Developing Resilience – The Most Important Soft Skill for Hard Times

by PhD

It's one of the most important qualities for leaders and managers to have in these turbulent times in which we live and work today. We are living with uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, paradox and unpredictability. These are the norms. But what is this thing called "resilience" and how do you become a resilient person?

Some would say that it's just a new buzz word. It is true it is a word that has been used more and more frequently in recent years. It certainly came into its own after 9/11. When it is Googled, 9,060,000 entries come up.

Yet while the word may be "new", the quality of character embedded in it is far from new. We saw enormous resilience in the people who settled our land, the men who fought our wars, the women who lived, worked and gave birth to their children in the bush.

Resilience is usually associated with the ability to bounce back up after being knocked down, with responding positively and proactively to any adversity.

It is, however, much more than that. Resilience is one of those intangible soft skills that is actually quite a hard skill to develop and sustain. It is easy to list the behaviors that a person needs to engage in to respond resiliently to situations. They usually make perfect sense, but to actually behave that way in the face of challenge and adversity is quite another thing.

That's because resilience calls for a psychological, inner strength in people. That's what they draw on to respond. Whether they have that or not, and in what quantity, depends on what their life experience has been up to that time and how they have responded – or been helped to respond.

Some people seem to face constant challenge and adversity and yet meet every situation head on with a proactive determination that sees them move through to new answers and solutions, new ways of being and doing. Other people go through similar situations and become overwhelmed, stressed, even clinically depressed sometimes, and may never recover to lead the lives they want to live. Once again the old nature/nurture debate enters the arena as we ask why.

Resilient people have often endured considerable pain and grown through it. It may be psychological pain that's seen them wrestle with the inner demons of their personality and become a much better person. It might be the pain of loss and grief that they move through to new beginnings. It might be physical pain or a life-threatening experience that sees them reassess their lives and move in new directions. It may have been a business or professional challenge that threatened their entire future and livelihood, but which they worked through to develop something much more sustainable and productive. They found the way through, found inspiration and motivation, discovered a force, a strength within themselves to rise above it all, dust themselves down and move on with determination and focus.

Life is full of difficulties and challenges. Failure is a given. It is impossible to get through life without being knocked down or have dirt heaped on us sometimes. What determines who will survive and thrive is resilience.

Most who have reached positions of leadership today have considerable resilience. What they often don't have is an understanding of how they developed it. They are therefore limited in being able to develop it in others. For organizations to survive and thrive in this present economic climate they need to be resilient. Resilient organizations are made up of resilient people who proactively and dynamically respond to challenge and adversity. Leaders need to be able to constantly encourage and support the development of resilience in their people.

So what follows is for those who feel they need to be more resilient. It is also for those leaders and managers who need to coach their people in how to develop resilience.

Resilience does not begin with Strategies – It begins with YOU

Develop self-awareness –so you know what's stopping you from being resilient

The more we know and understand ourselves, the more empowered we feel. When we become aware of what makes us tick, what challenges and threatens us or heightens our anxiety, what creates overwhelm and stress, what keeps us awake at night, we can then take charge of it, rather than it taking charge of us. We don't get stuck. We break through our stuff and move forward quickly. We are resilient.

Key question: What major aspect of your personality or life needs most work if you are to be a resilient person?

Develop a positive explanatory style

We all have an explanatory style –a way we explain to ourselves why things happen. We can have a negative style where we see life as a conspiracy, out to get us, that disempowers us and makes us feel helpless. We can have a positive style that always sees a way forward, that is empowering and encourages proactivity. Only people with a positive explanatory style will be resilient.

Key question: How do you explain to yourself and those close to you why setbacks happen in your life?

Become proactive

Resilience is a very dynamic and action oriented quality. It involves a response from the whole self – body, heart, mind and spirit. People who stay in difficult and challenging situations, resigning themselves to them and managing by disengaging and switching off because they feel powerless and helpless to do anything about it are not resilient people. To be resilient they need to make a proactive response.

Key question: How long does it take you, when something goes wrong in your life or work, to assume a proactive position that will turn it around –an hour, day, week, more than a week?

Be a problem solver

Be someone who focuses on solutions, not problems, but be reflective enough to ask new questions that might generate new answers, not time-honored solutions. Be constructive, strategic, analytical, goal focused.

Key question: What qualities do you bring to problem-solving situations?

Develop emotional maturity and intelligence

Be aware of your emotional responses to situations and experiences –fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, anger and frustration. Bring both your head and heart to those emotions so that your responses are informed by good, balanced judgment. Learn to exist creatively in tension and how to grow through pain. Resilient people do not suppress emotion; they take hold of it and use it to drive them to solutions.

Key question: What are the emotions that obstruct you from taking action and moving forward after adversity?

Look after yourself

Alcohol, drugs, junk food, sugar fixes, cigarettes, sleeping tablets and caffeine do not produce resilient people. Healthy, natural, unprocessed food, exercise, water, time to smell the roses, sleep, meditation, contemplation and reflection give people the energy, clear-headedness and focus they need to be resilient people.

Key question: How can you look after yourself and prime your body, heart and mind so that you can proactively respond to whatever challenges present themselves to you?

Make change your friend

Change is one of the only certainties in life. It brings with it unpredictability, confusion, uncertainty, paradox and ambiguity. It can shake our foundations and challenge our value systems, leaving us feeling insecure and vulnerable. Resisting change heightens its impact. Working with change, rather than being threatened by it, is what resilient people do.

Key question: What is it about change that is threatening to you?

Many of you reading this will probably feel that these seven developmental actions are not specific enough for you to do anything about. Developing resilience is about developing an inner strength and toughness. It is true that the changes we need to make within ourselves are difficult to make by ourselves. If you feel that you need assistance in developing your resilience or the resilience of your people, contact us at to arrange a dialogue with Maree Harris.

Copyright © Maree Harris

About the Author
Maree Harris

Maree Harris is a senior associate with Business Performance Pty Ltd and the Director of People Empowered. She is a leadership development coach and facilitator of professional development workshops for leaders and managers. Her expertise is in the area of people dynamics and she brings to her work considerable experience in the development of soft skills, interpersonal skills and people skills. Further information can be found on her website at

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