Five steps to personal resilience

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Only learning to adapt by looking after your own resilience will put you in a position to help others through change

Why do some people appear to adapt to stressful situations better than others? Why do some recover from adverse experiences when others don’t, and cope with high work demands more successfully? And why do some seem to deal better with change?

This is the topic of resilience. Five or six years ago, the subject filled the shelves of bookshops everywhere. Then it seemed that resilience might just be another management fad, a rebranding of stress management. Interest in the subject, however, has not waned and leaders and HR professionals alike are wondering how best to thrive in our complex and turbulent world.

Myths about resilience

The term ‘resilience’ can bring to mind some unhelpful myths. These include:

  • You are either resilient or you are not

There is a tendency to label individuals as resilient or not. While there is research to suggest that we may all differ to some extent in our relative vulnerability to stress (as a result of our genetic inheritance), there is growing evidence that resilience is a dynamic and interactive process. In other words, we can, by our own actions and how we engage with our environment, influence our level of resilience. Current estimates would suggest that 50%-70% of our behaviour is the result of how we engage with the world around us.

Our capacity for resilience also varies across time and space. We are likely to be more resilient in some areas and times of our lives than we are in others. It can be instructive for one’s self-development to reflect on times when we have been resilient and to ask ourselves what we did that helped us in the face of challenging circumstances. This can help us connect with our capabilities for resilience.

  • Resilience as invulnerability

Resilience can also sometimes be characterised in popular discourse as some form of superhuman strength; that someone is, in a sense, unbreakable, incapable of being hurt. This is unhelpful. It runs contrary to the vulnerability of human nature and does not allow for recognising, accepting and managing our emotions. Anyone fitting this description of the superman or woman impregnable to attack is likely to be either a psychopath or in danger of derailing as a result of suppressed emotions.

  • Resilience is about bouncing back

A further unhelpful myth is that of resilience as bouncing back. Resilience can take many shapes, and in some circumstances this may mean returning to previous levels of functioning after a period of difficulty – resilience can also be about transformational growth, a felt sense of greater purpose, strength or investment in life as a result of experiencing significant challenge or adversity. Richard Tedeschi’s work on post-traumatic growth theory has outlined several ways in which individuals encountering adversity report a sense of greater meaning and value in life, work and personal relations.

A new resilience model

Based on an extensive review of the academic literature from fields as diverse as developmental psychology and neuroscience, and a survey of more than 1,000 managers, we at Roffey Park have developed a statistically robust model of resilience built on five key capabilities.

We outline these five dimensions of the resilience model below, and offer some questions and practical tips to aid individuals in thinking about their own resilience. We have also made available a Resilience Capability Index (RCI) that employees can complete to assess their current resilience capability across the five dimensions of our model. Our intention is to help leaders, and those they lead, to be aware of and develop their own potential for resilience.


Five key resilience capabilities

1. Perspective

Leaders exhibiting resilience are able to take a step back from a challenging situation and accept its negative aspects while finding opportunity and meaning in the midst of adversity. Finding opportunity spurs active striving, the setting of goals and the taking of action to achieve them. Perspective-taking expands choice options, empowering rather than disabling. The act of gaining perspective allows resilient people to focus their efforts on those things they can change and accept those things they cannot.

Our survey shows many may struggle with this. A third disagreed that ‘nothing at work ever fazes me for long’; but just over half (56%) agreed that when things go wrong at work, ‘it tends to overshadow other aspects of my life’.

2. Emotional intelligence

Being aware of, understanding and regulating our emotions is essential to resilience – not being overtaken by our emotions but allowing time to process them. Resilient leaders are also aware of emotions and needs in others and are free and willing in the support they give. Helping others without explicit benefit to themselves, they care for and

are compassionate towards others. Substantial scientific evidence has demonstrated the link between altruism and wellbeing. Evidence from anthropology has suggested an increased ‘survival value’ to altruism, with more altruistic members of certain tribes enjoying enhanced reputation and power as a result of helping others.

3. Purpose, values and strengths

Having a clear sense of purpose in our work, a belief that the work that we do is congruent with our personal values and plays to our strengths are vital to resilience at work. Holding a clear sense of our values and ‘moral compass’ help us to keep centred when all around there is change.

A study by Cresswell et al showed that personal values can help to act as a buffer against physiological and psychological stress. The study found that college students who reflected on and affirmed their most important personal values prior to a stressful laboratory test had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who reflected on and affirmed values that were not important to them. Encouragingly, nine in 10 employees in our survey considered their work to be congruent with their personal values, and three-quarters felt it helped them fulfil a sense of purpose in life.

4. Connections

Leaders who are able to stay resilient in challenging times have a wide network of friends and colleagues to draw on, both to get things done and to provide support. Connections are not only one way, however, and there is a great deal of evidence to support the notion that helping others gives us strength. Four-fifths of employees in our survey said they had a strong and reliable network of colleagues at work. This does still leave a fifth feeling that they could do more to enhance their capacity for resilience in this area, however.

5. Managing physical energy

Keeping physically fit, eating well, and giving ourselves the time away from work to engage in activities we enjoy enable us to maintain our energy levels. Of all the resilience capabilities, this was the one that left our respondents feeling the least positive. It is also, potentially, the capability with the biggest bang for its buck in terms of building resilience. Just over half (51%) of the employees we surveyed reported not taking sufficient breaks to maintain their strength and energy when working.

Dan Lucy is head of research at Roffey Park Management Institute

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