Can resilience be taught?

Written by
James Martin

17 Oct 2016

17 Oct 2016 • by James Martin

One of the key areas that we assess in identifying the potential of senior executives is how they deal with setbacks. Why is it that some individuals seem to take problems in their stride and even find them interesting whilst others can be badly knocked back by the same events?

Given the significant stresses and strains inherent in any leadership position, the ability to bounce back, remain adaptable and stay strong is clearly important. As this forms part of our assessment, it is not surprising that our clients sometimes ask if this quality can be learnt.

The simple answer is yes.

Believing in more

It is something that the military have been particularly good at training for hundreds of years, largely through helping individuals discover that most people can cope with a higher level of physical and mental challenge than we may have ever believed possible. This was historically achieved through a combination of working closely in tightly knit teams facing ever more complex and difficult obstacles.

More recently, the world of psychology has been particularly helpful at adding more understanding on this topic. On the downside, it turns out that all of us can easily slip into a state of learned helplessness and pessimism, which erodes our resilience. Essentially this is a belief that we cannot control our destiny. Weary resignation to what appears inevitable seems to be the only course of action.

Optimists don’t see life that way. A setback is just a temporary state of affairs that we can respond to constructively. Helpfully, it also appears that this trait can be developed. Whilst there are many self-help books on the topic, it might be instructive to turn back to the military; specifically the US Army, which is taking this topic particularly seriously.

Working with Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan, it has developed a comprehensive soldier fitness programme, which is designed to boost resilience. The program is designed to enhance positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. It starts with a test that measures emotional, family, social and spiritual fitness. Spiritual in this context need not necessarily be religious; it is about feeling part of and serving something beyond individual needs.

Attending to all four areas may be the key to reducing anxiety and the state of learned helplessness that it is so easy to slip into. After taking the test, soldiers were then offered the opportunity to take a number of programs to help boost their personal balance sheet in each of the four areas. There is also master resilience training for drill sergeants and other leaders, which aims to develop the skill of enhancing resilient in others. 

Boost your people

So if you are a manager and you want to enhance the resilience of your own department, how can you start? The simplest way is to highlight and hone the strengths of your subordinates and create the conditions to allow strong and positive relationships to flourish. Spending more time focusing on the positive and less on the negative is vital. Encouraging your teams to see set-backs as interesting learning opportunities is also helpful.