Can You Become Anti-Fragile?

An interview with Dr. Paige Williams.

Posted Jul 23, 2020

 RichVintage/iStock
Source: RichVintage/iStock

The current level of uncertainty and disruption around the world is impacting millions of people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago. Research by The Wellbeing Lab in the first six months of 2020, with workers in the U.S. and Australia, shows that people are experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety.

This is completely understandable, but the added challenge with the current situation is that it’s not going away, and research has shown chronic stress can impact on our brain and put us at risk of ongoing physical and psychological health issues. So, how can we best manage stress in the current COVID environment?

A good place to start is to understand that stress is not inherently negative. Complex adaptive systems, like humans, need stress to learn, grow, and develop. Without it, they become weaker and more fragile. If we can reframe stress in this way, we can engage with uncertainty and disruption more positively, and perhaps even benefit from the experience of it.

“When we are able to learn, develop, and improve through disruption, challenge, and change, we become what’s called ‘AntiFragile,’” explained Dr. Paige Williams, when we interviewed her recently. “This means that we experience more upside than downside from uncertain and volatile environments.”

Paige has developed six guiding principles to help us learn how to become AntiFragile for her book, Becoming AntiFragile: Learning to Thrive through Disruption Challenge and Change. The ROBUST principles are guiding heuristics that can be applied in both personal and professional contexts. Rather than rules that specify “if… then…” or “when… then…,” the ROBUST principles are designed to make situations clearer, decisions easier to make, and action more effective in contexts that are uncertain and volatile.

“Rules are too narrow and prescriptive when we are dealing with complex environments that are changing rapidly,” explained Paige, “the ROBUST principles are designed to be adaptive; they are a touchstone that can help illuminate a clear pathway forward.”

To learn to thrive through the current levels of uncertainty and disruption, Paige suggests using the ROBUST principles:

  • Recruit your brain. Struggle and stress are not signs that you, or others, are breaking. Give people permission to see their fear or anxiety as signs that something is not going the way their brain wants, and needs attention. Remind yourself, and others, that it is safe to sit and breathe through these feelings of discomfort. Then when you or others are ready, just take the next small step forward from a place of confidence and good intent. And if you need to sit with struggle again straight after, know that this process can be repeated as often as needed.
  • Operate in reality. Stop emotional leakage and self-sabotage when a situation is challenging by asking yourself or others, “What do we know for sure? What is your part in this? What are your ideas for resolving this issue? What can you do to help?”
  • Break the negative and build the positive. Use the strengths you and others have to develop and sustain AntiFragility. At the end of each day, ask, “What went well today, and which strengths made this possible? What are you looking forward to tomorrow, and which strengths can you draw on to make this more energizing and enjoyable?”
  • Use intelligent risk. Create options by engaging a tinkering mindset, and create psychological safety to champion innovation. Make the learning loop questions a regular habit and ask, “What went well? Where did I/we struggle? What did I/we learn? How will we adjust and move forward?”
  • Seek collective wisdom. Invite diverse contributions, encourage healthy conflict, and follow the energy for action by using Appreciative Inquiry or Design Thinking approaches with your team and stakeholders. You can still run large gatherings and break-out rooms for conversations on virtual platforms like Zoom. In particular, be sure to ask, “What do people care enough to take ownership of?” This enables you to see where people’s commitment and energy for action really lie, rather than wasting time, energy, and effort on trying to get people to comply.
  • Tackle the infinite game. Harness meaning and purpose to scale your approaches for long term benefit, beyond this crisis. Be mindful that the infinite game requires energy, so be sure to celebrate milestones along the way, and make gratitude the attitude of your team.

How can you use the ROBUST principles to illuminate a clear pathway forward for learning and growth in your team?

Test how AntiFragile you are by taking Paige’s free five-minute survey at theantifragilesurvey.com.