What Exactly Is Resilience and Why Should You Care?

bigstock-Resilience-Road-Sign-3363000-11Have you noticed how common it is these days for ‘resilience' to be mentioned in articles or discussions about what makes a business successful?

If you have, you may be wondering what exactly people are referring to, since everyone seems to have their own take on the subject.

It's clear that the pressures we all face are likely to become more – rather than less – challenging in future. So let’s have a closer look at the meaning of resilience. This will leave you better placed to take advantage of some of the new and exciting work in this area.

What is Resilience?

As someone who’s been involved in resilience development for many years, I find now more than ever I’m asked “What do you mean by resilience?” This can be surprising, seeing as it’s an everyday term that most people can put into a meaningful sentence without any problem.

Clearly they’re not asking because they have a poor grasp of the English language. Rather, they’re keen to flush out the details of different “expert” views of resilience – so that they can evaluate the practical benefits for themselves.

It’s fair to say that in any discussion of resilience there’s nearly always an element of being able to ‘bounce back' from setbacks and survive in tough conditions.

This is as true in the scientific definitions as it is in everyday language. Beyond this, however, there are some important differences in the way people see resilience.

To start with, how you define resilience depends, of course, on whether you’re talking about people, plants, technology or environments etc. Within a business context, there are three main players – organisations, teams and individuals.

Organisational Resilience

At the organisational level, resilience-building often refers to disaster planning, where the emphasis is on technology and other business-critical systems and processes.

It can also refer to the management of personnel risks, e.g. through succession planning, key worker retention, the assessment of employee integrity and even the improvement of employee engagement.

Clearly, management is ultimately responsible for developing and maintaining organisational resilience.

Team Resilience

At the team level, resilience is often taken to mean the collective resilience of the individual team members. The implication here is that creating a resilient team requires you to select tough individuals, and/or improve the resilience of existing team members.

Many programmes that offer to improve team resilience take this approach – i.e. they focus on improving the personal resilience of individual team members.

We take a different view of team resilience. Certainly, helping individuals to boost their personal resilience is always a good thing, but we believe the emphasis should be on creating the right climate and conditions – equipping the team as a whole to bounce back and thrive under pressure in the process.

So, for example, building strong, collaborative relationships might not have a permanent effect on the personal resilience of team members, but it is certainly likely to increase the team’s ability to cope with tough times.

Here again the primary responsibility lies with management, although every member of the team needs to play their part too of course.

Personal Resilience

This is also known as individual, emotional or psychological resilience (in which physical fitness is just one important element). We use the following working definition:

‘Resilience is being able to bounce back from setbacks and to keep going in the face of tough demands and difficult circumstances, including the enduring strength that builds from coping well with challenging or stressful events.'

Many people think of personal resilience as a characteristic that some people have and others lack.

This common view provides little encouragement for improving your resilience. The prevailing scientific perspective, however, presents quite a different picture.

Here are some evidence-based principles from this perspective:

Personal resilience is best seen as a set of processes (e.g. building confidence) and outcomes (e.g. thriving under pressure, recovering quickly from disappointment) – rather than as a character trait or set of traits.

Personality, intellectual abilities and other individual characteristics do, however, play an important role, resulting in some people being more naturally resilient than others to start with.

Most importantly, resilience is developed through experiencing and tackling stressful situations – anyone can build their resilience in this way, and it's also worth remembering that avoiding such situations can seriously undermine your resilience.

Resilience is not reserved for superheroes operating in extreme circumstances – it’s something we all have to some degree, and something we need in our everyday lives and work.

Resilience is multi-faceted – some of us have extra confidence, while others rely more on adaptability, friendships (social support) or an understanding of what really matters to us (sense of purpose).

Why Should You Care?

It’s clear from these principles that you can raise your personal resilience to a higher level – regardless of your starting point.

Apart from the obvious benefits for your own comfort and wellbeing, boosting personal resilience is known to increase people’s success in influencing, selling and applying for jobs.

Important scientific findings on this are reported by Judy Proudfoot and her colleagues in the Lancet (1997, Vol. 350 p. 96) and in the journal Personality & Individual Differences (2009, Vol. 46 p. 147). These benefits apply to people who are already resilient to start with, as well as those for whom this is an obvious development need.

There are also proven benefits to improving team resilience through creating the right climate and managing the current sources of workplace pressure in an effective way for the team as a whole.

These benefits include better employee wellbeing, retention and engagement, as well as improved outcomes on business measures such as productivity, risk and error management, and customer satisfaction.

Hopefully, my explanation of the meaning of resilience will encourage you to explore what you can usefully do to improve resilience at the personal, team and/or organisational level.

This is also something I’ll be discussing in future posts, so keep your eyes peeled.


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