Is resilience all it’s cracked up to be?

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Lately, it seems resilience is being heralded as the answer to just about everything.

But is it the secret to work and life success? Or a band aid for dealing with toxic environments?

What is resilience?

Having the capacity to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change is an important aspect of managing a challenging career or life path. It’d be mad to argue otherwise.

Dealing with stressful events through a variety of coping mechanisms in a way that results in positive outcomes is an essential tenet of corporate longevity. Resilience has become a fashionable must-have; the de rigueur accessory for any self-respecting high-achiever.

Resilience by any other name

Call it what you will – and there are a selection of resilience buzzwords doing the rounds – ‘hardiness’, ‘grit’, ‘stamina’, ‘mental toughness’ or ‘armouring up’ to name but a few, all such references share an emphasis on coping, enduring and bouncing back. (One new term discovered in the process of researching this article – ‘bouncing forward’ – made me flinch particularly.)

Whatever the terminology, resilience’s underlying doctrine or insinuation is that it’s our capacity to ‘stay strong’ or ‘harden up’ that ultimately matters the most.

Dealing with an overload of work pressure and stress without crumbling, snapping or ever having a break down is the currency that counts. The most prized of traits among the elite of corporate athletes is that they are resilient.

The ultimate insult

That most famous of resilience euphemisms – ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ is being tacitly endorsed with every promotion of resilience.

And instead, I’d suggest we’d do better to promote this:

What doesn’t kill us can make us miserable, overworked and overwhelmed… and there has to be a better way’

Resilience is neither the problem nor the solution

I think we’ve witnessed something close to an organisational obsession for resilience-building in Australia over the past few years.

I sense (and hope!) we may now be largely through and out the other side of this – although those of you impacted by the Royal Commission into banking practices are probably seeing a renewed surge of resilience offerings as your organisations struggle to cope with the onslaught of associated challenges, stresses and strains.

In other parts of the world, it seems resilience offerings are just coming into vogue.

At time of writing, I know of one organisation where there has been a recent suicide in the leadership team, another where three senior executives have been admitted to hospital with exhaustion within the space of one week, and one more where there has been a flurry of burnout-induced resignations.

I can assure you, the problem in all cases was not a lack of resilience. And the solution, therefore, is not for organisations simply to build resilience in their people.

There’s something missing

In my humble opinion, the resilience movement is missing something.

I’m not arguing resilience is unimportant – it is vitally important. But only as ONE aspect of individuals’ overall wellbeing and NEVER as a fix for systemic cultural, behavioural or overload issues.

Developing an immunity to negativity can’t be the whole picture. Resilience by itself feels too narrow in focus. Its emphasis on recovery, coping and survival is a necessary but essentially depressing part of the self-management equation. Its aim is solely to moderate the negative effects of stress and develop protective mechanisms to deal with difficulties as quickly as possible, enabling a return to equilibrium and equanimity.

Instead of solely asking how individuals can cope better with stress by being more resilient, we want to encourage a loftier set of ambitions, a more inspiring and uplifting aspiration.

Let’s not ask how individuals can merely survive or cope, but rather how they can thrive, feeling the contentment that comes from good, meaningful work, and sense of ease that comes from supportive colleagues and a respectful, trusted employer. How might organisations help individuals to flourish, to reach, feel and stay at their best – at work and in their personal lives?

And that, dear readers, means wellbeing.

Resilience. Wellbeing. There’s a difference.

It’s for good reason that ‘Resilience and Equanimity’ appears as just one of the six holistic aspects measured in our GLWS wellbeing framework. Resilience by itself is too narrow and too simplistic.

So now I’ve got that off my chest, I’d like to talk about my main concern with resilience – one that’s a little darker and more sinister.

There’s not just something missing, there’s something amiss

I’ve already mentioned that resilience should NEVER be seen as a fix for systemic cultural, behavioural or work capacity issues. Unfortunately, this is what we’ve seen happening, and it’s a somewhat sinister underbelly of today’s resilience movement.

It troubles me when I see the emphasis being placed on individuals building their resilience as the main strategy for upholding performance or as a substitute for other systemic flaws.

Here’s some examples of what I mean:

  • I can think of many teams where the whole team is offered some form of ‘stress management’ or ‘resilience building’ interventions because of one aggressor’s unacceptable behaviour.
  • Or, where one leader’s intimidating behaviour results in an entire office undertaking misplaced mindfulness workshops to diffuse the impact of the poor behaviour from the toxic leader.
  • Or, where organisations ardently promote step-a-thons and lunchtime yoga, in a thinly veiled guise to ameliorate the effects of chronic overload.

I harbour concerns about these not infrequent observations – where the propagation of a focus on building others’ capacity to be resilient takes away from appropriately acknowledging or dealing with the toll that poor behaviour (the cause of the stress) or poor culture (workload, working practices, resources) takes.

Victim blaming

Where organisations want to build resilience in their people so they can handle (unacceptably) stressful situations, they are suggesting the issue is that they are not already resilient enough – and this feels to me like an insidious form of victim blaming.

Take the real-life experience of one highly successful and well-established executive who becomes uncharacteristically and debilitatingly stressed, anxious and depressed because of a peer’s undermining and destabilizing behaviour, where it is the executive herself (not the errant peer) who is found wanting because she ‘needs to be more resilient’. It becomes her problem – or rather, she becomes the problem. In the eyes of the organisation, she needs to work on “manning-up” (yes, truly this is what was said), recovering and adapting (decoded to mean ‘accept the unacceptable’.)

Beware of creating a culture of coping

Encouraging people to tolerate struggles as a test of their character or trying to fortify them is tantamount to creating a ‘culture of coping’, and I believe this is to the detriment of progressive demands for changes in the system.

It is our firm belief that wellbeing must be addressed at various levels, as this illustration suggests:

Whilst no one can ‘give us’ wellbeing and each of us must shoulder the responsibility for our own wellbeing (including the development of our resilience), this is unlikely to be achieved by interventions provided by organisations unless they meet our very specific needs at the right point in time!

The responsibility rests with the people and systems that create the conditions for employees to thrive and flourish, (or not) – and this is especially our boss, our team mates, the broader organisation and even government and society.

Looking beyond resilience

Don’t get us wrong – we need to build our self-management skills, but resilient individuals alone are not enough to combat rising burnout and certainly not enough to create the conditions for satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing.

For that we need to look beyond resilience to create the culture, systems and practices for wellbeing.

If this blog has struck a chord for you (or not), I’d be interested in hearing your views and suggestions.

Sources: 

Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory (2013). European Psychologist. 18. 12-23. 10.1027/1016-9040/a000124.

Psychological Capital for Leader Development Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Vol 25, Issue 1, pp. 47 – 62 July 2017https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051817719232

Diprose, Kristina. (2015). Resilience is futile. Soundings. 58. 10.3898/136266215814379736.

Why you don’t need to build resilience August 2016 www.leadershpforces.com

Resilience: it’s not about hardening up! By D. Pilch on Institute of Managers and Leaders available athttps://managersandleaders.com.au/blog/resilience/

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Audrey McGibbon is a Psychologist, Executive Coach and Wellbeing Expert. She has worked holistically with psychologists, coaches, consultants and organisations for over 25 years to support professionals and leaders to do and be their best every day.

She is co-author of the GLWS (Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey) – a world-leading, uniquely holistic tool that delivers evidence-based and robust data for understanding wellbeing. Learn more about GLWS accreditation here.

GLWS Wellbeing

GLWS Wellbeing