What is Resilience?

Can resilience be taught? If so, how? And are some organisations more resilient than others? This article considers how the notion of resilience can inform and energise corporate culture, and how the resilient individual survives and thrives in the workplace.

All consultants know that concepts and ideas have to be ‘refreshed’ or ‘reheated” to sell. Old ideas need to be re-packaged in the language and images of the present in order to to get a new reception and adoption. What we now call ‘emotional intelligence’ was called ’social skills’ thirty years ago and ‘charm’ fifty years before that.

A modern concept that all employers seem to be interested in now is Resilience. Employers want their staff to be stress-coping, tough individuals, willing and able to give their all in difficult situations. They do not want increased absenteeism as a result of stress-based illness or poor decision making because people are not ‘relaxed’ enough to make good judgements.

But what is Resillience? Is it just being low on Neuroticism or high on Adjustment? Is it anything more than another concept called hardiness?

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Perhaps the earliest concept in this vein was stoicism. Stoics, who were followers of Zeno of Citium (300BC) believed in various virtues or behaviour patterns: imperturbability in the face of challenge; being calm under fire; always making light of pain; having great fortitude; minimising personal difficulties; and concealing any form of anxiety, doubt or distress.

In history, heroes such as Captain Oates showed great stoicism derived from a 19th century public-school ethos. It was about ‘muscular Christianity’. The inhibition of emotions, particularly any sign of vulnerability or weakness, was desirable. It meant acceptance of casual, capricious corporal punishment. Most of all, ‘muscular Christianity’ was about displays of calm, control and disinterest in the face of danger. Show imperturbability when challenged or threatened. Always be calm under fire and minimize difficulties. The mantra went: make light of pain of all sorts; take it like a man; buck up; stop whingeing.

Stocism means the concealment of anxiety, doubt and distress, and tight control of emotional expression. Never show vulnerability and exhibit the British ‘stiff upper lip’ or the Aussie masculinity ideal. But is that desirable and healthy in, as well as outside of, work? It involves tremendous effort and control. It is about the suppression of emotions and some would argue that that is unhealthy.

It is possible to observe stoicism or lack of it in the workplace. Some workers seem perpetually ill and constantly complaining; others are positive and robust. Most managers want employees with a healthy mind in a healthy body, who do not spend all their time weeping or consulting counsellors. Would it do us good to go on a few stoicism coping skills courses to learn this philosophy a little better?

Psychological literature seems rather negative about stoicism as a philosophy, or indeed as a coping response. There are four reasons for thinking it is a potentially maladaptive and undesirable way of dealing with the world:


First, particularly for men, it is associated with inertia in the face of medical symptoms. There are long-term costs to ignoring and downplaying symptoms because only sissies go to doctors. Men live on average six years less than women for various reasons, but one includes the late detection of serious illness. Ignoring what your body is telling you is not sensible or virtuous.


Second, the reluctance to talk about emotions may actually result from the inability to do so. Low emotional intelligence is defined as being unaware of one’s own and others’ emotions, and being unable to manage one’s own and others’ emotions. Pretending it is unwise, weak or unhealthy to talk about emotions may just be a bad cover for not knowing how to do it.

It is well known that males are more likely to sit on the autistic/Asperger’s spectrum than females. Males can seem emotionally illiterate, unskilled and gauche. They seem unable to recognise emotional signals in others or if they do, how to deal with them. At work that is serious, which is why emotional intelligence is reckoned to be so important for managers. Low EQ men have manifold problems. Perhaps low EQ contributes to the higher prison rate, the higher suicide rate and the higher unemployment rate in males. There is all the difference in the world between choosing not to deal with emotions and being unable to do so.


Third, and related to the above, stoicism may be associated with neither giving help to or seeking help from, colleagues at work. Unwillingness to help others in distress surely does not help team spirit. It also means stoics will be avoided as they are more likely to be disparaging rather than helpful.


Fourth, stoical people can be seen as cold and arrogant. Many show off their toughness with displays of superiority. Their values of competition, control, dominance and power are particularly unattractive in today’s workforce. Some even enjoy victimizing the odd, eccentric and weak who don’t share their philosophy.



So what is resilience? It’s about adapting and coping by learning from adversity. It is about ‘bounce back’ and ‘continue forward’. Keep calm and carry on.

