Philadelphia is a tough town. That’s one of the things I love about it. It’s a great blue collar, bring your lunch-pail, roll your sleeves up and get things done kind of town. For an old offensive lineman like me, that is very appealing. Maybe that is why one of our fictional heroes, Rocky Balboa, resonates so well with people.
Rocky’s greatest asset was his toughness. That is why the night before his fight with Apollo Creed we hear Rocky, in a quiet moment, express both great self-awareness and his signature toughness when he says, “no one has ever gone the distance with Creed.” At that point, you just knew that he would do whatever he could to go the distance. There is a great deal of discussion about IQ and EQ in the workplace. AQ (Adversity Quotient) is generally ignored and can be one of the great indicators of success. Rocky had great AQ.
As a kid I can remember the frequent use of the word “tough.” Whether it was used to describe a friend, an adversary or myself—“toughness” was valuable, it was desirable amongst your peers and it was useful in almost every situation. In the professional arena, the idea of “toughness” is rarely used. The once valuable commodity was replaced with the desire to be intelligent, analytical or well-spoken. These characteristics, among others, dominate resumes and interviews in the professional world. Everyone wants to prove that they’re smart—no one talks about being tough. I believe it’s detrimental to overlook the importance of toughness. In the same league as IQ and EQ—AQ is one of the most important traits an employee (or you) can exhibit in the professional world.
What is Adversity Quotient?
While I’m sure there are other definitions for adversity quotient, for me, the term deals with several important aspects of a person; (A) their history of adversity and how they’ve overcome it, (B) the ability to stay level-headed in otherwise stressful situations, and (C) the ability to take blow after blow, hurdle after hurdle and still keep moving forward. An adversity quotient is how well a person operates in adverse situations.
All three of these concepts are critical aspects of a person’s AQ. As many of you know, I’ve seen a fair amount of adversity. Like many others, I have had to triumph over adversity in almost every chapter of my life. I have tried to use this adversity to make myself better, to propel myself forward. In taking my experience and watching others deal with adversity, I also learned that this reaction is purely intuitive and it cannot be taught. Some become energized with adversity and use it to accomplish something significant; for others, adversity is a set-back. It can have a crippling effect. A person’s experiences often reveal how they confront adversity—if someone has always been set back and knocked down by stressful situations, chances are they will be significantly set back by the next one. That is why I like team members who have been through “stuff.”
Why Does Adversity Quotient Matter?
History of adversity and how someone overcomes it informs one’s ability to stay level-headed and make good decisions in stressful situations. This is where we see a direct relation to the professional world. In the public sector, we have employees operating under intense situations (Situations that can impact public safety and people’s physical and emotional wellbeing). Moreover, public sector employees have to operate in these situations while under the microscope of the media, scrutinizing every move. With this stress, it’s absolutely essential to our citizens that our employees have high AQs. Without it, even day-to-day tasks would seem paralyzing. Whether it’s an important change effort that will meet great resistance or complex social challenges that are plaguing our citizens, your toughness and resolve in the face of those challenges often makes all the difference. Public service, across all levels, is not for the faint of heart. You need thick skin.
Adversity quotient has a lot to do with hiring and building your senior team. In the interview process, I try to dive as deep into an employee as I can. I want to learn about their biggest challenges, hardships overcome, and how they moved forward. This is telling. For example, I have had interviews where applicants have little or no challenges or adversity to share. Others talk about adversity, make excuses or show a negative emotional reaction to the story. Both of these instances, for me, can be evidence of a low AQ. How can I be sure that either of these applicants can operate in stressful situations? The ideal candidate speaks calmly about how he or she overcame adverse situations—proving that they are “battle-tested” (as Mayor Nutter calls it) and ready to move forward regardless.
I would like to see AQ valued, displayed and discussed more openly—I would like to hear employees talking about what they’ve been through and overcame rather than how smart they are. We need to put “tough” back in the conversation. If we can make toughness valuable again, our teams will be more resilient and more successful. As managers, we need to view AQ on the same level as IQ and EQ. As leaders, if we can do that, we will all have more teams that can go the distance.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” -Maya Angelou
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.