What is resilience?

Written by
Aoife Keane

19 Jul 2016

19 Jul 2016 • by Aoife Keane

It’s tempting to think of resilience in terms of pure grit – that is having the mental toughness to put your head down and soldier on through whatever difficulties you come across. However, resilience is not about simply ‘getting over it’ – it’s more like a tactical retreat which allows us to recover and reassess. Resilience is a quality that enables us to move forward after we’ve processed and accepted loss and change.

This may sound fairly straightforward, but it actually requires quite a subtle reinterpretation of strength itself – and one of the most important thinkers in this regard was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. His famous quote from Twilight of the Idols (1889) – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – has been referenced by everyone from politicians to popstars, but its core meaning has often been overlooked. Life entails all sorts of unavoidable setbacks – it’s all too easy to put up barriers to them, to imagine that they haven’t happened and try to power through. But the real jewel of Nietzsche’s quote, and of resilience as a skill, is that in order to be strong you must accept difficulty and work with it, not against it.

Strength isn’t always about being the best, the brightest or the toughest, it’s about learning and recovering without ignoring the ways in which your situation has changed.

How can resilience help in the workplace?

The reason why resilience is desirable as a quality is that it helps us to recover from adversity without losing morale or confidence. There will always be setbacks in the world of work; rarely do projects go to plan, and sometimes events beyond our control  have a severe impact on our performance. Without the necessary skill of resilience, it’s easy to let these things get the better of us.

For instance, it’s common to engage in negative thought spiralling. Perhaps you’ve missed a deadline, and you’re anxious about how your client will react, this can quickly escalate into other fears – ‘perhaps I’ll lose the client? Or even be overlooked for promotion?’ – and the heightened stress which this entails can badly affect your productivity and wellbeing. Sadly, it’s common to ‘catastrophize’ in these situations – letting your thoughts jump to the worst possible scenario before you even know the outcome.

This is where psychologists who’ve studied resilience, such as Carol Dweck, can make all the difference. In Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’, she neatly encapsulates the advantages of a resilient attitude in her definitions of the ‘growth’ versus the ‘fixed’ mindset. She argues that a ‘fixed mindset’ limits potential – it encourages an individual to believe that they cannot change, that criticism is therefore a true reflection of reality and that challenges are insurmountable. A person with a ‘growth mindset’, on the other hand, is one who embraces challenges, enjoys opportunities to learn and is accepting of life’s unpredictability.

Fundamentally, resilience helps to combat all the negative thinking that can impact potential and productivity (largely by diminishing all the hours wasted on blame and ‘if only…’ regrets). Perhaps its greatest asset to an organisation is the lesson that certain things are beyond our control, but working on feeling comfortable with that uncertainty actually gives control back to us in terms of how we respond.

How can you develop resilience?

Resilience is a special skill because it is so defined by outlook and response. It is an adaptive mode of thinking which has to be developed gradually, alongside techniques for improving one’s initial response to something bad or unwanted. Negative thoughts can be combated in the short-term using relaxation techniques – such as deep breathing or even exercise – before being dealt with more fully through self-exploration and discussion. As such, it’s critical to have support networks in place where you can disclose anxieties and explore possible solutions. 

Whilst these techniques can help manage the immediate response, long-term resilience happens when you then incorporate the negative information as part of your reaction. One way of doing this involves reworking your internal narrative. So when something bad happens, rather than catastrophizing, it is possible to reframe the experience as a turning point – by imagining yourself telling others, in the future, about what the situation taught you and what strengths you had to draw on in order to recover from it.

Understandably, this will involve a lot of self-talk: it requires you to examine the way you think about yourself and the world around you, your mental habits and instinctive responses. The techniques for building long-term resilience are ones which foster our ability to reinterpret given situations. Humour, for instance, is often a very constructive response to a difficult situation because it applies long-term perspective to a scenario that is painful in the moment. Again, this is a technique of narrative that is central to resilience – taking control of a situation by re-defining the way you talk to yourself and others about it. 

So resilience is not something you’re either born with or not. Rather, it is a developable life skill that all of us can nurture in ourselves. It enables us to deal with the unexpected and unwanted in the short-term, whilst learning and growing stronger as a result of adversity – both inside and outside the workplace.