Building resilience, like many aspects of mental health, performance and growth is misunderstood. Far from simply “toughening up” or “staying calm under stress”, being resilient is more complex. It requires a multidimensional approach that’s flexible enough to meet the individual’s unique needs and enable them to get the best out of their surroundings to thrive at work, at home, and everywhere in between.
But before you can understand how to develop resilience—or help develop resilience in others—you need to understand what resilience is, where it comes from and how it works.
What is resilience?
The definition of resilience has transformed since first conceptualised in the 1970s. Back then, resilience research focused on at-risk children and why they did better than expected. It was seen as a personal characteristic rather than a process.
As of 2012, The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as:
“the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”
This definition highlights resilience as a process and supports the notion that resilience can be cultivated and practised with the necessary resources and skills. However, this is still a narrow view to define resilience that doesn’t explain the complete picture. These definitions don’t go far enough to explain why resilience is essential daily and is just as much about thriving as bouncing back.
“We define resilience as your ability to adapt to change positively,” says Emma Ogilvie, co-founder and director of Resilience Development Co. “And notice how I haven’t defined change as positive or negative. You could win the lottery and still need to change positively,” Emma adds.
Psychologists have learned that this ability depends on how rugged we are as individuals AND how many resources (supports) we have
Typically we emphasise how people change their thinking or behaviour as the best way to predict success when under pressure. Generally, we describe them as resilient, hardy or rugged because it looks like they are doing well independently. However, this idea of ruggedness is too narrow to truly explain resilience and why some people do well and others fail when exposed to the same adversity. By itself it fails to define resilience and convey what being resilient means.
Resilience can be understood much better when considering how rugged an individual is AND how well-resourced they are. The resources individuals have available to them have the potential to amplify and increase methods of solving problems without having to rely on a change of thinking or self-regulation alone.
Examples of resilience
Think of the many inspirational quotes out there. We’ve provided one below:
This quote touches on ruggedness, suggesting resilience is about attitude and behaviour. Now consider this second quote in relation to the first.
The message is, by all means, work on your inner resources, such as self-awareness and emotional regulation. But develop external resources to sustain those changes.
The well-known story of Cinderella is also a story that defines resilience. It is a story that reminds us to be true to ourselves to achieve a happy ending. Her overwhelming optimism and compassion are also evident despite the abuse of her sisters and stepmother.
But then, let’s also consider the other characters in that story. Could Cinderella have achieved her happy ending without the appearance of her fairy godmother? Or when she is locked in her room whilst the prince seeks the owner of the glass slipper. Who does she call to help? The animals help her find the key.
Finally, it's essential to know that resilience can look very different for different people in different situations.
It can mean recovery, adaptation or, even better, transformation.
You experience a significant setback in life, but you return to the same level of function you had before encountering problems. This recovery is often referred to as bounce back.
You change your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to adapt to challenging surroundings. Changing yourself helps you deal with bad things when they happen, though it doesn’t mean the bad stuff goes away.
The environment around you is pressured to change to make it easier for you to do well. In this case, new resources are uncovered so that if you do change your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, the change can be sustained. Your world has been changed and is no longer so undermining resilience. Instead, it enables it.
This more expansive view supports what we see and build into our work, helping people, teams and organisations develop and sustain resilience.
- The environmental model of resilience is relevant to the workplace. It focuses attention on the impact emotionally toxic environments have on human development.
- Research has also shown that people cope best when they can navigate to resources they need AND negotiate for these resources to be provided in a meaningful way for the individual.
- It busts the commonly held view that personal resilience is all under the control of the individual when in reality, it is not. When personal resilience meets the environment, there are factors in that environment that are not under the control of the individual. But with a shared language and shared skillset, some of the elements become controllable by the group. This is why culture plays an essential part in maintaining resilience and how culture develops, changes and is sustained.
Sources of resilience: Where does it comes from?
As we said before, resilience is complex and far beyond this article (so you might like to check out our others!), but to summarise.
In terms of ruggedness, we like to think of it in terms of:
The physicality to face physical challenges, whether that be day-to-day living or feats of superhuman strength! As coaches, facilitators and resilience trainers, we leave this aspect of resilience to people who are far better at it than us.
Mental resilience is the ability to pay attention and motivate yourself to do something difficult, be optimistic and have a sense of control over your life. People with a high level of mental resilience are less likely to report depression and anxiety. They have strong coping skills when faced with difficult situations.
Emotional resilience is the ability to manage your emotions in order to be resilient. This is a challenging task because most people have difficulty recognising their emotions. So it takes practice to learn how to deal with them.
You can do this by identifying what triggers emotion and the type of emotion you feel (i.e. anger or pride) and then finding ways to cope or invoke more. For example, being able to invoke positive emotions when you need them.
Social resilience is the ability to reach out to others for help when you need it. It also means learning to be the kind of person that others are likely to want to support and encourage. Resilience is built through social connections, skills to cope with problems, and opportunities to engage in meaningful activities.
