The Case for Building Resilience
We have all heard about resilience. The term has been around for a long time. But after these past two pandemic years, it has become more relevant than ever.
In a nutshell, resilience is the ability to deal with, overcome and sometimes even transcend failures, setbacks, or traumatic experiences (1). One thing is certain: the years 2020-2021 made clear that it is essential to build and demonstrate resilience at different levels of our society. Whether it was to their benefit or not, all individuals, teams, and organizations had to deal with the consequences of this global crisis.
Let’s keep in mind that different types of adversity will have a different impact on different aspects of different organizations. So, a lot depends on the context. There is no general “recipe” for resilience, no resilience “toolkit” that is valid for all organizations. Nevertheless, there are several evidence-based methods for building personal, team, and organizational resilience which will be further discussed in this article. We will cover several scientific articles and provide a list of practical techniques to boost workplace resilience on different levels.
The Individual Level
- Building individual resilience by fostering positive emotions through positive appraisal
- Building individual resilience by fostering workplace support
- Building individual resilience through coaching
The Team Level
- Building team resilience by fostering shared positive emotions
- Building team resilience by facilitating communication
- Building team resilience by developing close relationships within teams
The Organizational Level
One thing is sure, the future is full of surprises and adversity is inevitable. So, it is crucial to build resilience (on each level) proactively.
Most of the research focuses on individual determinants of workplace resilience. But findings are not always transferable to teams or organizations. It’s critical to understand how we, as individual human beings, deal with adversity and how we can protect ourselves by being resilient/building resilience.
The term "resilience" refers to a multi-level concept. Resilience varies at different levels as the lower levels have an impact on the higher levels. A team will not be resilient when its members aren’t. Also, team resilience depends on the team climate, structure, etc.David Ducheyne
At Otolith we often talk about the 3 x 3 x 3 approach to resilience. Firstly, there are three moments to develop resilience: before, during, and after adversity. Secondly, there are three levels of resilience: the individual, the team, and the organization. To be honest, there’s a fourth one, community resilience. And finally, there are three main topics to work on: purpose, collaboration, and learning.
The Individual Level
1. Building resilience by fostering positive emotions through positive appraisal
Some studies look upon individual resilience as a trait, a stable characteristic an individual is born with. So-called ‘high-resilience people’ are proven to be more likely to successfully overcome failures and adversity as they experience more positive emotions which helps them to bounce back from stressful situations (2).
However, others believe that ‘low-resilience people’ are not necessarily destined to suffer from poor emotion regulation as individual resilience can also be defined as a dynamic process, a mechanism that individuals can proactively build by adapting a positive appraisal style (3). In other words, evaluating a task or situation as a ‘challenge’ rather than as a ‘threat’ is the key contributor to individual resilience. Because of positive appraisal, individuals with low levels of resilience can also generate positive emotions which help them overcome stress and setbacks.
There is a constant interplay between your thoughts and your emotions. How you frame and interpret certain situations impacts your emotions. Negative thinking creates anxiety, ultimately reduces your focus and is, most of the time, counterproductive. Framing situations in a solution-focused or positive way helps you experience positive emotions and approach problems from a different angle/perspective (cfr. Broaden-and-build theory, Frederickson). Positive (and therefore also negative) thinking can eventually become a habit. Therefore, reframing and putting things in perspective is important. Recognize when your thoughts are being “hijacked” so you can engage in something that evokes positive emotions, e.g., spending time with people you care about, doing activities you enjoy, listening to uplifting or inspiring music, etc.Eva De Winter
This finding suggests that a positive appraisal intervention could be especially beneficial for low-resilience people. Regardless of whether resilience is something people are inherently born with or not, appraising events positively and thus experiencing more positive emotions shields all individuals against the impacts of stress. In conclusion, to increase individual resilience, people must cultivate positive appraisal (cfr. Positive psychology).
