What Leaders Get Wrong About Resilience

What Leaders Get Wrong About Resilience

By Matt Dallisson, 20/06/2022

Resilience, or the continued pursuit of goals despite adversity, is an important issue for organizations, because adversity is inevitable in people’s lives and careers. We all face personal adversities, ranging from the daily stresses of balancing work and home roles to experiences of job loss or the death of a loved one, as well as societal stressors, such as a pandemic or increases in televised, racialized violence. In the face of these challenges, resilience is essential.

At the same time, current organizational attempts to improve employee resilience are largely ineffective.  Most employee resilience training efforts have relatively small and short-lived effects — and there are valid concerns about resilience becoming an exploitative, stigmatizing, and overrated phenomenon. As former New York Times Magazine writer Parul Sehgal notes, resilience is often seen as “a doubling down of old bootstrap logic, where your success or your failure comes down to your character.” Sometimes, as this viral tweet from @zandashe highlights, it is more than an individual should bear:

I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I’m exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.

So, if resilience is both important and problematic, how can organizations improve resilience efforts — everything from targeted interventions, such as flexible work arrangements for employees navigating a challenge, to standing policies, including paid leave, well-being resources, and physical accommodations — while remaining vigilant about its downsides? We recommend understanding and addressing two pitfalls and answering three reflection questions.

Understanding Two Resilience Pitfalls

Before considering steps to help your employees become more resilient, stop to consider whether either (or both) of these pitfalls might be standing in your (and their) way.

Organizations think of resilience as a personality trait.

Often, resilience is discussed as something individuals either possess, or do not. It’s true that some people have “trait-like” stability in their resilience (e.g., they can demonstrate a consistent level of resilience across time and context). But when we only think about resilience in this way, we place sole responsibility on employees and ignore the organization’s role in providing appropriate support. Clinical psychologist Dr. Amy Adler describes this lack of structural accountability as a “shadow side to resilience.” Continuing to encourage resilience among your employees without this accountability may be psychologically depleting and result in burnout.

Instead of a trait, think about resilience as a state that any employee can attain. This requires fostering environments that proactively enable and support resilience. Do you have a culture that encourages employees to speak up and to seek resources to address their concerns, needs, and ideas? Does your organization have leave, accommodation, and benefit policies that allow employees to adequately respond to challenges? Just because some adversities are unexpected does not mean organizations should avoid planning for them. Employees may not be able to anticipate a miscarriage, sexual harassment, or a period of mental health decline, but your organization can create policies to address those potential situations in advance.

Further, this perspective highlights that resilience efforts should not be used as a replacement for the systematic removal of inequality. For example, it is not OK to encourage Black employees to “be more resilient” when experiencing racism and discrimination without addressing the root causes of why resilience is necessary in the first place. Instead, organizations can focus on creating both a culture of inclusion and specific policies that support equity.

To truly build resilience in your organization, you must recognize that two things can occur simultaneously: Individuals can build a reservoir of resources, such as optimism, vigor, and established social support networks, to draw on to help them be resilient while organizations offer proactive resources and create changes that help to protect employees. Individual employee resilience cannot replace organizational improvement and support.

Organizations stigmatize employees when they experience adversity.

While positive emotions can help boost resilience, negative emotions often occur when someone is managing a challenging experience. This is expected in the human experience; in fact, negative emotions, unless they become pathologically intense or chronic, do not prohibit individuals from being resilient. But too often, people are stigmatized when they feel or express frustration, anxiety, or overwhelm at work. As a result, employees may not seek out support because they fear being judged.

Organizational resilience efforts should not associate resilience with the absence of negative emotions during hard times. In fact, that association may be unrealistic and maladaptive. Mindfulness principles, like the non-judgmental acceptance of emotions, have known benefits, like improved physical and emotional health.

Feelings of frustration following an unwanted change, or feeling overwhelmed by balancing work and caretaking responsibilities, is not “non-resilience.” Employees can have complex emotional experiences while continuing to work towards their goals. Instead of trying to discourage negative feelings, organizations can use those feelings as signals to evaluate whether something within the organization needs to be addressed and how best to support employees.

