Updated: Mar 3, 2021
The opposite of fragile is not resilient; it’s "anti-fragile".
We all know what fragile means. It is something that’s easily broken, delicate and must be treated with great care and caution. While we might greatly value fine objects with these qualities, such as a beautiful stained-glass window or a treasured porcelain vase, no one wants to be a fragile person.
In the quest to avoid fragility, the common wisdom is that one should develop resilience. We usually think of resilience as the ability to withstand and recover from the onslaught of life’s troubles and conflict. If the fragile person is made of porcelain, the highly resilient person is made of iron.
But is resilient really the opposite of fragile? Essayist and risk analyst Nassim Taleb says “no”.
My favorite philosophers and thinkers are not the ones who propose wholly novel concepts. As I said in the article Simple Isn’t Easy, the things that are most true in life are fairly easy to understand, but hard to practice.
Similarly, Taleb’s book, Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, proposes a simple idea and then proceeds to think through it’s challenging consequences. The idea is this:
If fragile things are damaged by stress and risk, the opposite of fragile would be a thing that is actively strengthened by exposure to stress and risk. That thing, or person, would be “anti-fragile”.
This is very different from the idea of resilience as a measure of “robustness” in the face of danger. Applied to people and relationships, fragility and resilience share a similar underlying assumption. More accurately, they share the same desire. Both the person who fears their fragility and the person who seeks to be more resilient live in opposition to forces of risk, change and uncertainty. One is easily broken. The other is more resistant to damage.
Ultimately, both fragility and resilience imply that the ideal is a steady-state of existence; an equanimity that is less disrupted by outside forces. That might not be what everyone means when they reference “resilience”, but that is often how it plays out in popular practice.
The anti-fragile person is another matter entirely. This type of personality actively strengthens under duress. The anti-fragile leader might not actually enjoy risk, but they have developed the ability to purposefully thrive under uncertain conditions that others simply seek to withstand or avoid.
Imagine that intense interpersonal conflict is a hurricane. The fragile person is broken by the storm. The resilient person stoically stands within the wind and resists the chaos. The anti-fragile person is strengthened by it and dances within the gales of uncertainty.
Leading and embracing conflict does not mean liking pain or causing conflict for its own sake. That would be abnormal and unhealthy.
However, building skill in working within conditions that naturally evoke fear and avoidance requires a mindset that actually strengthens and blooms under those conditions.
Here is some practical advice to help you go beyond the quest for resilience in leading conflict and move closer to becoming anti-fragile:
Regularly expose yourself to measured amounts of interpersonal risk. Use small opportunities every day to practice putting the leading conflict principles into action. Speak up instead of being silent in meetings and supervision. Walk down the hall and talk to the colleague with whom you’ve had a disagreement instead of sending an email or putting it off until next week.
The key here is to practice a little bit each day, but not overdo it. On a risk-scale of 1 to 10, it’s better to take regular risks between 1-5. Excessive risk-taking between 6-10 will burn you out and drive other people a little nuts. Be judicious and balanced. This will build your tolerance for risk and make interpersonal forwardness a more normal part of your life.
Ensure that your environment is wired to produce an amount of randomness. Most workplaces attempt to overly control conflicts. They might simply repress them by implying that “rocking the boat” is not welcome. These workplace cultures and leaders value peace over truth and honesty. Other organizations ensure that all conflicts are squeezed into impersonal grievance procedures that do little to help the relationship of those involved and often make the conflict between them worse by focusing on official sanctions and punishment.
Instead, encourage colleagues to address conflict more informally and organically as it happens. Reward and compliment courageous risk-taking. Thank people for bringing concerns to you directly. Insist that co-workers talk to one another directly, not through intermediaries, and certainly not via gossip and innuendo.
Accept that you cannot control the behavioral choices of others. Conflict is often avoided due to fear that the outcome will not be predictable. Here’s the rub. The choices of others are never entirely predictable. Accept it.
All that any of us really control is our own behavior and the process by which we engage others. Building those explicit behavioral habits and engagement skills is the entire point of this blog. Once you are confident in your own skills and approach to interpersonal risk, how others choose to react is really not that important. They will do what they will do. You can handle it. The world will not end.
Taking regular daily risks, encouraging colleagues to address conflict directly in the moment and accepting that all we can really control is our own behavior are the keys to going beyond resilience. These three factors will help you become a leader who thrives and strengthens in the face of conflict.
You will become anti-fragile.
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