What Small Business Owners Can Learn from the Army’s Master Resilience Training

Develop your mental toughness, identify your strengths, and build your relationships.

September 22, 2021

When you’re a small business owner, you face a lot of challenges throughout the day.  You have things that you want to accomplish, but you have limited time, money, people, and resources to accomplish those goals.  Sometimes you feel like you never have enough hours in the day, cash in the bank account, employees, or equipment to do everything that you need to do to satisfy all of your customers’ demands.  And the enemy, the competition, is always out there looking to capitalize on your strengths.

How you achieve your goals with limited resources is the basis of all strategic thinking, and we’re going to have a lot more to say about strategy in this space in the future.  But today we want to say something about what being in that position, having limited resources to tackle challenges, can do to your frame of mind and what you can do to respond.

In a small business, the stakes can be high.  The success of your business is on the line every day, and that means that your livelihood and those of your family, your employees, and their families are on the line, too.  Those stakes plus the frustration that comes with having limited resources can cause a lot of stress.  And whenever you experience failure, as we all inevitably do, that stress can multiply the negative feelings that we feel as a result.  Negativity is terrible because too much of it can lead to a downward spiral, so we want to avoid it at all costs.

Handling all of that requires resilience, and fortunately, the level of resilience you have isn’t a fixed concept.  You can actually grow it.  To see how, we’re going to steal a page from the U.S. Army’s Mental Resilience Training.  Soldiers deal all the time with the challenge of achieving goals with limited resources, and in combat, the stakes and the possible consequences for the lives of others are high.  (In the extreme, to say the least.)  So sadly, it’s no surprise that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide are tragically high.

To deal with these very real problems, the Army’s MRT training focuses on helping soldiers build their resilience by developing their mental toughness, identifying their strengths and those of their team members, and strengthening their relationships, both inside the Army and on the outside.  While we may never find ourselves in such extreme circumstances, we can all learn a lesson from those practices.  While we can’t cover a whole course in a single blog post, below are just a few of the specific action items that you can take away from the Army’s MRT training to boost your resilience and that of your team:

1. Manage your energy levels.

Everything is harder if you just don’t have enough energy.  So make sure that you make a concerted effort to recharge on a regular basis.  Get enough sleep each night (or as many nights a week as you can).  Exercise on a regular basis.  Even if it’s just going for a walk when you feel frustrated.  Eat right.  We all reach for a slice of pizza now and then, but the more we can limit the unhealthy foods, the better we’ll feel.  When you make these changes and stick to these better habits, your energy levels will be higher, which will put you in a slightly better position to handle the trials and tribulations that come along on a daily basis.

2. Anticipate the things that are likely to get you down.

Challenges and setbacks in a small business are inevitable, and their timing may be unpredictable, but fortunately, the types of challenges and setbacks aren’t entirely unpredictable.  By virtue of living your small business, you probably already know where the weak spots are and what kind of negative shocks your business is the most sensitive to.  That might mean unreliable suppliers, an angry or irate customer, or employees calling in sick.  Even though you can’t predict when those problems might arise, if you know what those things are, then you can plan in advance for how you’re going to respond to them.  And then when they happen, you’ll already have your plan for dealing with them, which will make them seem easier and less taxing to handle.

3. Minimize catastrophic thinking and counterproductive thoughts.

Don’t overdue that last one, though.  If you focus too much on the downsides, then sometimes that can cause you to ruminate on absolute worst-case scenarios.  People who succumb to this kind of catastrophic thinking end up becoming paralyzed in inaction.  They can’t focus on what they need to do because they’re worrying about a parade of horribles that probably doesn’t even exist.  That inaction tends to make other situations worse, and now that person starts living in a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity.

Stay away from that.  If you find yourself ruminating on bad things that have happened or that could happen, then recognize that you need to interrupt those thoughts.  Remind yourself that it’s never as bad as you think.  Try focusing on the best case scenarios, even if they’re unrealistic, as a way to snap out of it.  Then focus on the most realistic scenarios that are probably the in-between cases and develop a realistic plan for dealing with them.

4. Identify your own strengths and those of your team.

Everyone does something well, including you and every member of your team.  If you haven’t thought about what those strengths are, then you almost certainly aren’t taking full advantage of them and are leaving money on the table.  Make an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and those of your team members.  Figure out what each person does well and then think about how you can make sure that they focus on activities that utilize their strengths.  And if one team member’s strengths can compensate for another team member’s weaknesses, then think consciously about how you can ensure that that happens.

5. Make an effort to feel gratitude.

Gratitude is super undervalued.  And we don’t mean just saying thank you to someone.  We mean actually and genuinely feeling gratitude for the things we have in life that are good.  Spend some time thinking about those things for which we should be grateful.  Doing so has a pretty neat side-effect:  It redirects you away from negative thoughts and makes you more optimistic about life in general.  Boom!  Instant positive attitude.  And you’re always going to be more effective at any task in front of you if you’re more optimistic.

6. Give credit where credit is due.

Okay, now that you have all the feels from gratitude, now you can start saying it to other people.  (Yes, we probably could’ve lumped this one in with gratitude, but then we wouldn’t have nice list with a round number of ten items...)  People love to be appreciated.  People love even more to be appreciated publicly in front of others.  When a team member does something well, make sure that you tell them that you appreciate it.  Even better, do it in front of other team members.  That public recognition makes people feel valued, gives them a sense of meaning in their daily activities, however unglamorous they may be, signals that they should do the same thing in the future, and lets other team members know that effective behavior gets rewarded.  Lots of wins here.

7. Identify employees struggling with resilience.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link.  But that doesn’t mean immediately getting rid of the weakest link.  If you do, then someone else will immediately become the weakest link.  Focus instead on how you can strengthen the weakest link.  Which team member responds the most negatively to challenges and setbacks in your business?  Spend some time with that team member to help them improve how they handle that situation.  You’ll end up turning a negative into a positive, which never hurt anyone’s return on investment.

8. Focus on building relationships.

All businesses involve relationships, both inside the business and outside.  Inside your business, you have relationships with your employees, and outside your business, you have relationships with customers, suppliers, and other members of your network.  Don’t let those relationships decay.  Like all assets, you have to keep investing in them to keep getting value out of them.  Take a genuine interest in your employees’ lives.  Do the same with your customers and your suppliers.  People respond well when others show them some basic humanity, so don’t forget to do so just because you’re busy.  If you’re going to spend time doing business with people, then you’ll enjoy it more if you can build positive relationships and even friendships with them.  And those stronger relationships will make it easier to handle inevitable setbacks and rough spots.

9. Set goals.

Goals are sneaky little things.  You’ve probably heard of the acronym SMART goals.  They’re ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.  The reason why it’s good to follow these guidelines in setting goals is that these types of goals have a way of motivating people.  That goes for both you and your employees.  Set SMART goals for yourself and get your employees to set SMART goals for themselves and you’ll see more motivation all around.  And as you achieve more goals over time, you’ll also get a sense of satisfaction that comes from the achievement.  Use it to create a virtuous upward spiral!

10. Visualize success.

Coaches use this in sports all the time.  Here’s how it works:  Think about what you want to accomplish in the future.  Imagine what success looks like, and then imagine the steps required to get you there.  Hint:  It’s going to require getting over the stumbling blocks in the way.  Anticipating those stumbling blocks will actually help you clear them because you’ve thought about them in advance, and that’ll help you develop plans for them.  That preparation is a key to success.

But visualizing success also works in reverse, too.  After closing out a major success, think about the things that you did well and visualize them.  That will help you identify what enabled you to achieve that success.  Identifying what aspects of preparation and performance led to success will help you recreate it again.