The Fast Track to Fortitude

Helping harried tech pros confront adversity.

Eric Whiteman mopped up hundreds of workstations in the wake of the Melissa virus. Hes been chewed out by an idiot boss in front of the entire tech staff for allegedly not fixing something that he had already taken care of. And more than once, hes even saved the day after an inquisitive squirrel got fried on nearby power lines, threatening a blackout.

After a decade of working in IT, Whiteman knows that things go wrong, and hes learned to cope with the worst that a tech job can throw at him.

"Havent had to deal with any earthquakes, but the squirrels made for a couple of fun ones," said Whiteman, CIO of Automated Resources Group Inc., a company based in Lincoln, Neb., that designs, installs and maintains computer gaming equipment. "Dealing with adversity is part of the job."

Not all techies have the good luck to work for such an even-tempered boss, with such a philosophical approach, as Whiteman. And, heaven knows, there are good ways—and bad—for coping with on-the-job upsets that range in intensity from a sticky "W" on your keyboard to a nagging Windows protection fault error to a network meltdown that lasts through the night. But in todays roller-coaster economy, the smartest businesses do pay attention to how much adversity they ask employees to endure. They also offer ways to cope. "Theres a lot to be said for helping people manage what they perceive to be uncontrolled and unmitigated sources of pressure," said Diane Tunick Morello, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Employers can address adversity on the job by offering retreats or conflict resolution programs or both and by training managers to better listen to staff and pick up on stress-laden body language. If valuable employees arent great at handling adversity—whether its constant deadlines or public speaking—their jobs can be redefined.

Better yet, to arm employees psyches so theyre more battle-ready, an increasing number of companies are turning to adversity training from providers such as Peak Learning Inc., a consultancy in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Such training has worked for ADC Telecommunications Inc., a 22,000-employee company based in Minnetonka, Minn., that a year ago began to roll out such training to its sales staff. ADC executives said the training has brought positive returns in employee retention and morale, especially among staff who tend to internalize problems. Now, ADC officials are planning to roll the training out to IT staff.

"Theyre leaning on other people to help solve problems," said Phil Styrlund, a group vice president. "This [adversity training] has been critical to get them through the tough stuff."

Got true grit?

How people respond to the tough stuff is what Peak President and CEO Paul Stoltz calls their AQ (adversity quotient). His research and that of partners at Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif., and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., show that people with a higher AQ make more money, have a higher level of innovation and are better problem solvers. People who score at the top take responsibility for fixing a problem, see problems as a result of circumstances (not their own personal flaws) and perceive problems as limited in scope.

Stoltz has developed a test to decipher workers AQs and a combination of classroom and Web-based training to help improve their scores. AQ trainees learn to see their patterns of response, graph them and rewire them.

Getting the IT organization involved in adversity training is a no-brainer, ADCs Styrlund said. "IT has become so critical to our daily job that the staff deal with people who are on the edge," he said. IT needs assistance not only in dealing with IT crises, he said, but also with learning to manage their responses to people who need to be talked back from the edge when technology infrastructure goes down.

Does adversity training ensure that staff always respond positively and proactively when, say, squirrels get toasted on the electric transformers? Of course not. When things do go irredeemably wrong, said Automated Resources Whiteman, staffers should just fess up if a fix is out of their reach. That lesson is something stressed pros need to learn whether through adversity training or just plain old common sense. After all, Whiteman said, fruitlessly trying to fix something doesnt get you onto a more worthwhile project. "Dont waste the day," he said. "[Just remember,] you will get through it; we will find an answer."