This article was written by Jill Flint-Taylor and Alex Davda, both Ashridge Business School.
We respond to external forces that impact on the workplace in different ways. A minor knock back can weaken self-esteem in some people with a measurable impact on their performance, whilst others deal with adversity with little or no effect on their work productivity or sense of wellbeing.
Our personal resilience helps us to thrive and grow in challenging circumstances, whether we’re supporting the emergency relief effort after an earthquake in Kathmandu or facing yet another organisational restructure that puts our newly built team at risk. The good news is that research shows that resilience can be strengthened. Our ability to cope with or adapt to stressful situations or crises is not a fixed trait that is present in some people and lacking in others.
It’s now well known that resilience is not a personality characteristic, but it is still all too common for careers to be undermined by ill-informed assumptions about it. For example, someone may be overlooked for promotion because a difficult episode in their home life has led their boss to label them as “lacking in resilience”. Another person may decide not to pursue a dream career because they fear that they will never have the confidence to move outside the comfort zone of the work they are used to.
Resilient people don’t tend to dwell on failures; they acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes, and then move forward. But resilient people aren’t born with a unique ability to bounce back or forge ahead. While there are undoubtedly certain factors that give some people a head start, anyone can learn behaviours and attitudes that allow them to survive and even thrive in challenging times.
Personal resilience helps buffer the negative impact of stress and trauma in emotionally challenging jobs, such as social work or emergency services. But it is also beneficial to a huge range of people in diverse careers, across work performance, personal satisfaction and well-being. By becoming more resilient you can bring new direction and energy to your career, increase the number of interviews and job offers you receive, and find greater enjoyment in your life.
Developing personal resilience resources
Most people have an in-built potential to adapt to even the most challenging circumstances, but the shape of this differs from one person to another. Resilience is the result of a complex mix of personal qualities, attitudes and situational factors.
The ability to respond in a resilient way to life experiences is best seen as growing (or in some cases weakening) as a result of the interaction between stable individual characteristics such as personality and intellectual ability, on the one hand, and situational factors, on the other hand. It is through this interaction that people develop their personal resilience resources and develop their resilience by managing these resources better.
The following factors play an important role in resilience:
- Confidence: Positive emotions, attitudes and beliefs, and the ability to influence events positively makes people more emotionally strong. Nurture a positive view of yourself - don’t talk yourself down or focus on flaws.
- Purposefulness: Having structure, commitment and meaning in your life will make you more resilient. A clear sense of purpose and values helps assess setbacks within the framework of a broader perspective.
- Adaptability: Resilient people are flexible and adaptable to changing situations that are beyond their control. They have an acute sense of what they can – and can’t – control.
- Relationships and social support: A strong network of mutually supportive relationships is important. Take the time to check in with family, friends and colleagues and build informal and formal support networks, so that they are there when you need them.
- Problem solving skills: Working out what is happening, what to expect and how to respond helps with emotional resilience. Take a step back and think about how you approach difficult issues using objective logic.
- Self-regulation skills: Resilient people are able to manage their emotions, thoughts, motivations, and behaviours. The ability to exercise control over your emotions, behaviour and focus of attention predicts long term life success.
- Self-awareness: Recognise and develop your strengths. Reflection fosters learning, new perspectives and self-awareness to enhance your resilience.
- Mastery motivation: This is about will or drive to master new skills, to manage challenges and to persist in the face of difficulties and setbacks. Look for opportunities to improve yourself: a new challenge, social situation or interest outside work. Set goals and plan ways to reach them.
- Meaning making: Developing a personal view of what matters, and a ‘sense of coherence’ in life can help people come with stress and distressing events.
- Cultural traditions and religion: Belonging to a group or society with a shared set of beliefs, world views and practices can help strengthen resilience.
Assessing your resilience strengths
As we’ve seen, the ability to respond in a resilient way is influenced, but not determined, by personality. Some people are likely to respond in a resilient way when faced with conflict or difficult relationships, while others may become easily stressed by such problems, yet show high levels of resilience in dealing with change and uncertainty.
Also, some personality characteristics have a protective value in moderation but constitute a risk in excess. For example, anxiety may be positive to the extent that it helps to anticipate and pre-empt problems. But someone who is prone to high levels of anxiety may worry even when all is well, and this is likely to undermine their resilience.
To develop resilience you need to adopt strategies to ensure that you make the most of your strengths and actively manage your risks. The key to improving resilience is to recognise what stressors you react to, when your natural response will serve you well, and when to adapt your approach to suit the different challenges you face.
Resilience development requires effort and practice. For example, the cognitive approach to developing resilience is extremely effective. However, it is not enough to read about this way of getting a better sense of perspective on your problems. The approach involves learning to identify unduly negative beliefs, check them out against the evidence, and replace them with thinking that is more positive and realistic. But it only works for those who invest the time and effort in applying the technique.
The winning resilience training format is not a short, sharp “resilience workshop”, but involves several sessions with “homework” in between to practice techniques. Raising resilience takes time and effort, as it often involves a conscious effort to change negative thinking patterns and other bad habits that we all fall into over-time.
Case study – developing resilience
A key part of resilience is developing self-awareness and recognising key strengths. Senior Government Adviser, Mia, was a highly valued technical expert who had progressed rapidly to a position of significant responsibility. She wanted to take the next step up and had applied for senior management positions, but had not made it through the first.
Then, 1-1 coaching sessions revealed that she was inclined to attribute prior successes to her technical skills and knowledge. However, many of her successes were actually owed to widely relevant skills, such as her ability to get up to speed quickly with unfamiliar information and her empathic way of appreciating other people’s perspectives.
Mia’s coach showed her how to use cognitive-behavioural techniques to identify and challenge these unhelpful and inaccurate assumptions. Her enhanced self-belief came through in the confident way she spoke about her achievements and experience during subsequent interviews, and she was soon promoted.
Resilience is a complex process, not a fixed trait, and it can be developed throughout adulthood, with far-reaching benefits for personal wellbeing, career satisfaction and success. By understanding more about how you cope with pressure and learning new techniques, you can raise your resilience to the next level.
This article is based on the chapter ‘Understanding and developing personal resilience’ from the book Flourishing in Life, Work and Careers: Individual Wellbeing and Career Experiences (Edward Elgar Publishing: 2015)