The word resilience has become so ubiquitous that it is like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, who argues that a word can mean whatever he wants it to mean. So it is with one of the hot words of recent years.
In the last few weeks I have heard the reaction of villagers in Somerset to being flooded described as resilient: by which the reporter meant they were stoic rather than hysterical in the face of seeing their homes ruined. I have heard a premier league football manager describe his team as resilient: by which he meant they fought back from a seemingly lost game. I have heard the ability of a bank to quickly restore services after it was unable to process payments as resilient: by which was meant it had a strong back up system within its infrastructure. So a word which originated as a description of plants which could adapt to changing environmental conditions has become hijacked to mean any numbers of different things:
- The ability to keep going when things are tough
- The ability to manage emotions at a time of difficulty
- The ability to restore normality after disruption
It has now entered organisational life, often as a pseudonym for being able to handle stress. What if however, rather than using the word resilience we used the word thriving. Let me explain the difference. Resilience is linked to the idea of recovering from a setback, of disruption to the norm, of one off events which derail an individual in their personal life, in their health or their career. That is why many books on resilience talk of ‘bounce back’. However, many people’s working lives are marked not by one off events, but by continuous demands, by relentless pressures, by never having enough time or enough resource. The challenge is not how to bounce back, but how to keep going.
Rather than talking about resilience, some writers have suggested that it is more useful to look at how people continue to give a high level of performance regardless of the demands. In other words, how do they thrive? To answer that question Mustafa Sarker and David Fletchers, researchers into resilience at Loughborough University interviewed 13 individuals at the top of their professions; in areas as diverse as policing, mountain climbing, accountancy, the media and politics to look for the common themes in how they managed to thrive when the demands were as high as the stakes. They discovered that there were 6 recurring themes:
- Proactive personalities. They were hardwired to look at what they could do in the face of difficulty rather than being passive recipients.
- Experience and learning: They actively looked at what they could learn from experiences and many of them engaged in reflective practices such as writing.
- Control: Even when the situation seemed outside of their control, they looked for what they could take control of, in particular they prioritised where their energy went.
- Flexibility: They were able to adapt to situations and be willing to flex around the reality of what was, rather than holding onto what they thought the situation should be.
- Balance and Perspective: They continued to do things outside of work, even when the pressure was high, because it enabled them to keep a sense of perspective. Even in the face of difficulty at work, knowing they could still enjoy spending time playing sport, having a laugh with friends, or giving time to charitable causes, provided another lens with which to view their working life. They did not talk of work life balance in a literal sense, but of finding a point of equilibrium that worked for them.
- Perceived Social Support: They sought out supporters and mentors within their work setting, so that beyond the emotional support they could get from friends and families they had available to them people who they could talk things through with, who understood their context.
Sarker and Fletcher’s research is important because it is based on people who are ambitious, who seek out challenge, and who have had to find ways of managing themselves in order to deliver the results from which success comes. They have thrived.
The question for readers of this blog then are:
- How well are your thriving?
- What can you take from those that do that would help you ensure you can deliver high performance in the face of high demands?