This is why giving feedback in an appropriate way is so important for teams and ultimately, organizations. Even though the impact of feedback should not be underestimated, it is often given in a sloppy manner. First of all, there should be an unequal balance between positive feedback and development-oriented feedback as literature states that the impact of positive feedback is bigger. Secondly, separate positive feedback and development-oriented feedback in time. The so-called ‘sandwich method’ of giving feedback does not work. Leaders who are trained to give effective feedback and have the discipline to do so, are perceived as more effective, efficient, and approachable.Philippe Persyn
2. Building Resilience by fostering workplace support
Another strategy to build individual resilience among coworkers is to create a supportive workplace culture for them, as supportive leadership and co-worker support are both linked to employee resilience (4). Employees’ resilience thrives in circumstances where job resources such as support are present.
It is all about context. Well, it is a lot about context. We may expect people to be resilient, but without a supportive environment, they will be less likely to exhibit the behaviors organizations need during difficult times. A context that supports resilience is difficult to develop during adversity. Nevertheless, there is always something one can do. An important element here is the quality of leadership. In my book on sustainable leadership, I talk about a style of leadership that provides the support people need. When leaders base their leadership on character instead of on position, power, or pressure, they will build a trusting relationship that will last during times of adversity, which is a condition for change as well.David Ducheyne
3. Building Resilience through coaching
Coaching not only helps individuals set, monitor, and reach goals. Being coached can also result in an increased level of workplace wellbeing (5). Employees who are being coached and supported while dealing with adversity grow their resilience5 and enhance their self- regulation (6). Coaching sessions give people the opportunity to work through barriers that were originally in their way of achieving goals (e.g., negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviors, convictions, or value systems). Additionally, coaching employees results in significant improvements to self-confidence, job satisfaction, and well-being (5).
Furthermore, coaching helps people deal with change and workplace stressors (5). A structural problem of workplace stress can be fixed by coaching the executive to develop a constructive leadership style and to build a supportive workplace culture. As mentioned before, a supportive workplace culture fosters employee resilience.
Besides, coaching leadership as a leadership style has been proven to be effective. An organization led by a coaching leader will flourish in many ways. Positive outcomes such as self-efficacy, hope, resilience, optimism, work engagement, and in-role and extra-role performance among employees will only increase as a result of coaching leadership. (Reading tip: Effective Leader, Effective Coach? By Otolith). So, incorporating coaching into standard organizational procedures might help with building individual resilience and so much more.
It is indeed key to empower executives and make them responsible and accountable for coaching their employees. “External” coaching often starts this process, but internal coaching should, from a certain moment, be more used than external coaching.
“Incorporating into standard organizational procedures” can also be understood as “building a coaching culture”. A coaching culture is often used to describe organizations that have integrated coaching in such a way that it has become a continuous solid practice of daily meaningful communication amongst colleagues.
“Incorporating into standard organizational procedures” can also be understood as “building a coaching culture”. A coaching culture is often used to describe organizations that have integrated coaching in such a way that it has become a continuous solid practice of daily meaningful communication amongst colleagues.Karl Van Hoey
In summary, people can develop individual resilience in different ways. A few examples have been listed above, such as mastering positive appraisal and coaching both employees and leaders. Training resilience has been proven to be effective as it not only improves individual resilience but also helps to develop mental health and generates subjective well-being in employees (7). Other benefits of resilience training include enhanced psychosocial functioning and improved performance. So as a society, we should really take individual resilience seriously as only resilient individuals can form resilient teams, which contribute to resilient organizations, and resilient organizations create a resilient society.
Resilience should be developed and maintained permanently and proactively by building certain habits that sustain our mental, physical, and social well-being. The moment you come across adversity, you should be able to fall back on certain habits to protect yourself. It seems paradoxical, but when we need recovery the most (i.e., when dealing with (too) many job stressors), we will be less inclined to disconnect from work, engage less in physical activities, and have an impaired sleep quality (cfr. Recovery paradox, Sonnentag).Eva De Winter
Building Resilience on the Team Level
Even though the roots of team resilience are founded in the capacities of individuals, a group of resilient individuals does not always result in a resilient team. So how can we build team resilience?