It might reasonable to consider resilience as being well adjusted; the opposite of neuroticism. Neurotics are prone to anxiety, depression, hypochondria, moodiness and negativity. The stable, the adjusted and the resilient are not. Neuroticism is an unstable personality trait. Resilience is a trait that is stable over time and consistent across situations.

Some people are dispositionally more resilient than others. They are born that way. But even the most resilient person can be broken by chronic and acute conditions found in politically unstable countries, pathological families or sick organisations. Trauma and adversity can both make and break a person. It can toughen them up. Hence boarding school, basic training in the military, the assignment-heavy MBA. Put people under pressure; let them feel what it is like and help them learn to deal with it.

Some years ago a synonymous concept was popular. It was called hardiness. Hardy people believe they have personal control over their lives. They have a sense of coherence, and an ability to manage their own and others’ emotions. This ability to regulate meant they could easily forge, sustain and count on relationships with others. They could cope with change. They could use the word – and mean it – ‘challenging’, not ‘threat’.

Resilient people are comfortable in their own skin: neither arrogant nor self-doubting, they feel competent, even optimistic, that they can get through things. They can cope with ambiguity, get help when they need it and make good decisions.

The question, of course, is whether it be trained. Studies of resilience show that the toughest and most adaptive have been tested, often in childhood. Unstable family lives caused by poverty, war or difficult relationships test young people. Death, divorce, downward mobility, all bring out the best and worst in a child. It can break the sensitive, vulnerable youth or forge the stable one. If you have been through the darkest night when most vulnerable, little can scare you after that.

Resilience is about head and heart. It is about being in touch with your emotions and being able to talk about them. It is about detecting what the signals are in yourself and others, and knowing what do about them.

Resilience is not about denial, being tough or repressing emotions. It is not about a ‘big boys don’t cry’ macho, stoical boastfulness. Resilience is about understanding and harnessing emotions. It’s what they teach now in the ubiquitous and very popular Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It is about reassessing how you think about people.


The Development of Resilience

There are three crucial questions concerning resilience. Can it be taught? If so how? And are some organisations more resilient than others?

The old debating standby ‘born or made’, as applied to almost anything from leadership to criminality has begun to bore some psycho-geneticists. At least, with respect to personality traits and abilities which are the building blocks of work-related behaviour, some famous researchers say quite clearly: no investigation is required. We know the answer. Your inheritance accounts for around 50%.

So what to teach? Three things: coping skills, social intelligence, and cognitive behaviour therapy. It is not necessarily that the resilient person does not experience stress, its rather how they deal with it. There is ‘good’ coping (problem-focused, rational-seeking support) and bad coping (avoidant, emotional, detached). The question is: how do people characteristically deal with set-backs? Teach them different habits.

Much stress is about relationships at work. Stress, like hell, is often other people. So the issue is the soft skill called social intelligence. It is what Dale Carnegie talked about years ago. Teach people to be more sensitive to the emotions of others and how to manage them.

Third, and perhaps more effective, is cognitive behaviour therapy. The resilient person is optimistic, agentic, confident. People are taught to re-evaluate situations that give them grief. They can be taught to banish the unhelpful thoughts that lead to negative feelings and behaviours, and embrace positive helpful thoughts. It’s now regarded as the most effective of the therapies.

What of the resilient organisation? Resilient corporate culture? How can and do organisations deal with change? How do they cope with ambiguity and uncertainty? How do they allocate resources? How do they foster self-efficacy as opposed to fatalism in their staff? Is there trust and goodwill, a shared sense of purpose and a feeling that there exists the capacity and skills to meet all demands? Is there a sense of inter-connectedness, of co-ordination, of real honest communication?

Many factors contribute to organisational resilience which in turn is a good predictor of success and longevity. It’s not difficult to sense fatalism, distrust and depression in organisations. Unfortunately it is not that easy to turn around corporate culture. It takes some pretty bold actions. And there are many tears before bedtime. Even resilient people find it difficult to thrive in sick organisations.


The Literature

There are a number of recent books on this topic. Indeed, it has attracted so much academic attention that there is now a 540 page Handbook of Adult Resiliance edited by Reich, Zautra & Hall1 containing 24 chapters. They are concerned with issues such as whether resilience is a personality trait, a cognitive process or a learnt skill. Is it a process that causes positive adaptation or is it an outcome of experience?

The resilient person can take the heat, face the pressure, thrive on challenge. They don’t fall victim to the vicissitudes of life.

