Reflections on Resilience

In a few days, it will be September 11th.  It will be a time when Americans remember the strike of terrorism against the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  It is an opportunity to remember and give respect to those who died and those who worked so hard and so courageously to respond to the actions of that terrible day. 

It is also an opportunity to assess what has occurred in the past year.  How have these events had an impact on us as citizens, as individuals and as a workforce? In what ways have we risen to meet the challenge posed by the terrorist attacks?  In what ways have we become even stronger than before? 

This process of recovery from traumatic events is called “resilience.”  It is the process of adapting will in the face of significant stress and adversity.  It is the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences.  According to Dean Becker, President and CEO of Adaptive Learning Systems, “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails.  That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.” (Harvard Business Review; May, 2002) 

Reviewing the Past Year 

What has happened, for you personally and for your organization in the past year? 

In the wake of the tragedy last year, I received a call from the contributing editor of Executive Update Magazine, which is based in Washington, DC.  She asked me to write an article about dealing with the psychological effects of the trauma, which I co-authored with a colleague, Dr. Jennifer Walters, of Santa Fe, NM.  The article was published in the electronic version of the magazine (see Handling Trauma in the Workplace) in November, 2001. 

In the article we recommended seven steps for business leaders who were dealing with the impact of this day on their lives, the lives of their employees, and the lives of their businesses.  These recommendations were actions that would have immediate impact on the adjustment to the traumatic events.  They included 1) taking care to grieve while avoiding overuse of alcohol or other drugs, 2) keeping balance in your life, 3) monitoring your diet and exercise, 4) becoming involved in helping others, 5) incorporating spirituality as a resource, 6) distinguishing between defending ourselves and giving into unhealthy impulses for revenge, and 7) knowing when to seek professional help.  They are essential first steps toward the development of resilience both for individuals and for organizations.  It is not too late to begin or re-initiate these actions, if necessary. 

How are you doing, personally and organizationally, with these basic steps toward healthy functioning? 

Developing Resilience 

Following our recommendations provides the necessary conditions under which resilience can emerge.  It is a process, however, and resilience can only occur with hard work over time.  There is no instant resilience. 

Resilient individuals and organizations share three characteristics, according to Diane L. Coutu, writing for the May 2002 Harvard Business Review:

– an uncompromising quest to see things as they really are,
– a deep commitment to a broader meaning or purpose even in the midst of the most stressful circumstances, and
– an uncanny ability to improvise when the usual solutions will not work or are unavailable. 

The first quality of resilient individuals and organizations is the ability to understand conditions as they really exist.  They do not live in the state of denial.  Denial is a short-term strategy that may be useful immediately after a traumatic experience while resources are being gathered to make a response.  After the short term, it will begin to interfere with appropriate action.  When tragedy strikes or the stress becomes extreme, those who are resilient are honest about the situation, and able to acknowledge their reactions (cognitive responses and emotional reactions) openly.  This is in contrast to others who try to numb themselves to the pain, those who act as if the tragedy did not happen, or those who overreact and “catastrophize” the situation as if it were even worse that it actually is.  There is a saying from the American Zen movement, “It is just as it is, and it ain’t no is-er.”

Fred (not his real name) was an executive from a multinational company who sat in my office and who was being as honest with himself as he could.  "Whenever I have been promoted in the past, I always felt anxious but I would just work harder.  This time I have worked harder and harder and it is not working for me.  And it is taking a toll on my marriage and my relationship with my children that I am not willing to pay.  Even if I could pay it, I am doing a lousy job right now.  I am paralyzed by my fears."  He was in a good position to make some major changes because of his honesty and that work began to pay off for him.  Although skeptical at first, he began to learn new ways to think about his job and learned to be strategic rather than tactical.  The key for him was in his first admission of failure.  We used his honesty to open the door for him to a new way of doing things.

Sometimes, when I am writing these newsletters I hesitate to keep highlighting the role of meaning or purpose as an indispensable quality of the healthy and successful organization.  But it really is a crucial quality.  Without a sense of meaning and purpose, the willingness to put in the work and the effort necessary to respond to tragedy is difficult to sustain.  When an individual or an organization has previously articulated and integrated a sense of purpose, there is energy to work toward that purpose even in the face of enormous obstacles.  In "Tales of Power," Don Juan says, "The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as either a blessing or a curse."  It is the sense of purpose that turns the ordinary into the warrior.  Human beings and human organizations need to be committed to something larger than themselves.  With a clear sense of purpose, hardship is a means to an end rather than a random series of meaningless and painful events. 

