Building Resilience and Why It's Important to You and Your Team

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Maria and Don both suffered significant career setbacks when their ERP implementations went horribly wrong. Both went into a tailspin. They were sad, indecisive, and filled with anxiety about what went wrong and about the future. For Maria, the mood was transient. After a couple of weeks, she told herself, "I'm not solely responsible for the implementation; it's the team and the organization going through some challenging times. I'm good at what I do, and there will be an opportunity for me to make things right or, if not, to move on elsewhere." She updated her résumé while simultaneously working to find a solution to the problem. She went on several interviews and was even offered another position, but she chose to stay with renewed assurances from her executives to fully support the project. Don, by contrast, spiraled into hopelessness. "I failed because I can't perform under pressure," he thought. "I'm not cut out for this kind of work. I'll never be viewed again as a leader, and I'll never be able to get another job." His fears were reinforced when he was finally let go. He didn't even look for another job when he could see that his days were numbered at his institution. He ended up moving back in with his parents.

Maria and Don are extreme opposites in their reaction to failure. People like Maria bounce back after a brief period of feeling dejected. Within a year, many of these types of people have grown because of the experience. However, people like Don go from sadness to depression to a paralyzing fear of the future. Yet, as we are all aware, failure is an inevitable part of the workplace. People like Don are almost certain to find their careers stymied, and organizations that are full of such staff are doomed when faced with tough times. It is people like Maria who rise to the top, and whom organizations need to recruit and retain to succeed. What's the difference in their outlooks? The answer is resilience.

What Is Resilience and Why It's Important

Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover, and bounce back amid stress, chaos, and ever-changing circumstances. Resilient people don't dwell on failure but rather acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes, and move forward. The good news is that resiliency is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice.

To be an effective leader, first you need to be an effective manager of yourself. You need to be able to stay focused, productive, and energetic, despite the inevitable chaos and change swirling around you. Plus, you need to help your team to do the same for everyone, as well as the organization, to succeed and thrive.

The psychologist Susan Kobasa identifies three main traits that characterize the mindset of resilient people:

  • Challenge. Resilient people have a habit of looking at stress as a challenge to overcome, and this motivates them to address the causes of their stress in positive ways. This active approach can be contrasted with a more common approach, where stress is viewed as an unfortunate or even paralyzing force that overwhelms rather than motivates.
  • Personal control. In general, resilient people tend to accept challenges and work to overcome and even master them. Even when a situation is not possible to control, resilient people work to find what possibilities do exist and pursue these. For example, when faced with job loss, a resilient person would seize on opportunities for exploring new employment options rather than become depressed and demoralized. Remember how Maria reacted to her ERP implementation failure.
  • Commitment. Part of the reason resilient people persist in their coping efforts is because they are committed to an active, engaged outlook toward challenges, which motivates them to actively attempt to influence their surroundings and to persevere even when their attempts don't seem to be working out. Resilient people are dedicated to finding that meaning — toward taking an active, problem-solving approach to situations.

In The Resiliency Advantage, Al Siebert writes that "highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in constant change. Most important, they expect to bounce back and feel confident that they will. They have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck." In other words, these types of people remain positive and can cope well with high levels of ongoing, disruptive change by being flexible and by figuring out a new way of working when the old or current way is no longer possible.

Negative emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, distress, helplessness, and hopelessness decrease your ability to solve the problems, and they weaken your resiliency. Such emotions transfer to your staff and bring them down as well. Additionally, constant fears and worries weaken your immune system and increase your vulnerability to illness. Even if the organization you work for is unstable because the executives and administrators can't manage rapid change, it's possible to find ways to handle the pressure and keep bouncing back without having anxiety attacks, sinking into hopelessness, or acting in dysfunctional ways.

It would be ideal to be able to reduce stress entirely — whether it's workload or unrealistic expectations of administrators or of oneself. However, in the absence of that impossible dream, leaders can help their staff become more resilient in the face of stress while minimizing the impact on their emotional, mental, and physical well-being. While we cannot become impervious to stress, we can learn ways to adapt to and cope with stressful environments.

Ways to Manage and Strengthen Your Resiliency

Resiliency, like a healthy muscle, must be exercised regularly to function well. Below are some conditioning tips for building resiliency.

  • Build and maintain connections. Having good, close relationships with family members, friends, or others is important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens your resilience. Being empathetic and compassionate toward others also builds your resiliency by being in the helper role. Seeing the world from another's viewpoint is both powerful and humbling and has a positive effect on resiliency.
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. We can't change the fact that highly stressful things happen, but we can change how we interpret and respond to these events. Experiment by looking beyond the present situation to imagine how future circumstances might improve.
  • Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very challenging events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and work to keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion, which is not only easy to do but also more difficult to recover from for you and your team. Be a calm-and-steady role model who focuses on the facts and avoids emotional reactivity.
  • Accept that change is a part of work (and of life). Certain goals may no longer be attainable due to insurmountable obstacles or a change in organizational direction. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on things that you can alter.
  • Develop and nurture a positive view of yourself. Develop self-confidence — in your ability to solve problems — and trust your instincts. Remaining poised under pressure is a powerful, affirmative role model for your staff.
  • Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward those goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask, "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?"
  • Take decisive actions. Address adverse situations as soon as you can. Act decisively rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away. Avoidance happens all too often in the workplace, and it creates a pervasive demoralizing environment for staff that is difficult to rectify.
  • Hang on to a sense of humor. Laughing in the face of adversity can be a great stress reliever, and it helps keep your team together. Humor reduces tension to more manageable levels, which is especially important in constant stress situations. It also helps you and your team rebound and carry on when things are tough.
  • Keep communication channels open and dynamic. Be sure to communicate change initiatives to everyone, especially to people who are resistant or fearful of change. Clear and consistent communication also helps keep you and your team motivated for the long road of change initiatives and shifting priorities.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables us to expect that good things will happen in our lives. While it may sound corny, work at visualizing what you want rather than worrying about what you fear.
  • Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly, even if it's only a 10-minute walk in the middle of the work day. Practicing self-care keeps your mind and body in condition to deal with situations that require resilience.


Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager and leader. Leadership development programs often address these skills, but it is the truly successful leader who recognizes the importance of building resiliency skills so people can flourish rather than flounder when faced with setbacks and failure. Managers and leaders can change the culture of their organizations to focus on the positive instead of the negative and, in doing so, turn pessimistic naysayers like Don into optimistic doers like Maria. It takes time, attention, and practice to build resilience, but the long-term positive outcomes are well worth the effort.

Joan F. Cheverie is director of professional development at EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.