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Developing personal resilience for career success

How can you best develop your personal resilience in testing times?

Resilience is a critical attribute for leaders when dealing with issues such as challenging projects, conflict among colleagues, organisational politics and criticism in their job.

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.

While there are 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 wide 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

The ability to respond in a resilient way to life experiences is best seen 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.

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 – do not 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 cannot – 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 predicates 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 the will or drive to master new skills, to manage challenges and to persist in the face of difficulties and setbacks. Set goals and plan ways to reach them.

Assessing your resilience strengths

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.

To develop resilience you need to adopt strategies to ensure that you make the most of your strengths and actively manage 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. It involves learning to identify unduly negative beliefs, check them out against the evidence, and replace them with thinking that is more positive and realistic. However, you need to work hard on applying it – it is not enough just to read about it.

The winning resilience training format is not a short, sharp “resilience workshop”, but involves several sessions with “homework” in between to practise 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

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 stages.

Then, 1:1 coaching sessions revealed that she was inclined to attribute previous successes to her technical skills and knowledge. However, many of her successes were actually owed to different 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.

Jill Flint-Taylor and Alex Davda are from Ashridge Business School


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)