Life is making us anxious. A Google search for the hoary phrase “today’s fast-moving world” yields over 56,000 hits on my PC, and this relentless pace of change brings with it huge challenges, from cyber-attacks and disruptive competitors at a corporate level, to rising stress levels and fears of obsolescence on a personal level. And that’s not to mention the economy or the geopolitical landscape …
It is in this sort of climate that the psychological concept of personal resilience—a sort of individual analogue to the better-established management concept of business agility—is gaining ground today, and with it the promise of an attitude or skillset to navigate this very contemporary sense of the world’s overwhelming, protean complexity. On the back of books such as “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth, and “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life” by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, the concept seems to be replacing mindfulness as the personal development topic du jour.
So if you start to receive a slew of resilience training requests from line managers, what are they actually asking for? And are we looking at a personal development fad, or something that can make a meaningful business impact?
Towards A Definition
Resilience can be seen as our capacity “to mount and then sustain an adaptive response, and, in cases of optimum resilience, to grow from the stressful experience,” said John Reich, emeritus professor of psychology and co-editor of “The Handbook of Adult Resilience.” “Resilience is about learning to survive and thrive in the face of hardship and adversity,” said Justin McCarron, a business resilience specialist who is currently designing a corporate programme for trainers Edison Red. “In that sense, it’s the art of living—it’s the essence of being alive.”
Many of the popular accounts of the concept present this dual idea—that resilience is both the dealing with, and the learning from, the challenges we face. As Greitens puts it in his book, it’s not so much about bouncing back as it is about learning to move through.
Former US Navy Seal, Greitens draws on learnings from those who have endured extreme experiences, not least his own, and also a wide range of thinkers, ancient and modern, from Seneca to F Scott Fitzgerald. He prescribes a range of practices to build resilience, including finding a mentor, confronting your own inner hurt, developing a sense of vocation, and practising compassion.
And if people can show resilience in stressful situations, the thinking goes, why not help equip people with the skills and attitudes required to meet challenges resiliently before we’re actually put to the test? Why not help individuals—or organisations—develop an attitude of resilience?
Resilience work in businesses tends to be very bespoke in nature, said McCarron. “Typically, I might do a self-assessment exercise at the start of a session, to get a sense of where people are at and what their challenges are.
“Then, as part of the work, I’ll suggest a range of tools and activities designed to help people in their situation. The most important skill to develop is the ability to focus our attention on what we can control in our lives, and to let go of what we can’t control or influence. To that extent, resilience is a learnable mindset.
“Ideally, the programme would take place over several sessions over an extended time frame, so we can set homework exercises and support people as they work to achieve the goals they have committed to.”
What kind of homework? “It might be getting someone to compile a gratitude list, or take up an activity that’s way outside of their comfort zone. It might be getting a manager to practise giving team members recognition and praise effectively. Or for someone who’s afraid of rejection in their work, it might be them asking for things that they’re bound to get a ‘No’ to—for example, asking a shop to gift-wrap your groceries! In this way, you’re manufacturing a situation where something goes wrong, so you can practise how you deal with it before the real challenge comes up.”
The Evolution Of A Concept
The idea of resilience dates back to the 1980s, said Reich, to a time when psychology began to move away from a “medical model” of therapies as the cure for illness, to a more proactive model looking at ways to optimise personal well-being and development.
“Researchers began studying risk factors in children’s growth, such as poverty, family disruptions, and psychiatric history of family members,” he said—with surprising results. “Children exposed to these risk factors were not showing the expected signs of dysfunctional adaptation and stunted growth. Positive developmental trends over the lifespan were, in fact, appearing at a high rate, equalling ‘normal’ healthy patterns of development.”
Faced with stressful triggers, in other words, these children found ways to withstand and grow from the experience, not be bowed down by it. They somehow learnt resilience.