Let’s start at my beginning…
I’ve already explained why I wanted to do my dissertation on this subject. However, there was a particular essay that confirmed this to me. So below is an edited version of that essay, written by me last year. It got a very decent academic grade, so I have no problem in sharing it here!
I’ve edited it from my original to make it shorter and more generic. If you have comments, please post them below. Your thoughts and ideas may help me shape my dissertation in the right way!
If you’re viewing this in a 3-column format, you might prefer to click on the above blog title to move to a screen-wide version of this post. It makes for an easier read!
PERSONAL RESILIENCE FOR ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE
What does the academic literature say about personal resilience in a working environment? How might key decision makers be convinced to make appropriate investment in building a resilient culture?
“Some people outperform others [during times of crisis]. They are simply hardier. The grand mystery is why.” (Ripley, 2008)
There is a clear split in the literature between individual psychological resilience being something that some people have (Ripley, 2008) or being something that is learned or done (Siebert, 2005). Much of the academic research appears ambiguous in terms of what causes resilience, though there is widespread agreement on the personality traits of those who are considered to be more resilient than others. Without more firmly identifying underlying causes of personal resilience, it is difficult to prove herein the argument that it can be learned. Yet many, including Coutu (2003) and Siebert (2005), are very clear that it can: “We’ll never fully understand it, but we can learn it – and we must.” (Coutu, 2003)
Literature on personal resilience
A 2007 literature review (Jackson, Firtko, & Edenborough, 2007) attributes the following traits to more resilient personalities: resourcefulness, self-discipline, level-headedness, flexibility, intelligence, a strong sense of self, sense of control, and positivity. Additional primary research concurs with these contentions. When considered more fully, some of these traits overlap each other, so we shall consider most of them in more detail below.
Optimism and hope are said to be key to a resilient nature (Riolli, Savicki, & Cepani, 2002) with one study of nuns concluding that those who were more optimistic during their early adult lives lived around 10 years longer than their less positive counterparts (Frederickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003). To be effective, however, optimism must reflect the reality bordering the situation (Coutu, 2003). Frankl (2004) gives an example of this when he explains how those who were imprisoned in the Nazi camps in Germany were more likely to survive if they believed they would eventually be freed but did not put time limits on their hope: for example, those who became convinced they would be released by Christmas were more likely to die in the months following Christmas when they had not.
Closely linked to optimism, the ability to find the positive in situations is widely recognized as a key resilience trait (Jackson, Firtko, & Edenborough, 2007). It is generally demonstrated in two ways. Firstly by literally being able to identify positive gains/learning during or following an event and secondly by display of coping strategies designed to elicit positive emotion from self and others (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). One coping strategy commonly employed to this end is the use of humour (Frederickson, 2004) that, particularly in cases where those involved have previous experience in related situations, can often be very black. Coutu (2003) describes this as placing a ‘plastic shield’ around the harsh reality of the situation. Frankl (2004) explains his concurring experience of being in Nazi prison camps far more poetically: “Humour was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
Studies examined by Ripley (2008) conclude that higher IQs and self-confidence are identifiable in people who bounced back fastest from experiences such as the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict and 9/11. Acknowledging that IQ may contribute to personal confidence in itself, the confident people (Ripley says, in some cases, “unrealistically confident… you and I would probably call them arrogant”) even showed chemical difference by having lower levels of the cortisol hormone. Having a sense of being able to control, if not the situation but the response or the environment around the incident, is also prevalent in those considered more resilient (Riolli, Savicki, & Cepani, 2002), and it would seem likely that those with self confidence and a healthy IQ would be more likely to develop this belief.
Cortisol levels are only one biological measure of resilience that has been undertaken. Members of the elite forces of the US Army produce more of the chemical compounds that keep humans calm under stress than general infantry staff (Ripley, 2008) and, as Ripley notes, Special Forces staff are not Jean-Claude Van Damme types, they “tend to be the ones with the beards who speak Arabic and can melt into a foreign population.” Perhaps more interestingly, as it can be applied far more easily in the non-military world, the research found that a questionnaire could predict resilience levels and therefore accurately predict which individuals would succeed in completing Special Forces training. The questionnaire asks about previous experience, outside of times of extreme duress, of experiencing reality seeming to take place in slow motion, and/or reality seeming dreamlike and unreal, and/or reality happening around them with a sense of distance, as if they were watching it happen like it was a play. The higher the correlation between positive answers regarding dissociation during normal times, the less likely the individual is to pass Special Forces training. However, it should also be noted that Special Forces training is so extreme that all the soldiers experienced some of the dissociative symptoms during it (Ripley, 2008).
