In a New York Times Magazine column late last year, Parul Sehgal wrote critically of the “prosaic popularity” of the term “resilience.” These days, he isn’t wrong. We hear about resilience so often that it’s being steadily emptied of all practical meaning.
Which is both a shame and an irony—because it’s precisely in the workplace, where “resilience” has been reduced to such a buzzword, that it can do the most potential good. Instead, the prevailing myths that the concept’s popularization have generated are holding us back from becoming more adaptive, productive, and (yes) resilient.
Here are a few of the main misconceptions that need knocking down so we can get back to making resilience actually mean something useful to modern workers.
Many of us see resilience in terms of what it gets us—as the ability to steer through setbacks or overcome adversity in order to achieve what we’re striving for all along. But this popular definition basically just says what resilient people do; it doesn’t tell us what resilience is.
It’s a subtle difference but a crucial one. And a key problem with thinking of resilience in terms of behavior—that is, of the outward signs of resilience—is that it doesn’t help us figure out how to improve our own capacity for it: Sure, resilient people bounce back, but how? If we can’t answer that, then resilience just seems like a skill that you either have or you don’t. But in fact, psychologists and researchers have have reason to believe that resilience is less an inborn trait than a set of competencies that can be learned and sharpened.
At the University of Pennsylvania, I was part of a research team that identified seven key factors of resilience:
- emotion regulation
- impulse control
- causal analysis
- realistic optimism
- reaching out
Individuals can have some of these traits and not others, or lean on a specific strength when the others are weak. For example, an employee who can seemingly power through the most taxing and time-intensive projects at work without breaking a sweat probably possesses a high degree of “causal analysis.” But that same employee might have an extreme reaction to harsh feedback, thus lacking “emotion regulation,” another factor of resilience.
By breaking resilience down into these factors, we can pinpoint employees’ strengths and help them work on their weaknesses. Resilience actually seems much more boostable when we stop thinking about what resilience does and consider what it is—an aggregation of clearly defined inner strengths.
Resilience is usually associated with traumatic events, like when a city has to bounce back from a natural disaster or an individual experiences something life-changing. But in actuality, we flex our resilience muscle every day.
Major trauma is pretty rare in many people’s lives. What’s more often robbing us of our emotional health and physical and mental well-being are the day-to-day adversities we experience. Every day, we’re asked to do more with less, balance work and home, deal with fears of reorganizations and downsizings, care for aging and ailing parents, and chauffeur our kids from one activity to another—just to name a few of the most common obligations. How we handle those prosaic, daily events is the key to our overall health and performance.
By practicing resilience and encouraging it in the workplace, employees are better equipped to handle everyday stress, not just the the most rattling moments. In fact, our recent research has found a strong correlation between employee resilience and business outcomes, including reduced absenteeism and perceived stress and increased job satisfaction, and overall health. These gains aren’t especially surprising, but they’re hard to achieve if we only focus on resilience under extreme circumstances.
Humans, as the saying goes, are creatures of habit. We continuously scan our surroundings for threats and develop habitual responses to protect ourselves. Often, though, those reactions can get in the way of emotion regulation and impulse control. When something goes wrong, we likewise have habits for interpreting its cause and problem-solving so we can move forward.
These contribute to the big, overarching beliefs we hold—most of them unconsciously—about ourselves, our world, and our future. Those beliefs usually appear to our conscious minds as “rules” about how we believe things should be, and how we—and others—should behave. Someone who simultaneously believes, “I should do my work perfectly” and “I should be there for the people I love” may feel impelled to stay late at work and to get home at the same time—yet unable to do either one consistently.
These sorts of thinking styles can upend your daily routines and get you stuck into unsuccessful, stress-inducing habits. One way to improve resilience is better understand your own thinking styles (the beliefs and rules you’ve shaped for yourself) and to develop new habits for getting around the most constricting of them—not only in the most trying times but every day.
Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. is a cocreator and chief science officer at meQuilibrium, a SaaS platform that helps users build resilience, beat stress, and adopt healthy behavior for life. He is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education, a former professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as a research professor at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona.