Hardship: A Different Kind of Challenge

cloudsHardship is an important but often underappreciated aspect of experience-driven leader development.

Hardships are easy to overlook because they fall outside the well-known 70-20-10 framework of developmental experiences (Challenging Assignments – 70%, Other People – 20%, and Coursework – 10%). They are not developmental experiences we ask for or recommend. They can be some of the most difficult periods of our personal and professional lives.

In the landmark The Lessons of Experience, CCL’s researchers distinguished hardships from challenging assignments. Commonly experienced hardships are:

  • Personal Traumas – Threats to the health and well-being of one’s self or family.
  • Career Setbacks – Often missed promotions, demotions, or firings.
  • Changing Jobs – Risking one’s career to get out of a rut.
  • Business Mistakes – Failure resulting from bad judgment and poor decisions.
  • Subordinate Performance Problems – Often resulting in firing the employee.

With challenging assignments, the majority of learning comes from the success of meeting the challenge. With hardships, the learning comes from the lack of success. The lessons learned from challenging assignments are primarily external in nature (“What did I learn about handling my job and working with other people?”) while the lessons of hardship are mostly internal (“What did I learn about myself?”)

Because hardships force individuals to come face-to-face with themselves, they often experience a significant shift in their self-awareness and better appreciate what they can and can’t do successfully. Individuals often get a significant dose of humility that increases their compassion and sensitivity in dealing with others’ mistakes. Finally, surviving the hardship and willing themselves to move forward provides added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures.

The lessons learned from hardships often have less to do with the events themselves and more with how individuals respond to them. Individuals who learn from hardship:

  • Resist the temptation to put the blame on the situation or other’s shortcomings.
  • Are able to step back from the situation to gain some clear-eyed perspective and recognize where their own mistakes and shortcomings contributed to the outcome.
  • Demonstrate resilience in moving beyond the pain of the hardship experience and committing themselves to do something about the personal limitations they had realized.

If you work closely with someone going through a hardship on or off the job, you can support them and encourage a learning response by:

  • Acknowledging to yourself that they are experiencing a traumatic situation and that coping with it and learning from it will require some time and effort on the individual’s part.
  • Looking for signs that the individual is either engaging in denial or, conversely, putting too much blame on themselves – in either case, seek the appropriate coaching and or counseling resources to help them cope and gain perspective.
  • Encouraging the individual to reflect on their experience and identify what lessons can be learned and how they might be applied – but choose your timing wisely. Wait until they are starting to come to terms with their hardship.
  • Resisting the temptation to tell the person “what they did wrong” and how they might improve – this may actually inhibit their self-awareness and spark defensiveness instead.

We seldom choose a hardship – hardship finds us. It is beyond our control. But we can control how we respond and how we frame it over time.

Hardship can push us to the brink and create a profound sense of loss and aloneness. And, if we let them, these dark moments can yield valuable and lasting lessons for becoming a better leader.

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