The honesty Fred employed led him to the real work of change.  It is always difficult to find new ways of doing things and he was confronting a life-long pattern.  He remembered being a "workaholic" in college who never took time for social interactions because he was studying.  He continued that pattern through his career and found it very difficult to change even now when he could see the devastation that it brought to his life.  He might have given up except for his compelling commitment to lay a better foundation for his children.  He remembered his strained relationship with a highly demanding father and saw himself repeating that pattern with his son and with his direct reports.  He was committed to doing better.  He was committed to finding a way to learn from his father’s mistakes.  When his energy waned, we went back to the depth of his commitment to be that better father and better leader at work.

The final key quality of resilience is the ability to improvise.  The standard answers will work most of the time.  But when we are grappling with the extremes of traumatic events, those who are able to recover and even transcend the situation must look to answers that have not been tried before.  During the most stressful times, some are able to develop the most creative of responses.  Creativity does not occur because it is demanded.  It does not arise because of pressure to meet deadlines.  It arises most frequently when the individuals and organizations see the improvisation as part of a mission.  The ability to think in new and productive ways requires balance and flexibility.  The standard answers can be applied in new ways or the standard situations can give rise to new answers.
The old ways of approaching work did not get Fred what he needed and wanted.  He struggled with how to do things differently.  One of his major complaints was that he was working so hard for so little return.  When he compared his effort to that of other executives in his organization, he saw them putting in more efficient effort.  We came up with a crazy idea.  Instead of working more efficiently, I suggested he set aside the first 20 minutes of his workday to do nothing but think.  He would not answer email, or prepare for the day’s meetings.  He would just think.  He had an important meeting coming up in the next week and agreed to try this new approach.  We carefully delineated what would be a "successful" meeting.  Then we outlined what an exceptional meeting would look like.  The next time we met he described the meeting as "far better than the best meeting I could have ever imagined!"  He had found a new way to work that broke the mold of the old answers he had been trying.

While there are some individuals and organizations that seem to be “naturally” resilient; in truth, this is a quality that can be learned. 

Here are 10 ways, recommended by the American Psychological Association for building resilience: 

  1. Make connections.  Good relationships with family, friends, and co-workers offer a reservoir of strength that is a powerful ally in the effort to build resilience.  Organizations that develop good connections within the business community are in a much better position to respond to difficult times.
  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.  Crises will occur even to individuals and organizations that are strong and healthy.  When they happen it is useful to be able to look at the longer view, to see a time when things can be better again, or to note the subtle ways you are already dealing with the situation.
  3. Accept that change is a part of living.  Some goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations.  Accepting what cannot be changed can be helpful as you focus on what can be changed.
  4. Move toward your goals.  If you do not have realistic goals, invest the time to set them.  Do something regularly (daily or at least weekly) that is a small step toward those goals.  Recognize your progress as you move forward.
  5. Take decisive actions.  Act on the adverse situations as much as you can rather than spending your time wishing or hoping that they will go away.
  6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery.  People and organizations often learn something about themselves during these times of stress.  It can be an opportunity to find strengths you never knew you had.
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself.  Develop confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust your instinct to become more resilient.
  8. Keep things in perspective.  Consider the traumatic event in a broader context and remember to look for those aspects of life that give it meaning and purpose.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook.  Optimism and the willingness to persevere are more important to success that IQ.
  10. Take care of yourself.  Pay attention to your own needs and feelings.  Do some things that you really enjoy or find relaxing.  Continue to exercise and eat well.


(Adapted from The Road to Resilience, a brochure developed by the American Psychological Association and the Discovery Health Channel.)


Comas-Diaz, Lillian; Luthar, Suniya; Maddi, Salvatore; O’Neil, H. Katherine; Saakvitne, Karen & Tedeschi, Richard Glenn "The Road to Resilience" American Psychological Association, August, 2002.

Coutu, Diane L.  "How Resilience Works" Harvard Business Review, May 2002.

Weaver, John & Walters, Jennifer, "Handling Trauma in the Workplace" Executive Update Online, November 2001.