When we imagine resilience, various images come to mind. You might think of a mountain climber surviving despite freakish weather and equipment failure, or a person who has experienced significant disadvantage from a young age and who perseveres against the odds. Perhaps you imagine an army drill sergeant shouting insults at recruits to toughen them up!
What is Resilience?
Resilience is not a new idea. It was first used to talk about an ecosystem’s ability to recover quickly after a shock or a disturbance. The term has gained popularity in psychology, international development, business and self-help.
Resilience is generally understood to mean the capacity to experience trauma or significant challenge without being permanently affected by it, by finding the means to recover equilibrium and stability. We tend to think of resilience as being the ability to endure pain, sadness, change, shock, setbacks or disappointments, and then to adapt and bounce back.
It’s not that the challenges we experience don’t affect us – it’s that we are able to withstand them, and emerge at the other end with better understanding, strength, and even self-confidence.
According to Conner and Davidson (2003), who developed the Resilience Scale, resilient people have certain characteristics. Among other things, resilient people are more able to:
- Adapt to change
- Develop close and secure relationships
- Use past success as a source of confidence for new challenge
- See the humorous side of things
- Believe that things happen for a reason
- Know where to turn for help
- Focus and think clearly when under pressure
- Take the lead in problem-solving
- Make unpopular or difficult decisions
- Have a strong sense of purpose
Psychology research has also demonstrated that resilience is relative and can depend on the situation the person is in. It’s possible to be very resilient in the workplace, but less resilient in personal relationships. Also, resilience can change over time depending on the person’s interactions and the environment around them.
Fundamentally, it is difficult to be resilient when you are burned-out, overworked or sick. Physical self-care is an important precondition to developing physical hardiness and the ability to bounce back.
Is Resilience ‘Inherent’ in People?
Stress and adversity are unavoidable in the workplace. We push ourselves to achieve, and our employer sets ‘stretch targets’ and takes risks. Projects don’t always go to plan, and competition is rife is every industry.
Can we teach our employees to be more resilient, to endure these challenges and become even more effective and actualised through those negative experiences? Or is ‘resilience’ a trait that you’re born with, or forge at a young age when faced with trauma?
The good news is that, while some people are inherently emotionally tougher, a person can choose to develop their own resilience. The more that is learned about resilience, the more potential there is for integrating the relevant skills and mindsets into relevant areas of life.
This means that employers can provide opportunities for people to practice the behaviours, thoughts and actions that will enable employees to tap into their inner strength when they need it.
9 Things Employers Can Do to Build Resilience in Individuals and in Teams
1. Remind employees that the setbacks that they are facing now are temporary. They have adapted, overcome challenges and solved problems in the past – and they can do it again.
2. After a crisis or failure, encourage employees to be honest about the causes and to learn from those negative experiences. Give them the time they need to reflect and de-brief when something doesn’t go well. Hopefully, next time they won’t keep trying to solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.
3. Deepen and strengthen working relationships within teams. Resilient people maintain supportive and strong relationships – these relationships make them more connected with each other every day, and also gives them a network of understanding and trusted people around them in times of crisis.
4. Connect employees with the meaning and purpose of their work. Remind employees of the organisation’s value system. Give them opportunities to think about what the organisation’s values mean to them, and how they help to interpret and shape events. Resilient people have been found to have a strong “personal why” or purpose for their work. Researchers agree that this dynamic of meaning-making is how resilient people build bridges from present-day adversity to a more positive future.
5. Leaders should model optimism coupled with a strong sense of reality. Maintain a motivating sense of possibility and vision, but be down-to-earth about what we need to achieve. By ‘staring down reality’, we prepare ourselves to act in ways that allow us to endure.
6. Teach employees that the qualities that they need to succeed can be learned and developed – they are not ‘fixed’. If you decide that you can learn the skills and characteristics you need to achieve, you will.
7. Don’t overlook the importance of good sleep, nutrition, hydration and exercise – these are precursors of sustained resilience. Employers can offer discounts to exercise classes, or encourage staff to ‘take the stairs’ instead of the lift. Watch for the signs of unhealthy workloads, and manage working hours for long-term, sustainable output.
8. Teach employees good communication skills. The ability to have difficult conversations will help them to express themselves in constructive ways, to build relationships and to manage their emotional impulses in a healthy manner.
9. Strengthen their Relaxation Response and teach them to calm their minds. Consider giving employees opportunities for yoga or meditation.
Key take-away for employers
Don’t assume that ‘the toughest survive’ and the rest will self-select and look for jobs elsewhere. If you want your employees to be resilient, to overcome hurdles and to be robust under conditions of stress and change, you need to teach them how. Give them opportunities to develop and practice the skills, mindsets and outlook necessary for resilience.