Lessons from Living and Working in a Complex, Hostile Environment

One of the challenges for civilians working in complex, hostile environments, in unstable conflict-ridden parts of the world, is how to survive and get a difficult job done well in extraordinary challenging circumstances.  Often, there are some innate technical skills required – building health clinics, establishing local governance in a developing world context – but time and time again, when I was working for the UK government unit that recruited, deployed and supported civilians working in these rare, challenging front line roles, we found that other factors were critical to success in these extreme roles.

After realising that many people struggled to achieve their objectives in these challenging frontline roles, and realising how crucial these roles were to what the UK government wanted to achieve, we decided to probe a little deeper.  A series of interviews by an occupational psychologist with civil servants and contractors who had worked for the UK Government over the past decade in the Balkans, Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan started to explore what else might be critical factors in performing successfully in these challenging contexts.

They came up with three critical areas:  (psychological) flexibility, self-awareness under pressure, and authentic, effective collaboration.  These areas allowed individuals to learn and help themselves to thrive under pressure, highlighting some of the qualities and behaviours to get the best out of themselves in extraordinary conditions, and therefore offered ways for individuals to prepare and develop skills before taking on these challenging roles.

The three areas that emerged focused on mindset (with self-awareness a crucial part of that), behaviours, and the importance of relationships:

Firstly, a flexible mindset and adaptable approach were most important.  Already known to be vital aspects of resilience and high performance, this was no surprise.  Simply bouncing back from adversity is no good.  That can result in an ultimately exhausting cycle of success and failure that will burn an individual out – only if an individual can really learn, grow and adapt can they deal with challenging environments effectively and reach a place where sustained (not just short-term) high performance is achievable.  Psychological flexibility means an ability to keep learning and adapting.  Within in the diplomatic setting it meant an adaptability to see projects you have been working towards for months literally blown up overnight and yet come in the next day and find a way to keep moving forward, to start from the new starting point, learn from what’s happened and keep moving on.  Living and working in Basra in 2007 was a hugely unstable time when a lot of small steps forward, whether rebuilding a school or constructing water towers, could be destroyed so much more quickly than the time taken to put these vital building blocks for a stable society in place.  Yet the only way to be effective in this environment, was to keep learning from the setbacks and finding alternative ways to move forwards, despite the many barriers and overwhelming challenges.  If not, you ended up stuck in the past and unable to think of how to move forward and finding a way to make some tiny steps of progress again.  Part of that mindset of psychological flexibility was supported by the constant growth of self-awareness, and particularly self-awareness under pressure.

Those individuals deployed on these difficult missions gave an insight into why this was important.  Most of those interviewed understood their basic psychometric profile on a ‘good day in the office’, the way they liked to work, their preferences and tendencies – but few understood how those tendencies, preferences and behaviours changed under pressure.  Yet their behaviours under pressure were what often defined their performance and were usually what others often judged them by.  This was an area they needed to understand better and then manage more successfully if they were to be able to sustain a high level of professional performance under these sorts of extraordinary pressures.

How could they develop this self-awareness, start to manage it in order to develop more effective behaviours?  It started before they went away to do this dangerous work.  They needed to have good feedback about previous behaviour under pressure – what tendencies did others see, what traits did they notice – and then to review themselves – what were the triggers, how aware were they of these changes in behaviour.  And then to start the process of working out how to build awareness of the cues and triggers and find ways to manage them.  Inevitably, this involved having a support network of friends, family and colleagues who could help with analysing past examples of behaviour under pressure, and to be able to stay in touch whilst abroad on the conflict assignment in order to help spot the early signs of these behavioural changes and help with strategies to manage them.

If not managed, then the behavioural changes affected both the individuals’ internal experience, often involved ever increasing levels of anxiety, and their external impact on others, often damaging relationships which were crucial to achieving success.  Civilians in these frontline roles depended on others if they were to achieve any level of success, and usually they needed to develop strong, trusted relationships with a range of difficult stakeholders, from international military leaders to local tribal and political leaders.

This brings us to the third element – relationships are at the heart of a diplomatic mission, and in such difficult circumstances, where there would be all sorts of cultural and political barriers, collaborative relationships needed to be built and underpinned through a genuine connection – talking on a political level was seldom sufficient to build any depth of connection which would sustain the relationship through a disagreement or challenging conversation, of which there would have to be many.  Staying self-aware was vital to their own survival as well as accessing the empathy and emotional intelligence required to build these unusual partnerships and alliances, to find things in common across all the barriers and blockages to that, and building on those common areas, however small, to create a spark of momentum in a new joined-up direction.

Often sportsmen and women can feel like they have a gun to their head when they stand on the starting line or run out onto the pitch – but looking at a world where people are literally on the frontline, close to dangers, exposed to the threat of incoming fire – can offer some useful insights into the key skills for performing when the stakes are high and the pressure is on.

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