This article was written by Alex Davda and was originally published on July 6, 2015 on www.ashridge.org.uk/insights
Resilience is vital for leaders who typically have to deal with everything from challenging projects and conflict among colleagues to office politics and personal criticism on an almost daily basis. It is our personal resilience that helps us to thrive and grow in difficult circumstances, whether we are supporting the emergency relief effort after an earthquake in Kathmandu or facing yet another organisational restructure that puts our newly built team at risk.
The good news is that research shows that resilience can be strengthened. Our ability to cope with or adapt to stressful situations or crises is not a fixed trait that is present in some people and lacking in others, nor is it something that remains unchanged. And while there are undoubtedly certain factors that give some people a head start, anyone can learn behaviours and attitudes that allow them to survive and even thrive in challenging times.
It is now well known that resilience is not a personality characteristic, but it is still all too common for careers to be undermined by ill-informed assumptions about it. Someone may be overlooked for promotion, for example, because a difficult episode in their personal life has led their boss to label them as ‘lacking in resilience’. Another person may decide not to pursue a dream career because they fear they will never have the confidence to move outside the comfort zone of the work they are used to.
Resilient people tend not to dwell on failures; they acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes and move forward. But resilient people aren’t born with a unique ability to bounce back or forge ahead. So what are the key factors that will help you boost your resilience and bring new direction and energy to your life and career?
Confidence: Positive emotions, attitudes and beliefs and the ability to influence events positively make people more emotionally strong. Nurture a positive view of yourself – don’t talk yourself down or focus on flaws.
Purposefulness: Having structure, commitment and meaning in your life will make you more resilient. A clear sense of purpose and values will help you assess setbacks within the framework of a broader perspective.
Adaptability: Resilient people are flexible and adaptable to changing situations that are beyond their control. They have an acute sense of what they can – and can’t – control.
Relationships and social support: A strong network of mutually supportive relationships is important. Take the time to check in with family, friends and colleagues and build informal and formal support networks, so that they are there when you need them.
Problem solving skills: Working out what is happening, what to expect and how to respond helps with emotional resilience. Take a step back and think about how you approach difficult issues using objective logic.
Self-regulation skills: Resilient people are able to manage their emotions, thoughts, motivations and behaviours. The ability to exercise this control over your emotions, behaviour and focus of attention predicts long term life success.
Self-awareness: Recognise and develop your strengths. Reflection fosters learning, new perspectives and self-awareness – all of which will enhance your resilience.
Mastery motivation: This is about the will or drive to master new skills, to manage challenges and to persist in the face of difficulties and set-backs. Look for opportunities to improve yourself, such as a new challenge, social situation or interest outside work. Set goals and plan ways to reach them.
Meaning making: Developing a personal view of what matters and a ‘sense of coherence’ in life can help people cope with stress and distressing events.
Cultural traditions and religion: Belonging to a group or society with a shared set of beliefs, world views and practices can help strengthen resilience.
As we have seen, the ability to respond in a resilient way is influenced, but not determined, by personality. Some people are likely to respond in a resilient way when faced with conflict or difficult relationships, while others may become easily stressed by such problems, yet show high levels of resilience in dealing with change and uncertainty.
It’s also important to recognise that some personality characteristics have a protective value when applied in moderation, but constitute a risk if used in excess. For example, anxiety may be positive to the extent that it helps to anticipate and pre-empt problems. But someone who is prone to high levels of anxiety may worry even when all is well, and this is likely to undermine their resilience.
To develop resilience you need to adopt strategies to ensure that you make the most of your strengths and actively manage your risks. The key to improving resilience is to recognise what stressors you react to, when your natural response will serve you well, and when to adapt your approach to suit the different challenges you face.
This article is based on the chapter ‘Understanding and developing personal resilience’ by Jill Flint-Taylor and Alex Davda, from the book ‘Flourishing in Life, Work and Careers: Individual Well-being and Career Experiences’ (Edward Elgar Publishing: 2015).
Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge, based in the Middle East. Alex has deep expertise in the application of psychometric instruments as methods for individuals and organisations to begin to assess their management and leadership capabilities, from high-potential talent to middle management and senior leadership. He has broad experience in the UK, Europe and the Middle East, supporting clients in the application of a range of innovative and often large-scale assessment and development approaches.
Alex’s specific research interests are in the areas of positive psychology, resilience and well-being at work. He is currently researching resilience in those deployed to challenging international contexts. He has published a number of research articles and a book chapter in this area and is a weekly columnist for the National Newspaper, an English language newspaper published in the U.A.E.