word I needed today, the Weeble’s thing is so clear, so simple and exactly how I’ve always felt about life’s obstacles and set backs, knowing all the theory I am pulling myself together to rebound, going back there and make things right! thank you!

    Reply

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