3 Questions for Leaders to Guide Resilience Efforts

Once you understand these pitfalls and how prevalent they are on your team or in your company, you can begin to redefine your approach for helping employees demonstrate resilience. This requires asking and answering three questions in light of the unique history and needs of your organization:

Question 1: Can the adversity be reduced or removed?

Before deciding how to tackle resilience among employees, it is important to determine whether the organization can address the adversity itself.

If the answer to this question is “no,” it makes sense to center efforts on informing and supporting employees’ strategies toward resilience. For example, you cannot fix the root cause of an employee’s unexpected caretaking role, but paid time off, flexible work polices, and supportive managers are organizational resources that could provide support toward increasing resilience. Creating an environment that supports resilience may require offering idiosyncratic support to employees as needed, such as offering specific training to help an employee navigate a challenging new responsibility. Effective support necessitates asking employees what they are struggling with and what they need to overcome the adversity.

If the answer to this question is “yes” — as in the case of abusive work cultures, unrealistic employee task loads, or pay inequity — organizations should focus instead on strategies to reduce employees’ need for resilience in such cases. For example, modifying task loads, increasing staff, or offering increased pay in exchange for greater workloads are potential organizational responses to the problem of a heavy workload. Redressing adversities that stem from or could be addressed with organizational decisions may not be easy, but it would be an investment in employee success and health. This approach could also reduce burnout by allowing employees to conserve their resources for overcoming unavoidable challenges.

Question 2: Are all employees experiencing this adversity in the same manner?

While developing a resilience effort, it is valuable to consider whether the adversity varies based on employee identity, level, or tenure. The pandemic, for instance, created unique adversities for parents (compared to those who do not have children), lower socioeconomic status groups (compared to those with more financial resources), older adults and people with pre-existing conditions (compared to those at lower risk for severe health outcomes), and racial and ethnic minorities (compared to those who are not simultaneously experiencing racial injustice). Resilience efforts that ignore variability among these experiences will only be effective for a portion of employees. Seeking employee voice through surveys and focus groups is one cost-effective and efficient way to identify the impact of an adversity, allowing targeted responses while also increasing employees experience of being heard.

So, if the answer to this question is “no,” resilience efforts should include specific programs for different groups and offer personalized resources that acknowledge different experiences and needs. Take, for example, the vicarious racial trauma that manifests among Black employees who have watched other Black people experience targeted violence. Efforts to restore engagement and address employee’s emotional exhaustion after such events would benefit from an understanding of these unique stressors and include specific antiracism resources, such as Black employee resource groups and organizational actions that address racial microaggressions in the workplace. This identity-informed approach would help to ensure that the resilience program is both inclusive and useful to those who are managing adversity.

If the answer to question two is “yes,” it may make sense to create more general resilience efforts that include a set of resources and recommendations that are specific to the adversity itself. For example, certain industries like health care have some known, predictable challenges that all employees will encounter, like managing a disgruntled family member of a patient or the loss of a patient. Training that helps inform incumbents about these experiences and offers proactive resources to support their resilience may be beneficial for everyone.

Question 3: What role can I play in supporting employee resilience?

Leaders can and should play an active role in supporting employees’ resilience. Although there is a tendency to romanticize leadership — placing sole responsibility on these individuals for positive and negative outcomes — leaders do indeed shape organizational culture and norms, and play a key role in creating a climate of shared resilience responsibility.

To answer this question, leaders should reflect on the following:

Despite its limitations, organizations should continue to encourage resilience among their employees. All jobs include tasks susceptible to stressors, so there is a need for resilience across occupational stages, levels, and types. The personal and professional benefits we experience when we are resilient make attempts at remedying resilience more fruitful than abandoning resilience altogether. And eliminating resilience efforts could leave those facing adversity with limited strategies and support to manage current and future challenges.

It is empowering for employees to know that they can, at least in part, control their reactions to challenging experiences. But it is also important to recognize the complete picture, which includes the power and influence organizations and leaders have in shaping employee resilience experiences and outcomes. Effective and sustainable resilience efforts can only happen if the responsibility of resilience is shared.

This content was originally published here.