Tag Archives: Cambodia

Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

Here is the Executive Summary of the Report I introduced yesterday: Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations (plus some photos from Cambodia, just because). The research report is available for purchase from the People In Aid website.


Background, and purpose of the research

In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the level of stress, trauma, or violence experienced by humanitarian workers, but relatively little focus on the other side of the coin – qualities that promote resilience and thriving in these challenging environments. People In Aid, through this report, undertakes an initial exploration of the personal skills and strengths, and organizational structures and practices, which can promote resilience in managers working for international humanitarian organizations.


What we did

During October and November 2010, interviews were carried out with fifteen individuals humanitarian workers, staff support specialists, and psychologists who well placed to comment on these issues in relation to middle managers with humanitarian organizations. These discussions, author experience, and published research, informed the content of this thought/research paper and allowed us to:

  • Suggest a useful working definition of resilience;
  • Identify some key indicators of resilience for managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Identify some key points of influence – organizational structures and practices that can strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Offer some practical suggestions for ways that humanitarian organizations can help increase the resilience of their middle managers.

Summary of the discussion topics

There is no universally accepted definition of resilience. The definition we propose here is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.

Key personal skills and strengths of resilient humanitarian workers include:

1. Adaptability. Adaptability is the result of a number of skills and abilities working in tandem to help us deal well with challenge, change, and setbacks. Two related themes particularly pertinent to humanitarian workers are pragmatic idealism and the ability to cope with ambiguity.

2. Problem solving ability. Humanitarian workers who are naturally challenge-oriented, employ problem-focused coping, are able to accept imperfect solutions and partial victories, and independently learn as they go, fare better. 

3. Sense of meaning and purpose. A sense that what they are doing is meaningful and purposeful is very important to most international humanitarian workers – and those with strong values and a clear belief system rooted outside themselves fare better. However, the ability to be flexible in adapting these beliefs over time is also very important. 

4. Good relationships/social support. There is no single factor that will make you resilient, but good relationships may be about as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Supportive relationships that extend well beyond mere acquaintance are vital, yet can be challenging for international humanitarian workers to maintain over time. 

5. Optimism and the regular experience of positive emotions. Having a generally positive outlook (realistic optimism) and a sense of humour/fun are common attributes of resilient humanitarian workers.

6. Emotional regulation. The ability to regulate and manage intense and negative emotions when appropriate is an important part of resilience. Humanitarian workers who are able to strategically use strategies related to attention control, cognitive reappraisal, and emotional expression, are more resilient. 

7. Self-awareness. Resilient humanitarian workers know themselves well – their strengths and relative weaknesses, their limits, and their needs. This self-awareness underlies their awareness of their limits.

8. Balance, and the ability to pace oneself and disconnect. Many resilient humanitarian workers appear to live by the matra, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” They find ways to pace themselves and disconnect from their work both in the short-term and the long term.

9. Physical health. The basic building blocks of physical health – eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising – are often neglected by humanitarian workers, but without some basic level of physical health to draw upon, resilient actions and reactions become less likely.

Some of the most challenging demands that managers in humanitarian organizations face were identified as:

  • Managing others: Frequently mentioned issues included a lack of management experience to do the job required and having a lot of responsibility without the commensurate authority.
  • Being managed by others: The stress caused by constant organizational change topped this list, followed by mismatches between headquarter-office expectations and field capabilities and having a poor direct manager.
  • Workload: Too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
  • The structure of their role: Many humanitarian workers seem to relish the variety inherent in their jobs but also find it stressful to have to be wear many different hats and be adept in so many different ways.
  • Personal coping and self-care: Environmental hardships are not unexpected although still stressful, and the “place” and “pace” of the work makes it challenging to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

Some key points of influence in organizational structures and practices that can help strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations can be found in the following areas:

  1. Management practices: Frequently mentioned during interviews was the need for this topic to be a strategic priority for upper management, part of the organizational conversation in the context of a culture of affirmation, and basic good-management practices such as regular professional supervision meetings. 
  2. Role structure: More commonly than not, in this field, the scope of the role and the position expectations are such that the job is literally impossible for one person to accomplish. Realistic and clearly defined expectations, and more assistance identifying strategic priorities when needed, could go a long way to increasing the resilience of humanitarian managers. 
  3. Training and skill building: Most humanitarian workers are hungry for training and skill building opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and career planning. Of particular importance is the need to assist people who are promoted to management positions with little or no background in management learn how to better manage others.
  4. Support services: Making psychological support services available – particularly by providers outside the organization or completely removed from a person’s line manager – was repeatedly identified as helpful.   
  5. Policies and benefits: Adequate vacation and R&R leave, and the provision of amenities in situations of shared accommodation, were identified as particularly crucial to helping humanitarian workers maintain resilience.
  6. The recruitment and handover periods: It is hard to over-estimate the importance of good recruitment and information transfer to an organization. An organization that manages to consistently identify and hire people who are already naturally resilient are going to be way ahead of the curve. In addition, good information transfer during an adequate handover period provides new staff with a critical running start in their position.

Critical questions for further discussion

A PhD (or several) could be written about each of the major topics addressed in this report. As such, the paper raises many questions that could benefit from further research and thought. The following a few of the key questions that we hope will catalyze further discussion and exploration:

  1. Is there a difference between the qualities that help make humanitarian workers resilient in the short term versus the long term?
  2. Do humanitarian workers who are highly resilient actually perform better in their role or are they mostly, rather, less stressed and/or damaged by the demands of their work?
  3. To what extent can organizational structures and practices really help build individual resilience? To what extent is it the organization’s responsibility to attempt to do so?

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Awe at Leopard’s Gate

The internet is down this morning. This happens regularly here in Laos – it goes down with no warning and stays down anywhere from ten minutes to ten hours. I am less ruffled by this than I once would have been, but still… after five days away I was looking forward to browsing my unread email, and checking facebook, and staring at twitter (which I just joined last week) with a sort of wary and puzzled fascination. I wanted to browse CNN and BBC. I wanted to see if family were on skype. I wanted to connect with the world.

Mike and I have been very disconnected this last couple of days. Mike did not to bring his work computer on our trip to Siem Reap, and we made every effort to avoid talking about his work for the three full days in the middle. I hadn’t intended to so wholly take a break from my own life, but by the time we’d been in Cambodia 24 hours all the immediate urgency of my own work just… seemed to matter less.

By the time we’d been there a day we’d already been gently greeted by smiling hotel staff who moved through the corridors like a corps of dancers.

We’d taken a boat trip out to the alternate universe of the Chong Kneas floating village. The village migrates along a vast inland Tonle Sap river with the annual rise and fall of the water. It has five schools, seven fish wholesalers, three gas stations, one health post, and four karaoke bars.

We’d also seen three temples. Mike climbed to the top of the third one while I sat under a tree on cool stone and squinted my eyes and gazed at this temple, standing so still in the middle of a lake, and imagined what it looked like a thousand years earlier, and how pilgrims – approaching it on foot through the rice paddies and trees – might have felt. Then I thought about the human instinct to create grand monuments to honor a story larger than our own. Then I thought about how hot it was.

Mike bounded back from the temple, smiling.

“I heard you laughing at the top all the way from here,” I said.

“Really??” he asked, looking at the distance. “I was waiting for this Australian woman in front of me to scramble up those steep stairs at the top. She was sweaty and struggling, and she said she felt like a monkey. So I told her that she didn’t look at all like a monkey. Then I asked if that was the nicest thing anyone had said to her all day.”

“Indeed,” I said. “What did she say?”

“She thought about it for a second and said, ‘I do believe that it is’.”

“So,” Mike said, sitting down on the rock beside me and pulling out the map. “I think we should go this way.”

The route he traced was probably longer than the one I would have chosen – it would take us past two more small temples before looping back around to the great stone walkways near the entrance. On the other hand, it wound through the trees – trees that would provide shade.

“Great,” I said, standing up.

We were walking through the forest five minutes later when we stumbled upon Leopard’s Gate and I had one of those moments when I could almost hear my perspective shift. Sometimes my perspective shifts sound like an eighteen-wheeler struggling with a gear change – all grinding metal and squealing engines and me swearing and surly. Other times, however, like this moment at Leopard’s gate, they sound like a camera shutter – a subtle, definitive, right-angled-corner of a sound.

Leopard’s Gate wasn’t nearly as grand as many of the other temples we saw this week. It was just a crumbling stone arch standing silent among the trees. But there was something about the way the sunlight – filtered by the leaves – lay down gently on the moss-covered stones. The gate glowed that morning, as it likely had on other mornings for a thousand years. And as we walked through it, all of my thoughts about work and writing took several respectful steps backwards.

It was a relief to let go of it all for a couple of days – the book and the blog, the consulting project due before the end of next month, the tangle of boxes to unpack, the cacophony over the back fence, facebook, twitter, CNN, skype, and google. It was a relief to focus instead on the visions and the painstaking and patient labor of people long since gone – to wallow in the restorative balm of awe.

But now we are back. Mike headed back to the airport less than an hour after we got home. He flew down to Vientiane last night for three days, so I am here solo and ready to pick up the threads of my life… except, some of those threads are hard to pick up without the world wide web.

Oh well. The internet will come back on eventually and I am relatively sure the rest of the world will still be there to connect with when it does. In the meantime, it is blessedly quiet in this house this morning. There are no power tools going over the back fence to strip me of the last of the cathedral hush I’ve carried back from Cambodia, and there are plenty of boxes to unpack around here.

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Commercial Break from Cambodia

I was going to polish off the last two installments in the When Helping is Hard series early this week, but then Cambodia happened. We’re here for four days on rest and relaxation leave and so far it’s been very restful, very relaxing, and  very needed. Mike’s trying hard not to talk or think work, and in the spirit of solidarity (and the spirit of holiday) I decided to do the same. So the humanitarian series will be back, but not for a couple of days.

Instead of talking or thinking work we’ve been trundling around Siem Reap in the back of a tuk tuk, wandering around various temples, and eating cheeseburgers. We’re in the bizarre position of having come to Siem Reap and feeling as if we’ve landed back in a metropolis… more of a metropolis, anyway. They have good ice cream here, people. And traffic lights.

So in lieu of the next installment in the Helping is Hard series, here is a slideshow of some of what we’re seeing in the temples. They’re grand, they are awe-inspiring, and they make me think about our human instinct to carve a lasting story in stone and with our very lives, to create monuments to beauty, and to seek meaning beyond ourselves.

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Phnom Penh

I find Phnom Penh really, really hard to spell. Makes me stop and think every time.

Most trips make me stop and think hard in some way, and this one has been no exception. There have been some things about this trip I’ve found tough.

The heat, for one. It’s been about 100F here, and the electricity’s been hit or miss – which is no small thing when you’re on the fourth floor of a tall, narrow, building trying to run a good workshop with 22 people packed into one room and the sun beating down on the roof.

Then there’s noise – the whole city thrums with it. Car radio’s, children shrieking as they play badminton on the streets at night by the weak glow of street lights top poles, cats desperate for some love, rats in the roof, and the dawn to dusk construction project right next door to this place.

And translation issues. I had a fantastic translator for these workshops – an inspiring young man who picked up much of his amazing English from Mormon missionaries. But even with a good translator there was so much I missed. Jokes by the participants. The nuances of questions. Some of the subtlety in what they were saying.

Especially when you are talking about stress and resilience, nuance and subtlety is important. Without it I felt a little like I was feeling my way forward into a dark room while wearing sunglasses.

This workshop process was not comfortable for me. But I am walking away believing it was worthwhile. I hope and pray the participants – 18 Cambodians working for a local NGO that combats sex trafficking – took something away, however small, to think over and to act on to better care for themselves. The work that they are doing is so admirable. And, in this region, so badly needed.

As a result of these workshops and many rides around the city this week in tuk tuk’s like the one above, I know I took away some things to think on. A renewed appreciation of the cross-cultural complexities of stress and thriving, and the acute challenges of caring for yourself in a context where viable choices are far more limited than the ones I have at my disposal. Gratitude for air conditioning and cold running water. And a deep admiration for the capacity of the people I’ve been here working with these last couple of days to laugh until they cry. Their laughter is a skill, a gift, and a blessing.

It’s 8:30am. I have an hour to shovel everything back into my suitcases and head for the airport. Only three airports, two long flights, and one US immigration official stands between me and Mike.

And to that, I say amen.

Thanks for stopping by,
lisa