My own observations of personal resilience generally correlate with the literature. In a work context, particularly working in crisis operations rooms, it appears that those who deal best with the pressure are those who are confident, optimistic, and intelligent. However the same traits are present in those who cause the most disruption during those times: over-confidence, over-optimism and/or the belief that control exists when it does not can be damaging to the other individuals and or the team, either because of the need to debate issues or because the ultimately disruptive person takes lead roles when they should actually step aside. Positivity should be encouraged as it’s vital to maintaining a good team environment, especially during a protracted incident. Teams often employ humour and, among those who are used to working together regularly, very black humour is used during crises (or potential crises) as a form of stress relief. However, most are aware that this has the capacity to offend those who are not used to working in this environment and it must be tempered when others are present. In recruiting volunteers to assist the core team during an incident, it does appear to be true that those who fare well have many of the traits listed above, though often with a lesser level of self-confidence, which is useful to the hierarchical structure of an organisation.
The review of the literature did make me curious to understand the underlying causes of resilience, particularly when it does not appear to have been ‘trained in’, for example via Armed Forces training. As a society we generally are told there is “solid empirical evidence” (Bonano, Galea, Bucciarelli, & Vlahov, 2007) that stable childhoods and lack of trauma experience produces more resilient adults. However, my personal experience has been quite the reverse. Amongst friends and colleagues whom I know well enough to know about their pasts, I have found those who have come through significant and ongoing challenges from an early age – for example a chronically ill parent, the loss of a primary family member, or abuse – appear far more resilient than those with more ‘normal’ background. It has often appeared to me that those with stable upbringings found it harder to deal with crisis events, possibly simply through having less experience than others. The aforementioned Special Forces studies revealed similar conclusions. Ripley (2008) notes: “Special Forces staff also reported more trauma in their backgrounds overall. They reported greater incidence of childhood abuse, for example. This was unexpected. Normally prior trauma predicts worse performance under stress.” It would seem that while studies have traditionally suggested that past trauma results in lower resilience, newer studies contradict the absolute of this contention.
The literature, when combined holistically, appears to suggest that there are four key ways that an organisation can support and build on individual levels of resilience. Firstly, they could set resilience attributes it as a recruitment criteria; secondly, they could harness the concept of some resilient traits being contagious (Ross, 2006) and maximise the benefits provided by the existing staff skills; thirdly, we are told that these skills and attributes can be learned (Jackson, Firtko, & Edenborough, 2007) so an organisation can seek to pro-actively develop resilience skills in individuals; lastly, by setting and promoting organisational values the company can increase the resilience of the approaches individuals choose to take (Coutu, 2003). We will consider each these in turn.
Recruitment. Resilience can be a recruitment criterion. In addition to straightforward questions around previous experience and personal aptitudes, the assistance of a recruitment specialist with access to aptitude tests based on the questionnaires mentioned in the Special Forces study may be of benefit. Recruiting the attributes for appropriate roles ensures that the basic skillset is available to the organisation from the outset of an individual’s employment. Larger organisations may be able to call upon an outside agency to employ additional recruitment assessments, and it may be appropriate for them to consider adding this to the list of requirements for some roles.
Contagion. Riolli et al advise that children can be taught to be optimistic and to choose to find positive emotions, and use this as a resilient building block for later life (Riolli, Savicki, & Cepani, 2002). In adult cultures it can be ingrained by making it a “daily habit” to identify the positives in given situations (Frederickson, 2004), with the good news being that this habit appears to be catching if it is regularly visible (Ross, 2006). My own approach towards work in general is hugely influenced my second ‘proper’ job, working with inspiring leaders in a small but global charity. The positivity of the directors was reinforced by habitual reference to problems as ‘challenges’ and virtual catastrophes as ‘a huge opportunity to get creative’. This was further supported by positive messages being found for almost all issues, and a habit of praising before criticising being the norm. This charity achieved almost impossible goals, quite probably because we, the staff, never stopped to consider the fact it was possible to fail. Thus we met every issue as another thing we could deal with if we worked together. The only downside to this culture, was that if there was a real systemic problem, or an employee who really did need to be dealt with – and these things definitely existed – it took a very long time for this to be dealt with properly, and sometimes the resolution was less effective than it should have been, because of the constant pressure to be seen to toe the “everything’s amazing” party line. This experience matches Coutu’s (2003) thoughts around positively needing to be based in reality.
Development. Existing staff can learn to increase their resilience and hardiness skill set (Siebert, 2005). While a quick google search reveals there are many experts, books and courses available to organizations wishing to investigate this further, the literature helps us to understand that developing some low or no cost business-as-usual options are also available to the company.