1. Building team resilience by fostering shared positive emotions
Experiencing positive emotions does not only help build personal resilience, the same goes for team resilience as it flourishes when a group of people experiences shared positive emotions (8). A few examples of collective emotions are optimism, comfort, satisfaction, and enthusiasm. This finding implies that teams need to work in an atmosphere where the experience of positive emotions and affective sharing is allowed and fostered, resulting in team resilience.
As a result of established team resilience, teams will perform better (7). For example, work outcomes such as in-role and extra-role behavior improve in high-resilient teams. Both HR and leaders can be powerful resources when installing a positive attitude among team members to generate resilience on the team level. Moreover, high-quality relationships between team members facilitate the development of positive emotions.
When working with executive teams, I notice that most teams focus on the what of their business, less on the how and least on the why. Nevertheless, it is important to revisitDavid Ducheyne
the why and the how regularly, as it provides a sense of meaningfulness, and it shines a light on the progress a team has made. Two aspects that make people feel competent. This is why it is important to remember there is always a silver lining, even in tough situations. These days we tend to focus on the problems rather than the solutions. The negative feelings this type of thinking brings along do not help us at all. But I admit, (forced) positive thinking is more difficult than it sounds. So, teams should take a moment to appreciate what they are doing (right), even when they find themselves in dire situations.
2. Building team resilience by facilitating communication
In order for a team to work effectively, and as a direct result of that become more resilient, there is a great need for communication (9).
So first, install and speak a shared language within teams to overcome misunderstandings caused by different professional expertise or experiences. Secondly, communicate openly and frequently within teams to share knowledge and abilities to favor the accomplishment of the task. Lastly, don’t hesitate to employ individuals with different backgrounds and experiences as this boosts open communication, resulting in better performance (9).
Leaders seem to think too often that once they have communicated the message, the job is done. But we should never overestimate the power of broadcasts, general communications. The best way to guide people through difficult times is by fostering conversations between individuals and within small teams. People want to make sense of it all, and a broadcast does not allow for questions. If the hurdles are too big, distributed leadership, or sometimes called the middle-management, can play an important role.David Ducheyne
Not discussing differences of opinions or wrongly managing conflicts hinders individuals from learning from mistakes and, as a result, hinders them from being able to respond effectively to adversity (10). So, communication is truly key in building team resilience.
Teams should have a plan in place for dealing with future conflicts, as well as a standard procedure for making decisions. Assumptions lead to misunderstandings and apprehension, whereas communicative leaders can provide clarity during times of conflict and uncertainty.Philippe Persyn
3. Building team resilience by developing close relationships within team
High-quality team relationships are linked to both more experiential learning and access to knowledge, both of which are associated with team resilience (11).
Furthermore, besides sharing practical content it is also important to constructively share both positive and negative emotions as it is in general one of the predictors of relationship closeness, which in turn results in greater team resilience (12).
The bigger the team the more difficult this becomes. A team with 10 team members has to maintain 45 relationships. But when one person becomes contentious or conflicted, 9 relationships, which equals 20% of all relationships, are damaged. So, leaders must make sure the climate is supportive. This requires people being willing and able to integrate and establish positive relationships. There is no room for big egos and lingering conflicts in a resilient team.David Ducheyne
One of the methodologies I love to use is the life-line. Very often I see people closely working together without really knowing each other. By sharing one’s highs and lows over a lifetime, empathy, respect, and trust flourishes. This enables colleagues to grow a closer relationship. However, this requires vulnerability. Showing vulnerability is a key factor for connecting with one another and building trust.Philippe Persyn
The Organizational Level
Research about organizational resilience is not rich. There are some insights on e.g., supply chain resilience, business continuity plans, etc. Even when these articles state something about resilience, we are keen to work on what makes an organization unstoppable.
In general, organizational resilience can be built by providing tools and resources to support resilience-related practices that help organizations to be flexible and dynamic, especially during tough times. Practices such as teamwork, open communication, wellness (9), and a good organizational culture (13) all contribute to the development of organizational resilience.
Resilience is found to be a beneficial resource as it generates positive outcomes such as more in- and extra-role behavior8, team cohesion and cooperation (1), less psychological distress (14), and more positive work attitudes (15).
To be continued.
