Opinion: How to turn stress into strength with an antifragile mindset

Embrace disruption as one of your business's core values, says tech CEO

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Embrace disruption as one of your business’s core values, says tech CEO

Many C-suite executives overlook the benefits of creating an antifragile workplace. Exactly what is antifragility? 

The term antifragile gained popularity after Nassim Nicholas Taleb published the book Antifragility: Things That Gain From Disorder in 2012. Taleb explored the impact of stress and how it sometimes creates favourable situations. For example, downturns in the stock market help investors, and muscle fibres repair during weightlifting to create hypertrophy.

Simply put, antifragility is how a team deals with stress and how they use it to become stronger—in other words, how resilient they are. Typically in high-stress situations, whether it’s looming deadlines, costly mistakes or unexpected hurdles that require a strategic pivot, team morale deteriorates, leading to further headache down the road. It’s a snowball effect toward less productivity.

There’s a lot of research outlining that high levels of stress create a significant increase in disengagement from employees. When it becomes chronic, frequent absenteeism occurs, and eventually businesses start to see increased turnover.

My company, ACL, a governance, risk management and compliance software company based in Vancouver, has scaled with a re-startup mentality; we’ve adopted an antifragile mindset to embrace the challenges that are in front of us and avoid becoming rigid and brittle. One of our core values is disruptive innovation—recognition of the fact that new ideas, new growth and new developments stem from uncertainty and problem-solving. Here are four ways you can turn stress into strength by adopting an antifragile mindset.

Make it a core value

By enshrining disruption into your business’s core values, you make it known that it’s OK to experience issues and ambiguity. Opportunities arise at all levels of the business, and we may have no idea how to tackle them. Admitting that you don’t know all the answers, even at a leadership level, is an important part of growing a business and not something to be ashamed of. Encouraging experimentation can lead to breakthrough discoveries.

Set ambitious organizational goals

Develop strategic goals for your business that encourage people to stretch beyond the familiar and lead through ambiguity. Setting goals that can be easily achieved allows workers to remain in their fixed patterns. Big goals that require creative thinking, hard work, teamwork and a healthy step out of one’s comfort zone inspire employees to embrace new lines of thinking and experimentation to achieve them.

Celebrate the missteps

When something goes wrong, you can’t dwell on your mistakes, but you can’t sweep them under the rug, either. If your team is afraid to make mistakes, breakthroughs won’t happen. Be honest about mistakes, and encourage your employees to learn and grow from them.

Not long ago, ACL had a corporate goal of increasing its monthly active users on our platform. If we achieved it, we’d hit the thresholds needed to pay out our employee bonuses. The day before the deadline, we watched the number creep up, hit the threshold and then exceed it. We were so pleased to have met the very tough goal.

However, the next day, one of our R&D managers made a discovery that some of the hits we counted toward our goal were not actual customers, but dummies we’d been using to test the product. In fact, we had fallen far short of the goal. The R&D manager walked to my desk to tell me the news and explain what happened. It was a tough thing for him to do because not only did it take admitting to a mistake, it also meant telling our entire organization that their bonuses wouldn’t be what they thought.

At our quarterly all-staff campus meeting following this incident, I called the R&D manager who brought the issues forward and we gave him a round of applause. Why? Because we learned more from the incident than if we had simply succeeded. We learned to better interrogate and understand the data that drives our business forward, but more important, we removed any negativity floating around the room and learned that slip-ups don’t bring us down, they make us stronger. It brought our team together and reinforced our values. We  needed to recognize that moment for what we gained from it, not from what we lost. 

Make promises you don’t know how to keep

To truly reap the benefits of being antifragile, you must boldly push into the chaos. I always say that leaders make promises they don’t know how to keep and then spend every waking moment living up to their word. That is the essence of leading through ambiguity, welcoming stress and using the challenges you face to make you strong. If you can imbue your organization with this leadership perspective at all levels, you will reap the benefits of antifragility.

Antifragility is built through embracing ambiguity, disruption and stressors to emerge through the other side stronger and more flexible for future challenges.

Named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women, Laurie Schultz is the CEO of ACL and chair of the board of the BC Tech Association. She holds an MBA and a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Alberta and has been featured in the New York Times, Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada and TechVibes. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, two children and their dog, Stripe.