Resilience at Work

Employers have become interested in resilience. As the workplace becomes tougher, people who have the capacity to bounce back from adversity and to persist through repeated frustrations are increasingly important.

An issue of the Harvard Business Review summarized the three core qualities of resilience at work (Coutu, 2002). The first is a reality focus: resilience means having few illusions. It is having a current awareness the world, acknowledging tough issues. A reality focus prepares people to deal with challenges when they occur. They develop the perspectives and life skills necessary to survive in tough situations. The second quality concerns values. Resilience includes a commitment to higher principles that give meaning to work. The third element is strong problem solving abilities. Resilience includes the capacity to devise innovative solutions to problems that arise in the course of work. Together, these elements of resilience describe a practical idealist with a bias to action.

Resilient people sound like good company in any situation. They would certainly be the sort of people you’d like to have working for you. It’s not surprising that companies have sought help in identifying resilience to help focus their recruitment efforts. Can the myriad psychological tests, interviews, and simulations within the repertoire of a 21st century assessment center identify people who will show resilience in the long term?

Perhaps.

Resilience raises a familiar question for I/O psychologists. Are they dealing with an enduring quality of personality to be sought across the universe of potential job candidates? Is resilience a set of skills and orientations to be developed through professional development, mentoring, and structured work experiences? From another perspective: is the individual employee ultimately responsible for demonstrating resilience in the appropriate situations. Or is the organization’s track record in supporting employees through tough situations the critical issue? At this point in the study of resilience at work, the research has not provided definitive answers to these questions. Most likely, extensive study will identify elements of resilience that are enduring personal qualities that are more readily elicited in some people than in others. But it is also likely that further research will identify qualities of leadership, training, mentoring, and progressive work experience that will facilitate the development of and expression of resilience at work.

There is at least one caution in the search for resilience. If successful in finding tougher employees, organizations may relax their efforts to address qualities of worklife that impose unnecessary strain. And the pressures may compound to the point that they overwhelm the admirable skills and perspectives of even the most resilient.

Resilience is likely part of the solution to a high pressured worklife, but it’s not the whole story.

What in your experience has developed resilience most effectively?

Coutu, D. L. (2002). How resilience works. Harvard Business Review, 80(5), 46-50.

2 Comments

  1. Great blog about the potential paradox of building “resilience” in workers. I guess frame of reference of the leaders of the organization is key.

    Treating all employees with respect and dignity, in my opinion, builds and perpetuates resilience. If an organization’s leaders and managers believe that “teaching resilience” will allow them to abuse and or over-burden employees without negative repercussions, it will all come back to bite them.

    Interesting idea to think about. Thanks for writing about it.

    Terry Del Percio
    @workintegrity

    1. Terry

      You make an excellent point about the importance of respect.
      Respect welcomes others into the community at work. Disrespect pushes people away. And organizations will be much more effective working as a community with a deeply shared mission.
      So, I agree that a danger of programs designed to build resilience is that they may be driven simply as part of a strategy of pushing for greater productivity. But resilience does not increase employees’ capacity to tolerate bad management but their capacity to do work that furthers their core values.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      Michael

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