What is ‘Resilience’?

Resilience sounds like a compelling attribute to have…

A basic definition:  resilience means the ability to withstand external pressure and the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty or discomfort. 

We questioned: ‘How does it translate into a professional, high-performance context?’ 

Resilience seems to be widely considered as a positive character attribute to have in the workplace, something recruitment teams are looking for evidence of (particularly in light of current disruptive and transitioning working practices).  Reward and recognition systems reference an individuals’ ability to remain resilient when faced with unsettling challenges and obstacles at work.  It’s almost worn as a badge of honour…. 

We hear mention of:  

  • having a hard shell or being thick skinned 
  • how the effect of negative experiences or unpleasant remarks is like water off a duck’s back 
  • gritting teeth and facing the storm 
  • getting knocked down but standing up again to re-face the attack/challenge/obstacle 
  • remaining focussed and logical, not allowing negative thoughts, emotions or doubts to seep in 

So then, is Resilience in the workplace about being stoic or ‘hardening up’? 

What about these phrases, could resilient characteristics feature here? 

  • tirelessly beating one’s head against a brick wall 
  • flogging a dead horse 
  • persistence in the face of a continuous attack 
  • remaining stoic while enduring constant pain or misery 
  • resiliently grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory 
  • fighting a losing battle 

Although resilience is most certainly about inner strength, we believe it’s not simply about keeping a stoic profile

In an HBR article that cites an independent survey of 835 employees, resilience was defined by most surveyed as:  the ability to recover from setbacks and keep going in the face of adversity, as well as being able to adapt well to change. (HBR, “What Resilience Means and Why it Matters”, Andrea Ovans, 05 January 2015). 

As a standalone attribute, resilience sounds compelling.  But when the ever-changing external environment in which it is deployed is considered, it feels that resilience must be mixed with other, equally compelling skills for it to be effective: 

  • If Resilience is the ability to keep going, the question is ‘to keep going until when, or what?’  What is Resilience without an Objective? 
  • Developing the skill to set clear Objectives must then come before the need for Resilience, right?  But, what is an Objective without a Purpose? 
  • Understanding the Purpose, the ‘Why’ behind our Objectives provides clarity of motive, and it’s motivation that compels humans to act.   

So, is resilience more of a proactive strategy, rather than a defensive action?  If resilience is defined by both outlook and response, an adaptive mode of thinking, could it be referred to as a ‘skill’ rather than simply a quality or characteristic? 

What about at organisation level?  Resilience isn’t just valued in individuals as an attribute or skill, teams and businesses are also not immune to uncertainty, instability and disruption… 

The 2021 Deloitte Global resilience report referenced five traits of resilience to help organisations thrive under uncomfortable and disruptive conditions: 

  • Adaptable – a versatile workforce is said to be most critical to an organisation’s future (IQ and EQ are well researched, we now have AQ, adaptability quotient) 
  • Prepared – plan for eventualities, develop both short and long-term priorities 
  • Collaborative – remove silos and increase collaboration to speed up decision making, mitigate risk and increase innovation 
  • Trustworthy – focus on improving communication and transparency with key stakeholders, as well as leading with empathy 
  • Responsible – understand responsibilities beyond the bottom-line, balancing all stakeholders needs helps organisations to quickly adapt and pivot in response to disruptive events 

Building a coaching culture has also become a business imperative for developing resilience in organisations (and a competitive advantage when attracting and retaining talent).  A coaching culture develops clarity of purpose and fine-tunes objectives, and then gets to work on the skills and attributes required to stay the distance and adapt where needed.  

A coaching culture helps to tackle challenges, adversity, potential burnout and attrition, creating a constructive environment in which valuable learning is drawn from both setbacks and successes.  Employees are empowered to take ownership and become their own resilient resource, helping to rewire minds to embrace discomfort, to acknowledge that difficulty is an expected function of moving forward.   

Individuals, teams and organisations can’t be sure that they are truly resilient until they are tested by adversity (a fundamental lesson that the pandemic brought home): resilience is as much about thinking ahead as it is about doing what it takes to respond and recover from an immediate crisis. 

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