We live and work in a fast-changing, unpredictable and stressful world. It’s no surprise, then, that many organisations are keen to help their employees cope better, with resilience workshops being one of the most popular training topics since the start of the pandemic.
But many of those resilience initiatives stay at the superficial, conversational level, and don't actually translate into happiness, wellbeing or retention at the company level. Why? Because what we think we know about resilience might be wrong, and in turn the ways we try to build it ineffective.
Each individual is unique, therefore our approach to resilience must be personalised and practical.
Myth #1: Resilience can be inspired
Organisations often deliver one-off resilience training designed to inspire people to develop more positive attitudes and stronger mindsets and enable perseverance amid challenging circumstances.
Most of those workshops are delivered by individuals with lived experience, who openly share their stories of how they overcame difficulties and challenges, and how they became stronger and better as a result.
Without a doubt, this is an inspiring way to demonstrate that our experience does not define us; that we can build better futures despite our past traumas. But just hearing this will not help build resilience.
The hidden skills of resilience
Each individual is unique, therefore our approach to resilience must be personalised and practical, helping individuals to develop healthier ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Specific cognitive skills training will bring greater benefits than an inspiring talk. Such skills include:
- Problem-solving skills
- Decision-making skills
- Increased attention
- Improved memory
- Cognitive bias awareness
- An ability to process information quickly and accurately
Myth #2: Resilience equals a positive growth mindset!
The growth mindset allows you to see the silver lining around each cloud, underpinned by a positive belief that everything will be okay, no matter what.
While mindset is an important part of resilience, it is far from the full picture. It doesn’t consider the complex individual factors that result in a more positive approach to life.
By telling people to ‘look on the bright side’, we’re denying them the right to feel their emotions and fully experience the world, leading to stigma and an environment of ‘toxic positivity’.
To raise the threshold bar of coping, we must help people develop skills for better emotional regulation, stress management, self-awareness and interpersonal skills.
Resilience is not defined by what happens to us, but by the lessons we take out of those experiences.
Myth #3: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
The common belief that challenges and difficulties make us stronger is not always true. In fact, the opposite is often the case. At the genetic and neurobiological level, traumatic experiences make people more sensitive to similar events and triggers in the future, lowering their threshold for coping.
This means that individuals with past difficulties might need more support, and will require greater levels of psychological safety at work.
No resilience training will make a difference if we don’t create supportive and protective working environments that consider the needs of each individual.
The real route to resilience
To make a meaningful difference to people’s resilience we must consider the cognitive, neurological, biological and genetic factors that affect it.
Resilience is not defined by what happens to us, but by the lessons we take out of those experiences. It is here that learning and development can play a crucial role in building someone’s resilience, maintaining their wellbeing and supporting their recovery from mental illness.
If we want to understand how to develop resilient people, we need to know how we have evolved to thrive with stress and survive challenges. By understanding the complex relationships between human beings and their environments, L&D professionals can identify which skills and abilities each individual needs to develop, as well as what support is needed from their environments, to enable them to be their best selves.
We do need to equip ourselves with a better understanding of how individual resilience is affected by our upbringing and environment.
Beyond the individual
The environmental aspect is crucial, yet often missed in resilience training. We put all the responsibility on individuals without considering their differences or their need for a personalised journey of support through adjustments in working environment and culture.
Our environment has the power to shape resilience at the genetic and neurological level, and we now know that we have a much greater influence over our genes than we first thought. Through the process of epigenetics, our circumstances can play a huge role in influencing gene expression (turning genes ‘on’ and ‘off’).
By understanding how we operate in relation to our environments, we can consciously manipulate gene expression and neuronal activation processes that, in turn, makes us healthier, happier and more resilient individuals.
The role of training and development
It is not enough to inspire someone with a positive case study, without considering their individual needs at the genetic, socio-economic and neurological levels.
This doesn’t mean we should rush our employees to DNA tests, but we do need to equip ourselves with a better understanding of how individual resilience is affected by our upbringing and environment, and use that knowledge to shape our training, development, and support initiatives.
The most prominent feature of resilient people is their ability to differentiate between who they are and what they do, allowing them to maintain high levels of efficacy and self-esteem regardless of external results and outcomes. We can help them build that capacity through:
- Initiatives that help to develop cognitive, emotional and somatic intelligence
- Performance appraisals that include resilience and mental wellbeing skills
- Coaching-based feedback to help them learn from mistakes
- Supportive environments where it’s ok to be imperfect and ask for help
Instead of judging people on their results, it is important that we value and appreciate everyone for who they are. This gives them greater confidence in taking feedback and adjusting their actions for better future performance.