A sense of the ability to control a situation or incident can be increased by practicing roles and responses to crisis events (Ripley, 2008). Rehearsing or exercising contingency plans and command and control procedures around a developing fictional scenario enables individuals to gain insight into how behavioural choices may impact a team or scenario. (Of course the same is true of actual experience of crisis events!) Many companies are very good at rehearsing staff in incident management and business continuity arrangements, with varying degrees of reality according to the needs and experience of the group concerned; however there is usually room for improvement in this area.
Encouraging staff to build their own informal professional support network inside and outside the company also increases the likelihood of resilient attributes. Resourcefulness, flexibility and a sense of control are more easily achieved when trusted sounding boards, opinions and support are in place at an individual level (Jordan, 1992). Organisations should consider ways to help encourage more networking on an individual level. Where members of the incident management team pool have built their own informal support system – usually via real or rehearsed incidents – their increased resilience of these people is almost tangible during crisis events.
Values. Coutu (2003) boldly states that having universally understood values is “actually more important for organizational resilience than having resilient people.” She contends that it ensures that employees understand the way the company would want them to act. An example of this might be the Johnston & Johnston company Credo, a statement that says the customer should be considered above profitability, a statement which helps their crisis management team make swift and correct decisions at the outset of any crisis. Many large organisations clearly state their company’s values and as I began to write this paragraph, I was fully intending to state that I didn’t agree with Coutu that corporate values would assist decision making in a crisis. However, having actually looked at the values of one large organisation in light of this, I realise that Coutu is absolutely correct: with values including “trust, customers, quality, creativity, respect and working together”, applying these as the principles of an incident management approach could be an extremely constructive approach.
The content of this essay to this point provides the background information required to make the case for making appropriate investment in developing a culture where staff resilience skills are encouraged and developed. This content should be taken into account by the key decision makers. However, the rest of the case would be made by indentifying the benefits to be gained by the company and highlighting that the investment may be more of time investment than finance.
Benefits. Non-resilient staff are more likely to suffer from stress. Excessive stress in the workforce can lead to poor decision-making, short or long term sick leave and higher attrition rates as individuals leave the company. More resilient staff are better at making things work during crisis events and times of difficulty, and are more likely to remain with the organisation (Siebert, 2005). Resilient staff increase company capabilities during difficult or crisis periods: they are creative, flexible, positive and hardy, and they are more likely to make sound decisions at critical moments. They also cost less money per head in the long term, because they are less likely to be ill or to cause additional recruitment costs by leaving the company during or following critical periods (Jackson, Firtko, & Edenborough, 2007).
Cost. Usefully, many of the measures require minimal financial and actual time investment to achieve the long-term goals. Senior managers can, for example, lead by example by adopting the “daily habit” of identifying the positives in situations in order to ingrain it as a cultural norm. Similarly, suggesting staff build their own support networks can be encouraged as part of normal business, as it facilitates increased productivity during business-as-usual as well as crisis events.
The case for financial investment in resilience falls mainly into two areas: funding for assessing resilience at the recruitment stage for appropriate roles, and developing and resourcing rehearsals (also known as exercises or scenario-based training) in the management of crisis events (Ripley, 2008) and business continuity. In our organization the latter is funded for reasons of business continuity and the funding for additional recruitment testing is minimal.
- Bonano, G. A., Galea, S., Bucciarelli, A., & Vlahov, D. (2007). What predicts psychological resilience after a disaster? The role of demographics, resources and life stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology , 75 (5), 671-682.
- Coutu, D. L. (2003). How Resilience Works. In Harvard Business Review on Building Personal and Organizational Resilience (pp. 1-18). USA: Harvard Business School.
- Frankl, V. (2004). Man’s Search for Meaning. London: Rider & CO.
- Frederickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Discussion Meeting Issue: The Science of Well-Being: integrating neurobiology, psychology and social science. 359, pp. 1367-1377. The Royal Society.
- Frederickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What Good Are Positive Emotions In Crisis? A prospective study of resiience and emotions following terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 84 (2), 365-376.
- Jackson, D., Firtko, A., & Edenborough, M. (2007). Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: a literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing , 60 (1), 1-9.
- Jordan, J. V. (1992). Relational Resiience. Retrieved 2009 йил 03-10 from Wellesley Centres for Women: http://www.wcwonline.org/pdf/previews/preview_57sc.pdf
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- Riolli, L., Savicki, V., & Cepani, A. (2002). Resilience in the Face of Catastrophe: optimism, personality and coping in the Kosovo crisis. Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 32 (8), 1604-1627.
- Ripley, A. (2008). The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes and why. London: Random House.
- Ross, J. A. (2006). Making Every Leadership Moment Matter. Harvard Management Update, September 2006.
- Siebert, A. (2005). The Resiliency Advantage. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
- 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.