Like most anything related to mental health, building resilience is widely misunderstood.
Far from simply “toughening up”, building resilience is complex. It requires a multidimensional approach that’s flexible enough to meet the unique needs of the individual.
And yes, it can be learned and developed… which is what this post is all about.
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.
How psychologists define resilience has transformed since it was first conceptualized in the mid-1970s. Back then, it was seen as a “personal characteristic of at-risk children who appeared to do better than expected.”
As of 2012, APA’s website now defines resilience as follows:
The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.
The former definition implied resilience was intrinsic, a “characteristic” rather than a “process”. But psychologists have since learned that resilience isn’t so much about being “rugged,” but being “resourced.”
Resilience researcher and therapist, Michael Ungar says, Disney’s Cinderella is the prototypical story of resilience.
She’s a resilient, individual woman who perseveres despite her terrible circumstances. But, Ungar explains, we emphasize Ella’s role too much, to the unjustified exclusion of another character: the fairy godmother.
“Basically, the resilience of this young woman hinges on her capacity to have a godmother in her life,” Ungar says in this video.
In other words, the fairy godmother enables Ella to be resilient. Because without the fairy godmother’s glass slippers, Ella couldn’t have persevered through the wickedness of her stepsisters.
In reality, your source of resilience might be your life goal, a partner, friends and family, spirituality, learned coping mechanisms, or all of the above.
In any case, the point is that resilience is about finding, creating and using your available resources.
These resources are fundamental to the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. These resources are fundamental to resilience.
You can think of these resources through the lens of Dr. Lillian Wong’s seven dimensions of resilience.
These dimensions, which Dr. Wong published in “A Meaning-Centered Approach to Building Youth Resilience,” are summarized below:
Cognitive: How the individual interprets events. In other words, when something bad happens, where do they attribute blame? How do they evaluate the negative event?
Transactional: How the individual negotiates changing circumstances and daily stressors. This dimension of resilience depends greatly on the individual’s access to resources such as supportive relationships or a sense of purpose. But more on that later.
Behavioral: The degree to which the individual possesses habits of persistence and endurance in the face of negative events. Just like any other habit, the habit of behavioral resilience can be developed.
Motivational: 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: Dr. Wong explains, “Motivational resilience becomes existential or spiritual resilience when one considers the ultimate meaning and purpose of human existence.”
Relational: The individual’s sense of connection to family, friends, the community, and even strangers.
Emotional: The individual’s ability to tolerate rejection and negative emotions, maintain confidence and stability, and to confront obstacles.
Using these seven dimensions, you can categorize the idea of resiliency into groups of resources.
And while there’s no precise way to measure resilience, these dimensions provide a better sense of what might cause one person to be more or less resilient than another.
You can see an example of resilience in the case of Ursula M. Burns, former CEO of Xerox and current Executive Chairman of VEON.
Burns was raised by a single mother in the public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor,” Burns wrote in a story for Lean In.
Her mother worked several jobs to ensure Burns could attend a good Catholic school.
She knew education was Burns’s way out. And she was right. Burns took advantage, studied hard, and was offered a spot at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
There, she earned her degree in mechanical engineering.
Burns explained how easy it would’ve been to seek “a more predictable journey.” But, she said, “The courage and confidence that my mother and Cathedral High School had given me enabled me to lean in.”
Without a doubt, Ursula Burns is as resilient as they come. And the reasons for that resilience, as Burns herself points out, from “the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic, and the courage to lean in.”
It also helped that Burns had a strong, smart mother who instilled courage and confidence in her.
Given our understanding of resilience, not all of it can be “taught”, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.
You can certainly teach someone coping mechanisms. But you can’t teach them to have a loving family or partner.
A better question would ask: how do you help yourself or someone else get more resilience?
You can help someone get more resilience by helping them build a community. You could create an environment in which they feel safe (or safer) asking for help. Or help them set goals they care about.
You could also incorporate these three ideas for building resilience from Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine:
The coronavirus pandemic, and its drastic transformation of people’s daily work habits, puts anyone’s resilience to the test. Social isolation—in any context—blocks people from the richness of in-person interactions.
And that doesn’t even begin to address the disruption to our personal lives. For some, kids are home from school. Childcare is difficult to find. Restaurants, theaters, and more are closed down in many places. Even grocery shopping is a completely new adventure.
As creatures of habit, inevitably, these issues spill over into work. The onus to adjust, then, falls squarely on leadership.
Best practices are great, but ultimately, becoming more resilient is an individual journey.
As a leader, you can refer to the tips above on different coping mechanisms. But even coping mechanisms will fall short if people’s basic need for community, connection, and purpose aren’t met.
So if you’re trying to develop more resilient people, you have to listen first.
Then, you can start to think about where you can foster resilience. And the best way to do that is to think about Dr. Lillian Wong’s seven dimensions of resilience, as described above.
Take relational resilience, for example, which is the individual’s sense of connection to family, friends and the community. If you think connection is missing, or could be improved with your team, focus on that.
Remote group activities, such as a virtual escape room, book club or social hours are easy to set up and. They’re not the real thing, but they are something.
You could also look at motivational resilience, which is the strength and clarity of purpose an individual has. To foster motivational resilience, setting clear goals and establishing objectives can help. So read our post on objectives and key results for a primer on establishing meaningful objectives.
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?
Managers are responsible. Leaders take responsibility.