What We Get Wrong About Resilience and What the Research Really Says
2020 provides a lot of broader themes: the Zoom year, the social reckoning year, the COVID year, the compounding struggle year… perhaps even The Resilience Year.
The theme of resilience was common in executive speeches, thought leadership posts, and, frankly, day-to-day realities.
For many of us, our day-to-day realities had to instantly pivot into a situation where potentially 4-5 human beings were attempting to do productive things in the same household. That pivot had to take place in about a week, in most cases. Another section of working adults had to physically show up at their workplaces without concretely knowing the risk that COVID-19 posed to their health (and often without corresponding financial support).
We all had to become practitioners in resilience, no question.
But this also brings up a couple of myths and seeming misconceptions about what exactly resilience is and means.
What’s the definition of resilience?
Many believe resilience is defined across two prisms:
- Being immune to stressors and adversity.
- People either have it, or they don’t.
However, our preparedness for any particular adverse experience is not what makes us resilient. Instead, research defines resilience as our ability to withstand, adapt, and learn from adversity. This means that resilience is not a stable, fixed trait of our personality that we have and always will. Instead, it is a dynamic skill that is adaptive, malleable, and trainable that allows us to both deal with stress and learn from it.
Resilience is adaptive and malleable
We all deal with stressors throughout our lives and try not to succumb to them. This doesn’t make us weak, and it doesn’t mean we aren’t resilient. Instead, we say that we can learn from these experiences, growing and adapting along the way, all of which is a part of being resilient. Resilience is an adaptive and malleable shield that is both ever-evolving and preparing us for future adversity.
Adversity is dynamic and so is resilience
Some stressors are temporary, and others last a very long time. The same can be said about the severity of stressors—some very serious and acute, while others are relatively minor. But what may be surprising is that there are a variety of resilient responses to stressors. We can tackle these fast, effectively, and efficiently. Or, we can struggle to cope with the stress of life without recognizing that the struggle itself can be an act of resilience. This is precisely where resilience is built.
Resilience is trainable
Not only is resilience dynamic, adaptive, and malleable, but it’s also trainable. With the right skills, perspective, and environment, we can improve our resilience). At the heart of these evidence-based approaches is instilling a mindset wherein you see your skills and abilities as ever-improving and adversity are challenges. (That’s ostensibly a growth mindset.) Through this lens, you can facilitate your growth, develop psychological skills that can help you strategically navigate life, and cultivate an environment that maximizes your resilience.
We now understand that resilience is an adaptive, malleable, and trainable state that can be harnessed to facilitate your personal growth and development. That’s good news for work. But we still need to address another elephant in the room: in between a slate of personal and professional responsibilities, how do you help managers enable and foster resilience in themselves and their direct reports.
Tweaking the organizational incentive structures can help managers focus on building and promoting resilience in their employees. We heard many times in 2020 (and into this year) that “all managers must be coaches now” and “all managers must focus on resilience,” and that’s good and beautiful to say, but … how do you make it so?
Come back next Tuesday for that piece.
Authors: Kamila Sip, PhD , Ryan Curl, Ph.D