The Power of Resilience

Individuals need it. So do organizations.
by | October 29, 2008

A friend died this past January. He was 57. He taught sociology at the University of Virginia for 20 years. He wrote eight books and more than 80 articles. He died after a lifelong battle with the complications of diabetes.

Amazingly, he did not tell people about his myriad illnesses, though he lived with pain almost every day. He had two organs replaced and had multiple other operations. Yet everyone who knew him said the same things about him--that he was a positive, upbeat guy; that he was genuinely interested in what other people thought; that he had a great joie de vivre, a true love of living.

Professionals in many fields are studying people who demonstrate such resilience, trying to understand how they bounce back again and again. Why is it that a young person in a drug-infested ghetto, or an athlete going through a long slump, bounces back and somehow finds a way to renewal and success when others do not?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review (May, 2002), Diane Coutu reviewed the research on resilience in her article, "How Resilience Works." She found three common characteristics:

1. A search for meaning

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of three concentration camps during World War II, reflected on the fate of hundreds of fellow prisoners: why did some survive when most perished? In many instances, he couldn't tell any physical or medical difference between those who woke up each morning and those who didn't. Why was this?

He came to believe that those who survived found a way to make some meaning from their horrific circumstances. In Frankl's case, he imagined himself at some time in the future, giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp to an attentive audience. This image helped him disengage from his current situation. As he wrote in his remarkable book, "Man's Search for Meaning," "By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the ... sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past."

Frankl found something that had great meaning for him, and it gave him enormous resilience.

2. A staunch acceptance of reality

Coutu reports that resilient people aren't overly optimistic. Rather, they take a clear-eyed view of their reality, looking for what some in the military call "ground truth." They face their circumstances squarely and look for ways to survive. Coutu describes a woman who suffered from an undiagnosed psychological disorder for years, who never asked herself, "Why me?" Rather, she sometimes said, "Why not me?" She assumed that anyone could be hit with an unexpected challenge; the goal is to find ways to meet the challenge and move forward.

3. An ability to improvise

Improvisation, the ability to find creative solutions on the spot, is difficult for many of us; it's far more difficult when we're in a crisis or emergency. Yet improvisation comes much more easily to resilient people. My guess is that they have the unusual ability to remain calm in the midst of a crisis or major downturn, which frees up their creative juices to look for unusual solutions.

Your Potential to Develop Resilience in Others

At this point you might be wondering why this column on management innovations is discussing people who are able to bounce back from tremendous challenges. The answer is that organizations, like individuals, need a great deal of resilience. Whether it's a bad budget year, a scandal that captures the media's attention or a tragic failure such as the crash of two NASA space shuttles, almost all organizations experience serious challenges sooner or later. And managers are responsible for helping their staff develop resilience.

Here are a few ways to get started:

Model resilience: When the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, was building an expensive music pavilion, a tear developed in the pavilion's covering. It was scheduled to open in just two weeks with a big-name star coming to town. City Manager Gary O'Connell was asked if the pavilion would be ready in time. He smiled calmly and said something like, "We'll see. Nobody knows yet. But it's a chance to excel...." He seemed very relaxed, up for the challenge, his demeanor reassuring and encouraging. And, sure enough, the pavilion opened on time.

It's fascinating how carefully others watch us when we're struggling with something. When you are facing a problem at work, remember that it's an opportunity to model resilience.

Offer training. There are a number of good simulations and other exercises that give people practice at dealing with unexpected events. You can't learn how to bounce back from a crisis by attending a few lectures, but you can learn a great deal from a combination of class, simulated practice, feedback and more practice.

Be a mentor. One of the more satisfying experiences in my life has been mentoring a young man who overcame enormous odds and has gotten to college. Many people were involved in helping him succeed. But it seemed to matter that an adult took the time and interest to guide him.

There are many other strategies to try. But first you have to recognize the importance of helping your staff develop their resilience.

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