In terms of resourced resilience, we find looking through the lens of Dr Lillian Wong’s seven dimensions of resilience helpful. It provides a better sense of what might cause one person to be more or less resilient than another.
Cognitive resilience: How an individual interprets events. In other words, when they hit a setback, where do they attribute blame? How do they evaluate the adverse event in terms of time and scope?
Transactional resilience: How an individual negotiates changing circumstances and daily stressors. This dimension of resilience depends significantly on access to resources such as supportive relationships or a deep sense of purpose.
Behavioural resilience: The degree to which an individual has habits of persistence and endurance.
Motivational resilience: The strength and clarity of purpose an individual has. People who are fully committed to pursuing a life goal are less likely to give up.
Existential or Spiritual resilience: Dr Wong explains, “Motivational resilience becomes existential or spiritual resilience when one considers human existence’s ultimate meaning and purpose.”
Relational resilience: Defined as an individual’s sense of connection to family, friends, work colleagues, the community, and even strangers.
Emotional resilience: An ability to tolerate rejection and negative emotions, maintain confidence and stability, and confront obstacles.
Using these seven dimensions, you can categorise the idea of resiliency into groups of resources. Again our work is built on these insights and forms the basis of all our coaching and training. Both rugged and resourced resilience can be created and sustained by anyone with our unique skills base and shared language.
So, how do you develop resilience?
In our work, we have identified three types of resilience.
- Natural resilience is the resilience you were born with. Our human nature.
- Adaptive resilience is resilience borne from adversity.
- Restored resilience is the third type of resilience and it is learned.
Think back to the notion that resilience can be cultivated and practised with the necessary resources and skills. It means exploring and developing who we are and understanding and navigating our environment resiliently while building on our strengths and resources.
Our programmes focus on building resilience in people, teams and organisations that promote tangible and measurable outcomes for positive adaption and growth in both people AND their environment. It means people can better manage stress, challenges and change as they happen. Whilst having the skills to build resources and create environments where people thrive.
We believe cultivating resilience is not about “fixing” people or getting them to “bounce back” to where they were before. Who wants that? For most people, teams and leaders, resilience is about building forward momentum, solid relationships and enabling happier, more engaged and resilient people. It provides people clarity of purpose, a sense of meaning and a clear direction in terms of goals, priorities, wellbeing and success.
Our skill-based approach uses an overarching mental, emotional and step-by-step modular process that unlocks the capacity for resilience and confidently builds energy for change.
Resilience at work
The coronavirus pandemic, and its dramatic impact on people’s routines, roles and relationships have put everyone’s resilience to the test. Social isolation, working from home, and virtual meetings block people from the richness of in-person interactions and the many resources they had around them previously. The ability to positively adapt to change has never been more key to growth, performance and wellbeing.
Tips for leaders
As a leader, you could focus on coping mechanisms, mental health first aid, stress management and wellbeing initiatives. But all of this will fall short if people’s basic needs for community, connection, belonging and purpose aren’t met.
In terms of going back to the basics, we’d suggest:
Create opportunities to listen to your team. Do people understand the team’s values and are people acting in accordance with them or against them? Do people feel heard and are their concerns acted upon? What permissions exist for people to raise concerns about the things that are undermining their resilience?
Review the seven dimensions above. For example, when looking at the motivational aspect of resilience, does your team have clear goals and objectives? Do they understand how these contribute to the broader purpose?
If you’d like to go beyond the basics as a leader, read this article on developing resilience in leaders and have a good look around our blog for insights and tools. That said, recognise that these will only go so far. People need to develop resilience skills to build and sustain their resilience.
Invest in your future. Build resilience
If there’s one thing to take away from this post, it’s that building resilience is a lot less about “will” or “toughness” than most people think.
Just think of anyone you consider resilient and identify their resources. Chances are they have at least one: a strong sense of purpose, a loving family or friend, or intense spirituality. Moreover, they’re also likely skilled at processing their emotions, coping with challenges, and interpreting negative events.
Now turn that lens to your people. What are they missing? And how can you help them find it?
The answer to that question is like any other organisational outcome. Provide training and support that gives your people the skills to adapt, rather than cope, whether in a high-performance environment or a difficult situation. Give them the skills to build the resources around them and create environments where people thrive.
As the creators and leaders of skills-based resilience programmes in organisations, we’ve helped people discover and build resilience skills that directly support ruggedness and resources. They’ve found that the skills and resources required to bounce back are the same as the ability to leap forward and go from good to great.
So, to summarise the answer to what is resilience?
The answer depends on who you are asking. All would agree it’s a psychological toolbox but many don’t know how to build that toolbox and miss the external element of resilience.
For us, the answer to “what is resilience?” is answered not by theory but practically. It’s about having the skills to adapt before you have to, whether that’s in a high-performance environment or a difficult situation. We believe the skills required to bounce back are the same as the skills to leap forward and go from good to great.