'Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.' – Viktor Frankl.
This quote from Frankl’s book, 'Man's Search for Meaning', provides a thought-provoking view on the power we have to respond to actions, events and behaviours, and it provides a good introduction to the topic of this article: resilience. Resilience is not about responding to a crisis or rebounding from a setback; it is about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious.
Resilience has been a buzzword within organisations for the past 20 years, with thousands of books, journals, and research articles published on the topic. And like lots of buzzwords, it has lost its true meaning and purpose, becoming instead an excuse or an action word used to motivate others.
In this article, I will share three reframes for rethinking what resilience really is, outlining how you can start becoming more resilient yourself, one small action and thought at a time.
1. Resilience is not about bouncing back.
I constantly ask my clients what their definition of resilience is. The most common answer I receive is about bouncing back from adversity. They use the image of a coiled spring, taking the weight and slowly getting smaller until the coil can’t take the weight anymore and bounces back to its original shape. The problem with this is that it creates the perception that resilience is only helpful when we take the strain, so to speak, and can push back against this. Unfortunately, sometimes we break under that strain, or the weight of the issue is too much for us to spring back.
So, the reframe is to think about resilience as a preventative and proactive approach to managing the load. Instead of waiting until the coil gets pushed down as far as it can go, think of resilience as the beginning when the coil has just started taking the strain and having the capacity to resist quickly. Start by increasing your noticing skills – your awareness of how you feel and how others in your team feel. What actions can you take to shift those feelings? Do you need to have a tough conversation before your workload increases and you have no capacity left? Pause and focus on what you can control before taking the strain.
2. Resilience is not about being tough and pushing through.
My uncle was a SAS soldier in the UK military, and he tells stories about the courage and bravery of humans that genuinely amaze me. I asked him once what he thought resilience meant in the military environment. For him, it was about pushing through and staying tough, not for yourself but for your team. He described the complexity of actions he made under extreme duress and how you must effectively communicate in life-or-death circumstances. But he had to be tough and push through to survive, not complete a work project on time for a client. What he was describing was mental toughness, not resilience. (Mental toughness is defined as the ability to resist, manage and overcome doubts, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding.) This is different to resilience. Resilience is not about pushing through at all costs and being tough all the time.
The reframe of this is to think about resilience as a dynamic process resulting from an individual's interaction with their environment. The environment we work in is key to our resilience. Sometimes work may feel like a battlefield, but work is not life-or-death. I want you to think about your environment at work right now. Do you feel challenged? Do you feel supported? A resilient environment is one where there is high challenge and high support. Too much challenge and you will burn out. Too much support and you will be bored. More challenge is not about taking on more responsibility or workload; it is about finding work that plays to your strengths and will stretch you in a healthy way, leading to development. Support can come from your line manager, colleagues, and clients. You just need to have the courage to ask. So instead of pushing through or trying to tough it out, think about the work environment you are in and what you can change to make it more resilient.
3. Resilience is not a fixed trait that only certain people have
It is human nature to compare ourselves to others. We perceive those who overcome horrible atrocities and events as heroic and highly resilient, subconsciously allowing this to shape our perspective on what makes a person, or indeed ourselves, qualify as resilient.
I am guilty of this (how I ask myself, can I call myself resilient when someone who has lost their entire family in a tragic accident has become a NASA astronaut??) What we don’t hear about are the everyday stories of resilience that normal people face all the time. Everyone is more resilient than they believe they are. It is not a rare and unique quality found only in certain people.
Reframing the narrative
Everyone is resilient, but some people just have more tools in their toolboxes than others. It is about building up your toolbox to deal with events that test you. Resilience is the ability to function when under pressure. It is about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious. So, when we feel this sense of pressure, we need to combat it before it becomes a bigger problem.
The global pandemic has highlighted just how resilient we are. It has affected us all differently and set in motion events we could never have anticipated. Take a moment to think about the past two years and the situations in which you have had to change in order to withstand pressure. Take the positives from those moments and add them to your toolbox.
Here is a list of the tools that high-performing people need to feel resilient and combat pressure:
Positive and proactive approach
Experience and learning
Sense of control
Flexibility and adaptability
Balance and perspective
Perceived social support
We will all face rejections, setbacks, failures, and unfair treatment in our lives. The key is to respond to adversity with a flexible and logical mindset, perpetuating constructive emotional reactions. Build your toolbox, shape your environment, and be proactive in anticipating pressure. Remember, it is your response that makes you resilient.
If you want to know more about resilience and how to shape and create a human-centred organisation that puts people first, then get in touch.
Stuart Kelly is a performance psychology consultant at Impact UK. You can connect with him here.