Build your Skills: Resilience

Resilience is one of the topics that has been “hot” in the recent HR Congress I attended in Nice. Technically it is challenging to define Resilience as a Skill, as it is something more complicated than a pure competence. Many different factors dial in creating Resilience, and I want to dedicate some time to give some glimpses on this.

Resilience: a Definition

In simple words, Resilience is the ability of a person to adapt to changing circumstances and to bounce back from challenges and stress. Resilience is the ‘rubber ball’ factor: the ability to bounce back in the event of adversity.

A resilient person has the ability to cope with and rise to the inevitable challenges, problems and set-backs met in the course of life, getting strengthened from these. But Resilience is often more about you recharge as an individual, not how you endure.

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good

Elizabeth Edwards, Resilience

Why is Resilience important in the workplace?

Resilience is a unifying paradigm between our work life and our private sphere. Sometimes there are confusions between Resilience and similar terms that are more strictly work-related.

First of all, it’s not to be confused to Mental Toughness which is a personality trait that explains how a person deals with stress. This has been a characteristic for long term admired in many roles at work, and especially in senior managers. Although a relationship with Resilience can be easily seen, there is not a perfect match.

Also, often, people confuse Resilience with Grit. In this case, the most significant difference is in the time horizon: grit refers to the “tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long term goals”. Set-backs can be part of this, but not only.

In modern workplaces, Resilience is vital because of the elevated rate of change. People are asked to change continually. A process that is not always easy. Moreover, in a holistic view of our lives, Resilience allows us to bring balance on the energy inputs in our private and professional lives. How often do we let the negative of one “spill” into the other?

Fig.1: Sisyphus is a mythological symbol of Resilience. Franz Von Stuck, Sisyphus, 1920.

Understanding it

Four layers allow us to understand our levels of Resilience. First of all, comes Awareness – noticing what is going on around you and inside your head. Second is Thinking – being able to interpret the events that are going on rationally. The third step is Reaching out – how we call upon others to help us meet challenges that we face: Resilience is also about knowing when to ask for help. Finally, it is about Fitness – which is our mental and physical ability to cope with the challenges without affecting our health.

The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again. This conclusion is based on biology, which talks of the concept of “Homeostasis” when it describes the ability of the brain to continuously restore well-being. But this needs to be balanced: you can’t act too much in the Performing Zone, you need rest to avoid burnout. Sleep, for example, becomes a critical factor in enabling us to recover.

Measuring it

In 1997 Paul Stoltz wrote a pioneering book on the topic of Adversity Quotient. AQ is a score that measures the ability of a person to deal with adversities in his life. Which somehow gave it the name of Resilience Science

A test based on Paul Stoltz work is available online. Or you can check Peak Learning, a consulting firm specialised in AQ and Grit, who can offer assessments for a fee. 

Organisational Resilience

If Resilience is associated at an individual level, it is also becoming more and more relevant for entire organisations. In the wake of continuous change, organisations need to build in the capability to evolve and change continually, and Resilience becomes a key component. Building a test and learn culture, for example, means creating conditions for Resilience. 

Fig. 2: Bamboo is often used as a symbol for Resilience. It is robust and flexible at the same time.

If you’re trying to build resilience at work, you need adequate internal and external recovery periods. These are defined in a 2014 paper by Zijlstra, Cropley and Rydstedt: “Internal recovery refers to the shorter periods of relaxation that take place within the frames of the workday or the work setting in the form of short scheduled or unscheduled breaks, by shifting attention or changing to other work tasks when the mental or physical resources required for the initial task are temporarily depleted or exhausted. External recovery refers to actions that take place outside of work—e.g. in the free time between the workdays, and during weekends, holidays or vacations.” Our brains need a rest as much as our bodies do.

How to Build Resilience

There are multiple ways to build Resilience, but to understand what can work for you, here there are five questions that allow us to know how our resilience levels work:

  1. Do I operate from the inside out? Most people feel they are always victims of external circumstances. Highly resilient people instead take ownership of their life, amplifying their own “area of influence” and projecting it to the outside. My first mentor, Franco D’Egidio, described these people as having the sun within
  2. Do I choose to Wonder over Worry? Again, most people tend to worry when the unknown happens. Faced by change, they tend to gravitate in what is called “negative bias“. Highly resilient people instead challenge this habit by choosing “wonder over worry” as Amber Rae describes. They display curiosity to what is new and use this key to understand what’s happening.
  3. Do I embrace failure? Most people tend to flee from set-backs, avoiding failures. Highly Resilient people instead tend to focus on the learning outcome of each situation, including and above all faults. 
  4. Am I comfortable with the uncomfortable? If there’s one thing that our society seems to strive for is comfort. Yet, our bodies are made to let a certain level of stress settle in to produce excellent and positive results. Highly resilient people can balance their stress levels, getting uncomfortable up to the degree that is still healthy for us.
  5. Do I have a clear sense of meaning? Purpose, again, becomes a unifying element. A lot of people don’ understand the drivers of their intrinsic motivation, and this creates issues as they sometimes engage in activities that are stressful simply because they are distant from their positive energy drivers. On the contrary, highly resilient people have clear motivation drivers and a clear sense of meaning, that allows them to stay on course also during tough times.

The above is built upon the so-called five pillars of Resilience, which acts as real “anchors” to develop this skillset. 

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Self-Care
  4. Positive Relationship
  5. Purpose

Positive Relationships

An aspect that is key to strengthening Resilience is building a network of positive relationships. Here we don’t talk of social networks, but real human relationshipsTrust me: it’s an introvert that tells this!

No man is an island

John Donne, Meditation XVII

In severe time the possibility to have an anchor point in a person is critical. Spouse, partner, family member, colleague, manager, friends…. any person can be useful, provided she is already part of our network of positive relationships. We will be demanding a “positive energy refill”, thus we need to be aware of the balance of her/his energy levels.

How to help others

Building resilience is not easy if a person does not come “equipped” with at least some personality traits. However, it is possible to create conditions for Resilience to develop. First of all, by focusing on the appropriate supporting skills (we have seen Curiosity and Learning Agility already). A second moment is to make room for the development of positive relationships within the team. This will ensure that people will find support when needed.

I know, many managers feel that their collaborator should come to them whenever there is an issue. Unfortunately, this does not always happen, despite good intentions. I think that leader that can help developing Resilience are those that display Authenticity and do open up themselves, for example, telling stories on how they faced difficult situations, without downplaying on the consequences of this.

Above all, leaders need to ensure the psychological safety of their team’s environments. If people feel they will be punished for their errors or opening up, Resilience will find a difficult time to be built. 

Let’s check this up

Let’s see how your levels of Resilience applied in the past. Here are some guiding questions that can help figure out your level of Resilience. Think about your past week and identify a moment of personal failure. It can be anything, small or big, happening at work or outside.

  1. How did you feel about it? What emotions have characterised that moment?
  2. What did you do about it? Where you able to plan an immediate action? Or where you “frozen” for a while?
  3. Di you start to worry about what other people might be thinking of what has happened?
  4. Did you try to reframe the issue, and learn something from it?
  5. Did you try to find some help? Did you speak with someone about this?
  6. Did you help somebody who has been facing a tough situation? How did you react?

And you? What do you think about Resilience?

What Skills for the Future of Work?

This post is part of a series of articles on Skills and Competencies required to succeed in the Future of Work. Read the main article, and access all the other available posts.

Cover Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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