HomearticleSorry, but we need to keep talking about resilience

Sorry, but we need to keep talking about resilience





I for one are well and truly over seeing free webinars, blogs, discussions, articles, positive affirmations, encouraging quotes, examples and case studies about resilience. I get it. We need to understand how to “bounce back from” the current COVID-19 stressors. But as much as I wish I was writing an article titled “Stop already – let’s take a break from resilience”, the reality is that now, potentially more than any other time this year, we need to keep talking about resilience. We are deep in the pandemic with no end in sight and so we need to continue to seek to understand what resilience is, and what leaders and organisations can (should) do to support a productive, healthy workforce.

A short history lesson on resilience

Resilience originated in material sciences describing the ability of materials to absorb energy (stress) and release it with creating a permanent deformity. Or in lay terms, the ability of a material to bounce from a stressful event, e.g. does the steel bar come back to its original shape after experiencing tension or pressure.

Resilience as psychological construct, as it relates to people and this article, has traditionally taken a similar interpretation of “a person’s ability to bounce back from stressful events” and often described as a trait of quality a person has (or not).

Resilience in people is a relatively new area of study. Norman Garmezy is known as the ‘grandfather of resilience theory’ with his research into children of mothers with schizophrenia in the 1960s and 70s. The question he explored was “Where a child experiences stress and adversity in life and are genetically at risk for developing mental illness, why do some children languish in life, while others in the same circumstances flourish?” He called the personal trait that allowed the latter group to flourish – resilience.

And thus the birth of resilience being seen as an individual trait – which of course it is, but it’s also a dangerously limited view as it focuses on only a small element of the full resilience picture. If we are going to get through this period as well as we can, then a more comprehensive, systemic view of resilience is required by individuals and organisations alike.

We need to re-understand what resilience is through a systems lens

The COVID reality as revealed how interdependent the world is as a living system – from relationships, supply chains, geopolitics, to business, travel and of course our health. Resilience is also interdependent on many factors which is where organisations are ignorant or perhaps lazy. Organisations have a tendency to outsource the resilience responsibility to the individual, even if it is organisationally sponsored. Organisations giving staff a well-being day is a common example. A great initiative, yet it is then up to the individual to use that day recharge and build their resilience. Yet so much of an individual’s stressors and resilience comes from the organisational environment around them, not only from the individual.

If we are to truly be resilient to get through this time, then we need to also reveal, understand and utilise the true systemic nature of resilience.

Australian researchers Racquel Boyd & Laura Hefer have been doing just this. They first looked at the effectiveness of training based on the current thinking of resilience as a personality trait which delivered an overwhelming fail! Even a well-funded, high profile, large sample study conducted by Martin Seligman with the US Army has been described as having “no solid empirical evidence demonstrating the program accomplishes its goals of improving resilience amongst US soldiers” in the 2012 paper by Roy Eidelson, PhD & Stephen Soldz, PhD. 

Hefer and Boyd suggest a different approach where resilience is thought about in a way that, unusually, or perhaps correctly, built around the word ‘redundant’. I love the paradox of how in an organisational sense the word ‘redundant’ has a reasonably negative connotation, i.e. about losing your job as it is no longer needed. But in the context of resilience, as it is used here, it is essential for our very survival. Resilience requires (redundant) resources you can access in times of need to help you bounce back. Hefer and Boyd share the following framework:

1.      Redundancy exists – I like this definition of redundancy as it describes the concept in terms of resilience “ the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components.” In resilience terms this means that the system has spare capacity that is not being used for day to day activities.

2.    Redundant resources – the resources where redundancy can exist are further categorised as:

a.    Personal – e.g. extra energy in your day, unused skills, routines or habits you know, personal safety, enough sleep and nutrition.

b.    Social – e.g. friends, work colleagues or family who could support you if you asked, other people in your network, groups.

c.    Material – e.g. savings in the bank, a spare screen in the office, extra internet bandwidth and data, access to meeting platforms and other technology, or even computing capacity.

d.    Environmental – e.g. fresh air, space to exercise, space to work at home, capacity on public transport, quiet space to meditate, access to nature.

3.    Resourcefulness – this refers to a person’s ability to access the redundant resources, and it’s not always incumbent on the individual as the following example shows. Last summer, devastating bush fires hit Australia disabled the mobile network in places. People couldn’t access the resources – family, friends, professionals among others – to help them cope. A more personal example is with the increase in Mental Health cases during COVID-19, people’s psychological ability to reach out for help is compromised. So an organisation providing counselling through an EAP may not be enough, which is why the leader conversation is a critical component in building an individual’s resilience.

4.    Relevance – refers to the need to have the right resources to support you through the challenge. You may have redundant resources that you can access, but are they what you need? Given that every challenge is different and requires different support resources, are the available resources appropriate for the challenge at hand? Although this seems common sense, when many people talk about resilience, it is a binary discussion – are you resilient or not. In my experience, the conversation rarely extends to ‘do you have the right resources, that you can access, that are appropriate for what you need in this specific challenge?’ Who has ever reached to someone only to hear them say “I want to help you but I just don’t know what to do.”? Or extremely wealthy people are often ridiculed when they have mental health or personal issues because they have money, however money may not be the right resource for their specific challenge.

What we can do about it in organisations and communities

We all have the ability to contribute to resilience building choices, not only for ourselves, but for those in our community and beyond. The role of the leader is a critical conduit in the organisational support system. So what can we practically do from this new way of thinking about resilience, especially when it feels that personal and organisational resources are being reduced, not increased?

Here are 5 questions to build your own, and others, resilience.

1.    What are the challenges?

Define, as specifically as possible, what the challenges are you or others facing, or could potentially face. Understand what they are and how to recognise them when they arise.

2.   What relevant resources are required to help navigate these challenges?

Once you understand the challenge, you will be able to better identify how to build resources that may potentially buffer the challenge or help you bounce back from it

3.    Where can these redundant resources be found?

Or if not, how can you build these resources? Identifying where these challenge specific resources are, or could be, is a critical (and often surprising) step in being able to access them. The “where else?” question is a good one to ask a few times here.

4.   How can these redundant resources be accessed?

Knowing where the spare resources are is one thing, accessing them is another thing all together. Think about your ability to access them directly yourself, or perhaps indirectly through others.

5.   How will you measure your changing levels resilience?

As Carol Dweck states in her work on Growth Mindset, measuring positive progress is motivating. There are many ways of measuring progress though for intangibles like resilience it can be confounding. An easy and accurate litmus test of measuring progress can simply be asking those close to you to share what changes they are noticing. Noticing mood, speed to react and inner self talk can be other measures of developing resilience

A closing note for leaders

For leaders (and organisations), the role of building resilience is built into your job description because leaders have a duty of care for those in their leadership sphere. Therefore, leaders need to be actively building redundant resources – spare capacity – for themselves (the ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ principle), in others as well as the broader organisational system. Leaders need to be aware of current challenges and plan ahead for possible future stresses. In my opinion, taking a systemic view of both identifying challenges and building relevant redundant resources is being both a good leader and a good human. What sort of leaders do you want to be?

By IECL Head of Regional Development – John Raymond PCC


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