How to strengthen your resilience

30 Sep 15

The ability to bounce back from failure can be learned, suggests Alex Davda. Make the most of existing strengths and master new skills to thrive in difficult situations

Resilience - image: Natalie Wood


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 an urgent routine project 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 failure; they acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes and move on. But resilient people aren’t born with a unique ability to bounce back or forge ahead.

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.

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.

So what are the key factors that will help you boost your resilience and bring new direction and energy to your life and career?

1) Confidence
Positive emotions, attitudes and beliefs and the ability to influence events positively make people emotionally strong. Nurture a positive view of yourself – don’t talk yourself down or focus on flaws.

Developing a belief in yourself and your capabilities can be achieved through looking back at memorable and challenging experiences (good and bad) from your professional and personal development
and taking time to acknowledge that you came through. Public sector leaders have valuable experiences that can be drawn on and shared to boost collective confidence in the future.

2) 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, allowing you to focus on the bigger picture and consider long-term goals rather than short-term problems. On a personal level this can be achieved by considering “who” and “what” is important to you when you are under pressure. Public sector people can also benefit from connecting to the purpose of the organisation, so take time to think about what you do to help achieve wider social goals.

3) 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. Flexibility is a necessity in the public sector, with political changes often having a significant organisational impact. Learning how to be more adaptable will equip you to deal with an unexpected work challenge or large-scale restructuring. This can involve stepping out of your comfort zone.

Resilient people often use an adverse event as an opportunity to branch out in new directions.

4) Keep on learning
Learn new skills, gain new understanding and apply them during times of change. Seek opportunities to learn and develop, rather than holding on to old behaviour and bad habits, especially when it’s obvious that they do not work anymore.

5) 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, and how often your judgment is clouded by an emotional response.

6) 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.

7) Self-awareness
Recognise and develop your strengths. Reflection fosters learning, new perspectives and self-awareness, all of which will enhance your resilience.

8) Mastery motivation
This is about the drive to master new skills, to manage challenges and persist in the face of difficulty. Look for opportunities to improve yourself. Set goals and plan ways to reach them.

Under pressure, people with low resilience often demonstrate poor emotional management. Raise your awareness of when emotions are appropriate and in which situations. You should also pay attention to your emotional triggers.

9) 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.

10) Build support networks
Belonging to a group or society with a shared set of beliefs, world views and practices can help strengthen resilience.

Resilient people often have strong support networks at home and at work. Take the time to check in with colleagues and start building support networks now, so that they are there when needed. Share your common experiences.

  • Alex Davda

    Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School

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