There are also many more simple popular books. Thus Neenan2 defines resilience as a set of flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses to acute or chronic adversities which can be unusual or commonplace. Essentially it is about the attitude you adopt to cope with adversity. He argues that resilience is not a special gift but a capacity that can be learnt by anyone. It should be seen as coming back, rather than bouncing back from adversity. It is not just about dealing with adversity: it is about seeking new experiences and opportunities to learn and grow. It is about how to interpret everyday events. To a large extent it is about managing negative emotions and being able to distinguish what is and what is not in ones control. It is about learning from past experiences.

Others have very much the same ideas. Clarke and Nicholson3 have a 10 point plan to increase resilience:

• Visualise success by thinking about whom you benchmark yourself against; how you view your own capabilities and performance; and the way you come across to others.
• Boost your self-esteem by listing things you are good at and recognise what others appreciate and value about you
• Enhance your self-efficacy by taking control of your life. They suggest you need to drop six ‘drag anchors’: (a) I am the victim of my personal history; (b) There’s so much to do, it’s not even worth trying; (c) I only get one shot at this; (d) There’s a right answer to everything; (e) I am on my own; (f) This isn’t fair.
• Become more optimistic because this creates the ability to reframe things, most notably moving from feelings of disappointment to seeing opportunities.
• Manage stress by reducing stress; reducing displays of hostility to others; being too much of a perfectionist; being unable to listen to others; having a tendency to hide your feelings and having difficulty in relaxing.
• Improve your decision making by trying honest risk assessment and asking others for help. It also helps to work on being more rational and more intuitive
• Asking for help: reach out to others in your network
• Deal with conflict assertively and flexibly using collaborative conflict methods
• Take up life-long learning. Invest time and resources in it
• Be yourself: authenticMartin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, is very interested in this area. In his latest book Flourish4 he describes how one might assess a person’s fitness score. It may be the new term that replaces resilience!


Measuring Resilience
To what extent do you agree with the following statements: “I usually cope one way or another”; “I know what is important to me in life”; “I approach new situations with an open mind”; “I have a diverse network of good friends”; “I have the capacity to laugh at myself”; “I usually view change as an opportunity”.

These are statements from a questionnaire that attempts to measure resilience, usually defined as a bounce-back concept: the ability to recover quickly from, or adjust easily to, any form of change, disturbance or misfortune. It is all about being consistently able to deal with, even thrive, on change.


Toughen up, Lighten up, and Buck up.
The ability to survive and thrive at work is fundamental. Resilient people are happier, healthier and more productive. Organisations wisely strive to select resilient people and also help increase that resilience. It is partly a skill, an attitude and a personality trait. Some people are clearly better than others at learning to become resilient and staying that way.

A resilient person has an array of mechanisms, processes, and responses that give them direction, structure, support and self-confidence. They have self-assurance, interpersonal confidence and good social connections. They are at the same time flexible and adaptable, organised and good problem-solvers. They have future plans, a vision and a map for the journey. They are good at initiating, maintaining and sustaining healthy, vibrant relationships with others. They can and do make decisions and solve problems well. They are organised, playful and in control of their lives. They cope with, even learn and benefit from the slings and arrows of misfortune.

Resilience is a prophylactic, a protective factor in life. If you are not quite sure what it looks like, study those who don’t have it. They seem so fragile, so unsure, so threatened. Little things affect them greatly and for long periods of time. They seem often fatalistic and moody, prone to anxiety and depression. The resilient person can take the heat, face the pressure, thrive on challenge. They rise to the occasion; they don’t fall victim to the vicissitudes of life.

About the Author
Adrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at University College London, and Adjunct Professor of Management at the Norwegian School of Management. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has also been a Visiting Professor of Management at Henley Management College. He has lectured widely abroad and held scholarships and visiting professorships at, amongst others, the University of New South Wales, the University of the West Indies, the University of Hong Kong and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has written over 1000 scientific papers and 70 books.

1. Reich, J., Zautra, A. & Hall, J. (Eds) (2010). Handbook of Adult Resilience. London: Guilford.
2. Neenan, M. (2009). Developing Resilience. London: Routledge
3. Clarke, J., & Nicholson, J. (2010). Resilience: Bounce back whatever life throws at you. London: Crimson
4. Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. London: Nicholas Brealey



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