There is a widely held belief that people are either resilient or not – and that’s it! This is a serious misunderstanding because in fact, in certain work situations some people would be very resilient, whereas in others they might feel under extreme pressure and cope very badly. In other words, how resilient someone is likely to be, depends on the situational challenges that they are confronted with.

For example, consider a couple of different work situations. In the first, we have a role where someone has to deal firmly with colleagues and members of the public on decisions that are inflexible, controversial and often make people upset or angry. In this role, the job holder needs to be able to stick to an approach or “party line” and resist pressure to change track. Someone who is confident, structured, not easily persuaded and conscientious will cope well. On the other hand, a different role may require the job holder to make quick creative decisions, even when all of the information is not available and to be flexible, perhaps having to re-think his/her whole approach in mid-stream. In this role, our conscientious, firm and structured colleague above will frequently feel the pressure. He/she would struggle to cope well and be very unlikely to enjoy the role. So people are not simply more or less resilient than each other – it’s more complicated than that because they find resilience in the face of different types of situations by drawing on different aspects of their personalities.

In the model that we use at Robertson Cooper, the key aspects of personality that are important in determining resilience are:

  • Confidence: Feelings of competence, effectiveness in coping with stressful situations and strong self-esteem are inherent in feeling resilient. The frequency with which individuals experience positive and negative emotions is also key.
  • Adaptability: Flexibility and adapting to changing situations which are beyond our control are essential to maintaining resilience. In many situations, resilience involves coping well with change and recovering from its impact.
  • Purposefulness: Having a clear sense of purpose, clear values, drive and direction help individuals to persist and achieve in the face of setbacks.
  • Social support: Being able to build good relationships with others and get support from them can help people to overcome adversity.

So, essentially, we can’t simply categorise people as resilient or not resilient. Their resilience will depend on the situation, what demands the situation makes, their underlying personality and what training or development they have undergone. People do have a “resilience profile” in terms of things that their underlying personality naturally equips them to cope with most effectively, but it’s also the case that resilience can be developed, widened and deepened. Some of this can happen naturally, through life experiences. In fact, research has shown that both positive and negative experiences can help to build resilience. Studies by one of the key figures in positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson, have shown that positive emotional experiences broaden our thought/action repertoire. This allows us to build our psychological resources so that we are better able to cope with adversity in the future. Tough, negative experiences (‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’) also help to build resilience – but only if they don’t go on unrelentingly for too long, they are interspersed with periods of respite and they have a clear and worthwhile purpose. It’s also important to remember that being resilient is not just about coping and being stoical – resilience provides a basis for succeeding, and even thriving – rather than merely enduring difficult times.

Although resilience can be built through day-to-day experiences, some more systematic support can make a big difference. For example, helping to build resilience on the job through managed challenge and stretch; identifying an employee’s resilience profile using an online assessment tool; helping leaders and managers to ensure that their impact on their teams enhances resilience (rather than damaging it) and through resilience workshops teaching people core skills and techniques that build resilience, can all make a contribution to resilience.