What’s making you fragile? (And it’s probably not what you think it is…)

I’ve been thinking about fragility a lot recently. I’ve never considered myself as fragile – I’m strong, resilient, and able to roll with the punches and take the knocks. But when an important relationship came to an unexpected end last year, well, I wouldn’t say I broke – but there were certainly some significant cracks.

So I’ve been pondering, what does it mean to be fragile? What are the consequences and implications?


What is fragile? 

When something is fragile it breaks under pressure. And pressure comes in many guises – uncertainty, change, challenge, complexity – all add pressure to our lives. Whether it’s the loss of a relationship, a new boss, new colleague, new IT system (really? again?!) or that looming project deadline, pressure surrounds us in the volatile world we live in today.  As Forrest Gump’s Mumma so wisely said, “Life is like a box of chocolates Forrest, you never know what you’re gonna get.”


Why does it matter?

There are some circumstances when being fragile isn’t an issue. When we are familiar with our context and it is safe, simple and stable our fragility is not tested or exposed, and we are ok – for now. We operate with a level of ease, but at the back of our minds perhaps, there is a niggling thought that we are working at our threshold – surviving for now – and that with any more pressure our fragility could be exposed.

And then Life Happens…

… and something significant shifts in our context – it becomes less familiar, less stable, more complex and more uncertain. And it’s not always bad. My eldest daughter started Year 10 in a new school and my youngest daughter started high school recently – both big disruptions in their lives, but ultimately (hopefully!), positive ones. It’s at times like these – when things change significantly – that our fragility is tested and we can quickly go from ‘surviving for now’ to breaking under pressure.

As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, breaking is painful. We struggle to cope with what’s being asked of us and can’t see how we have or can get access to the resources we need to survive.

fragile leadership


What makes us fragile?

Unfortunately many of the habits, systems, processes and mindsets in our modern society make us fragile. The so-called ‘Nanny State’ mentality that has removed competitive sport from schools and prevents children from playing on climbing frames for fear of injury and litigation from parents, provides too much protection. The problem is, without challenges, we become weaker and can’t cope when the inevitable failures, falls and obstacles happen. Removing too many stressors from life – like not winning at school sport – contributes to making us fragile.

The world of social media, where too much of our identity, self-concept and self-belief lies in the hands of others and how many ‘likes’ or comments our story received also makes us fragile.

And as leaders, failing to recognise our biases and ‘default’ thinking patterns; listening to the same voices with similar perspectives to our own (the ‘echo chamber’), rather than seeking diversity and healthy conflict make us – and our teams – fragile.

So what can we do?


Two things you can do today to reduce fragility:


1. Ask ‘why’?
Why am I thinking this way? Why are we doing it this way? Why are we/I doing it at all?
Asking why makes a direct connection to purpose. It helps us make rational decisions about utility of a thinking pattern, process, system or action. It helps uncover default thinking (‘that’s what we’ve always done’) and unnecessary, irrelevant and redundant systems, processes and actions (‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’).
2. Test and Learn

Playing safe makes us fragile because when failure happens, we overreact. Trying new things with a ‘test and learn’ mentality counters this. By conducting lots of small experiments across a range of areas you can learn by regularly ‘failing small’. Spreading the failing risk means that you benefit from a continual learning loop.  

For example, you might introduce one new question into your team meeting (for ideas, see point 1.) and see how it goes. You could then introduce a different new question into a project meeting and see how that goes. Then try another new question in a one-to-one with your colleague/boss/tricky team member and see how that goes.  With this ‘test and learn’ mentality you move through a learning loop in which you act, assess and adjust based on the outcomes you experience. If any of the questions ‘bomb’ that’s fine, because the experiments are independent of each other. You can take the learning from each one and apply it to the next context without taking yourself out of the game.

I’d love to know what you can see is making you (or your team) fragile and what ideas you have for reducing it. Let’s share our experiences with the learning loop and use the collective intelligence to reduce our fragility. Drop me a message here.


fragile leadership


Three leadership resources I’m loving right now

1 – Complexity often gets a bad rap and I’m a big fan of the ‘simplifying movement’, so I was interested to learn more about how complexity can be a good thing and what leaders can do to harness it for competitive advantage in this article from HBR.

2 – Another from the current edition of HBR, which highlights how important mental health support from employers is for young workers. Research by Accenture found that workers aged 18 to 30 perceived almost twice as much pressure in their lives as their more senior peers. So as leaders its important to understand how others’ experience of work may differ greatly from our own and to create time and space for understanding and empathy.   

3 – As someone who finds the story-telling side of my work a challenge (give me theory and data any day!), I loved understanding more about the neuroscience of why stories have such impact and how to do them well in this podcast from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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