Redefining resilience

Author: Amanda Smithson

We are often asked by our clients how to test for resilience in candidates. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Earlier dictionaries define it as perseverance in the face of difficulty or adversity. Both these definitions contain a rather British stiff upper lip notion that one should just put one’s head down, stay the course, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. More recent definitions, however, would place adaptability at the heart of resilience and reject the notion that the tougher you are the more successful you will be in favour of valuing flexibility and the ability to change your approach. Perseverance without flexibility becomes a form of banging your head against a strong fence – it may give in eventually, but at what cost to the fence - and the head!

In today’s world, rapidly synthesizing new data and adapting at speed to change, disruption and adversity are seen as essential attributes of the resilient. In 2015, a survey by two British consultants (1) sought to identify what might constitute adversity and stress in business life. Although volume and pace of work scored very highly, almost as high was feeling continually criticized and even higher was managing difficult relationships or politics in the workplace.

Navigating relationships and emotional equanimity would thus also seem to be critical attributes of the resilient. We would therefore see the competencies one should evaluate in seeking to calibrate resilience in a candidate as: 

  • Self confidence – this, in relation to resilience, is a measure not of self regard but of self assurance and composure. Candidate scoring well here will perceive themselves positively and, importantly, will experience less self-doubt and less anxiety about how others view them. In the face of adversity, they will be more resilient and will model that to those around them, building belief in not only their but the team’s ability to reach objectives and goals.  A virtuous circle of confidence and composure under pressure should result. Its opposite can cause individuals to believe that everything is their fault and that they are incapable of managing. Thus their performance not only fails to rise to the demands of the occasion but can slip materially backwards.
  • Positivity – an optimistic view of the world and of those around one can contribute hugely to one’s ability to cope with pressure and stress; seeing opportunity rather than disaster in setbacks and challenge. Organisations might summarise this as a ‘glass half full approach’. Its opposite can lead to the thinking errors of catastrophising – the whole is destroyed by damage to the piece; or victim fallacy – ‘this always happens to me’. 
  • Trust – often links to positivity in that it concerns whether you have an optimistic or pessimistic view of your colleagues. Those scoring highly on trust tend to see others as having good intentions. Its opposite can be highly derailing in times of adversity and uncertainty, when mistrustful individuals may be more likely to see relationships deteriorate and be prone to alienation. An organisation that seeks to build and support strong and trusting relationships within and across teams will reap benefits at all times but particularly in times of increased pressure. 
  • Adaptability – the inquisitive mind of the innovator is more likely to embrace or even relish the challenges of change. The adherent to the status quo or the Devil’s Advocate (so called for a reason!) is the enemy of innovation and change and will perceive times of extraordinary pressure as such change. They will resist changes in direction and resistant behaviours are much more likely to increase stress in the individual and around them, placing strain on team relationships in the process.

  • Humility – this may seem a surprising one but it concerns how strongly one values modesty about personal achievements. Individuals with low humility scores desire praise and recognition for their unique work and abilities, and are therefore more vulnerable when they do not receive it. They can perceive slight when it is not intended and expend considerable energy in processing how their part in a situation is being perceived rather than in tackling the situation itself. Those with high scores can remain resilient and productive even when they do not receive constant recognition. They are, in fact, just more likely to persevere.   
  • Determination – this is the attractive notion of ‘grit’, ‘steel’ or other hard things. It includes courage and a willingness to take intelligent risks. Individuals scoring highly here will be comfortable with taking big decisions and with the ultimate ownership and accountability for those decisions.   Unchecked by the characteristics described above it may be temporarily attractive but ultimately dangerous.

 Those possessed in high measure of all these competencies will stand in front of team members never to take praise but always to take a bullet. They will balance adroitly the benefits and experience of productive failure and success – the highs and lows.  In “The Failure-Tolerant Leader,” Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes argue for creating an environment in which both setbacks and successes are treated as positive learning experiences. The attendant fear or anxiety that ‘mistakes’ or ‘failure’ induce is reduced and the encouragement and freedom to try new things, examine alternatives and ask for input, rather than drown alone, are increased.  In this way, resilience becomes part of the organisation’s, as well as the individual’s core.

 References
(1)    Tough at the Top, Sarah Bond and Dr. Gillian Shapiro, 2014
(2)    The Failure-Tolerant Leader, Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, 2002

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