It’s not toughness, it’s not grit, it’s not even just an individual characteristic.
Resilience is commonly referred to as a character trait. You either have it or you don’t. But that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it.
While we can probably all agree on a definition for it that sounds something like “the ability to withstand and recover from adversity” you can tease out how complicated this can get with a few hypotheticals:
- Who is more resilient, the paramedic who faces trauma and does not experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the paramedic who experiences PTSD but overcomes it?
- Does someone who works through a dozen career setbacks and makes it to the top of their field remain resilient if they take a year off because they are overwhelmed by their divorce, and return to work in a different career?
- Imagine two children who suffer a similar trauma when they are five. One becomes a successful lecturer in their early twenties and the other spends many years unemployed before finally securing steady work in a grocery store in their middle age. Who is more resilient? Does the answer change if the first one lived in a society with a social safety net (robust protective services for children, free healthcare and affordable tertiary education) and the other didn’t?
At the heart of misunderstandings about resilience is the casual confusion about when it’s a trait, a process or an outcome (this is something that academic experts wrestle with). To measure resilience we tend to focus solely on the latter. Did the person/organisation bounce back from adversity? Then they are resilient.
But if this is how you measure it, then trying to train or embed resilience in organisations would be a crapshoot. You’d have to wait for adversity to affect the person or organisation, and they are potentially already beyond the point of recovery, to discover the gaps in your efforts.
If there was ever a time to bring more nuance to our understanding of resilience, it’s during a pandemic. When so much is being asked of so many, the definition of resilience is very vulnerable to being abused.
The cudgel of resilience
You don’t have to go far to find an example of this abuse. Just recently ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose made headlines with her thoughts about the ‘resilience’ of younger workers. When asked about what makes a good leader at a meeting of the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, she said the workforce had changed, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Her comments are worth repeating at length.
“It seems to me that today’s younger workers, they need much more reassurance and they need to be thanked, which is something many companies don’t do,” she said.
“They’re very keen on being thanked and they almost need hugging – that’s before COVID of course, we can’t hug any more – but they almost need hugging.
“You have to understand that they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days.”
The paper then reports that she said that resilience appeared to be in “short supply” globally.
Numerous outlets have published articles that point out the poor timing of Buttrose’s comments (the ABC has recently gone through a large round of redundancies) and how it’s problematic to tar a whole generation with the same brush (she’s hardly the first to do that). What’s gotten less airtime is her understanding of the word.
It seems Buttrose subscribes to the belief that those who have resilience are the ‘strong silent type’, famously portrayed by Gary Cooper and John Wayne in Hollywood westerns. The type of people who don’t complain, don’t ask questions, and will leave town before being thanked (so on one level it seems her complaint is that millennials aren’t fictional cowboys).
That she’s complaining at all suggests she’s hardly the strong silent type herself. In fact, considering Buttrose’s comments echo others she made 11 months ago, you could make a strong case that she is completely lacking in resiliency. Whinging that things aren’t perfect, failing to adapt to a new reality and feeling compelled to repeatedly insist that you are more resilient than others – are these resilient behaviours?
This is tongue in cheek, but it does illustrate how easy it is to twist the definition of resilience to malign anyone. The smallest shred of vulnerability can be made to seem like a damning weakness. No wonder Buttrose thinks it’s in short supply, if resilience is Hollywood toughness, no person or company has it.
Not all it’s cracked up to be
To avoid abuse of the term, we have to take a step back and be realistic about how subjective resilience is.
Published in The British Journal of Social Work, the Michael Ungar penned paper Resilience across Cultures does a good job of doing just that. Writing about social work and childhood outcomes, Ungar refers to a strain of thinking that says resilience is not so much an individual trait as something that has to take into account the system a person exists in.
Take a child who develops under adverse circumstances, and who uses whatever is available to them to overcome those circumstances (a pattern we would all consider resilient). Isn’t resilience dependent on what’s available?
“In practice, this means that the young man in rural India who joins a paramilitary group to participate in the defence of his ethnic community’s right to self-determination may achieve a sense of belonging, personal meaning, experience self-efficacy, gain life skills, a vocation and express his cultural and ethnic identification, all aspects of healthy functioning associated with resilience, through his unconventional, and illegal, adaptation,” writes Ungar.
As Ungar points out, for him and his community this might seem like an admirable story of resilience, even if we find it problematic. It’s an extreme example, but it translates to the world of work. There are two lessons to be drawn from it.
Firstly, resilience is not in and of itself positive. Returning to one of the earlier hypotheticals, is it not possible that the divorcee was better off quitting than trying to tough it out? As HRM wrote earlier this week, a positive reaction to a career shock sometimes involves changing your career. On the flip side, a ‘resilient’ person in a toxic culture may learn to be uncompromising with others, uncaringly look the other way when they see problematic behaviour and ruthlessly engage in whatever it takes to achieve bottom line goals.
Secondly, resilience is often shaped by context. So rather than just admiring people who achieve victory over adversity, we should look at the circumstances that allowed that victory to occur. Don’t lionise people, replicate cultures.
The type of resilience you want
Lots of research has been conducted on how organisations can develop a positive resilient culture that takes the above into account. In an HBR article, psychologist and resilience expert George Everly Jr. outlines a framework:
- “Understand that people prosper from success” and create an environment where they can achieve success “in tasks of increasing difficulty and overall complexity” – especially for early-career employees.
- “People learn while observing others”, so consider adding new employees to successful teams so they can get “vicarious success”.
- “Provide encouragement, support and even mentoring” because, contrary to the thrust of Buttrose’s comments, “research suggests that the single most powerful predictor of human resilience is interpersonal support”.
- Give all staff basic training in managing personal stress.
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Rather than using a lack of ‘resilience’ as a cudgel to ignore what might be genuine complaints, leaders from successful organisations should be focused on scalable solutions.
Ungar deploys useful language around this. Instead of trying to train each and every individual in resilience so that as many as possible recover from adversity, organisations should be looking at how they can structure cultures, policies and behaviours to help everyone thrive when adversity comes. We shouldn’t help people beat the odds, we should change the odds.