With Covid, there’s an even bigger focus on resilience. Some think it’s the new holy grail. Some even speak of the big reset. But Covid is just a bump in the road. We mustn’t forget that business is an infinite game, there is no time horizon. Short-term thinking is one of the factors that hinders the development of resilience.A consequence of the human systems is short-termism. Sometimes we are just doing it to ourselves. So, I advise -although people will say it’s a lofty idea- to adopt a long-term view, considering the fact that to be unstoppable, organizations (read shareholders and senior management) need to accept setbacks as a normal part of infinite business. And we need to embrace the fact that that people are not machines. Also they have finite resources. But still, these personal resources can be big when there's a context that provides sufficient sources of energy.David Ducheyne
We hope that these research- and practice-based suggestions shed some light on how workplace resilience manifests itself. Employees’ personal resilience should hopefully aid in the formation of resilient teams, all in favor of creating a resilient organization.
In coming blogs we will continue to focus on how to translate strategies into action and behavior. In order to be successful, we need to focus on human behavior. Because strategies are not successful, people are.
Think human. Act human.
1 West, B. J., Patera, J. L., & Carsten, M. K. (2009). Team level positivity: investigating positive psychological capacities and team level outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(2), 249– 267. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.593
2 Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 730–749. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680
3 Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240
4 Cooke, F. L., Wang, J., & Bartram, T. (2019). Can a Supportive Workplace Impact Employee Resilience in a High Pressure Performance Environment? An Investigation of the Chinese Banking Industry. Applied Psychology, 68(4), 695–718. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12184
5 Grant, A. M., Curtayne, L., & Burton, G. (2009). Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being: a randomised controlled study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 396–407. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760902992456
6 Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773–1802. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467- 6494.2006.00428.x
7 Robertson, I. T., Cooper, C. L., Sarkar, M., & Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88(3), 533–562. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12120
8 Meneghel, I., Salanova, M., & Martínez, I. M. (2014). Feeling Good Makes Us Stronger: How Team Resilience Mediates the Effect of Positive Emotions on Team Performance. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(1), 239–255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-014-9592-6
9 Bui, H., Chau, V. S., Degl’Innocenti, M., Leone, L., & Vicentini, F. (2019). The Resilient Organisation: A Meta‐Analysis of the Effect of Communication on Team Diversity and Team Performance. Applied Psychology, 68(4), 621–657. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12203
10 Carmeli, A., & Schaubroeck, J. (2008). Organisational Crisis-Preparedness: The Importance of Learning from Failures. Long Range Planning, 41(2), 177–196. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lrp.2008.01.001
11 Carmeli, A., Levi, A., & Peccei, R. (2021). Resilience and creative problem-solving capacities in project teams: A relational view. International Journal of Project Management, 39(5), 546–556. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijproman.2021.03.007
12 Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E. D., Carmeli, A., Spreitzer, G. M., & Dutton, J. E. (2013b). Relationship Quality and Virtuousness: Emotional Carrying Capacity as a Source of Individual and Team Resilience. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49(1), 13–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886312471193
13 Barasa, E., Mbau, R., & Gilson, L. (2018). What Is Resilience and How Can It Be Nurtured? A Systematic Review of Empirical Literature on Organizational Resilience. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, 7(6), 491–503. https://doi.org/10.15171/ijhpm.2018.06
14 Utsey, S. O., Giesbrecht, N., Hook, J., & Stanard, P. M. (2008). Cultural, sociofamilial, and psychological resources that inhibit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(1), 49–62. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.199
15 Youssef, C. M., & Luthans, F. (2007). Positive Organizational Behavior in the Workplace. Journal of Management, 33(5), 774–800. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206307305562
Authors of this blog are Mareline De Schipper, Eva De Winter, David Ducheyne, Philippe Persyn and Karl Van Hoey
Photo by Kelly L from Pexels
There are no clear-cut answers to strategic questions. If there were, everybody would be doing the same. That is why building resilient organizations is so important. Resilience means that we can deal with setbacks, uncertainty, volatility. Get in touch if you want to define a working strategy, and to develop the collaborative and leadership capabilities you need to support it.
Why not start with a reflection with your executive committee on what resilience entails for your organization?