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Leading the Resistance - How to achieve career resilience

Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from setbacks, is a central characteristic of business leadership and living full and challenging lives. We examine some of the key psychological and physiological processes behind understanding and improving resilience.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Thomas A. Edison

“It’s impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.”

JK Rowling

“We only progress through a series of regulated errors. Life is about producing failure. Every move is a partial failure to be corrected by the next one.”

David Brooks, “The Social Animal”, March 2011

Understanding resilience

Resilience is the capacity to ‘bend and bounce back’ when experiencing a significant challenge. There are lots of definitions around but essentially it’s about how fast and how well we recover from setbacks - adaptive capacity. It is a process rather than a trait, as human beings and animals we’ve evolved to heal ourselves. We each have our own personal barometers for stress levels and ways of measuring our resilience. It is very hard to tell how resilient anyone else is unless they’re tested to their limit. It’s not only self confidence, outward confidence can be disguising inner worries and anxieties. It’s more about optimism, emotional intelligence, adaptability and keeping one’s head when under pressure. Intuitively we know it is important, but why has it become sure a hot topic?

Under pressure

We all know the pace of change in organisations is accelerating and looks in no sign of slowing down. Coupled with this, we’re hearing about studies such as the one recently (June 2011) published by ForbesWoman and which found that 92% of working mothers felt overwhelmed by work, home and parenting responsibilities. Only about 15% of working parents now have a stay-at-home partner. The rise of the dual career couple is here to stay, adding to the pressure on work, family life and relationships. We all feel squeezed. At any time around 20% of the UK workforce reports being affected by stress, with 77% of these also reporting problems with relationships at home caused by stress at work.

Fight or flight

We respond to stress, biologically in the same way that we’ve evolved to protect ourselves from physical threat. That is by a fight/flight reaction. This literally switches our blood supply in the brain away from our frontal cortex (which helps us analyse situations and make decisions) and channels it towards the Amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain. This causes release of the highly corrosive cortisol, preparing us for the fight or flight response, neither of which is appropriate in most work situations. So we lose the very thing which we need for resilience and adaptive capacity, our ability to think and react appropriately. We know we are only born with two innate fears, that of falling and loud noises. So other fears, such as of failing, are learned and can therefore be unlearned. Martin Seligman (author of ‘Authentic Happiness’ and founding professor of the positive psychology movement) has been involved in helping US Army soldiers build their resilience through training. This training has not only reduced the incidence of PTSD it has also shortened the recovery time for those who do suffer from it; with some regaining mental well-being scores which are higher than pre-action levels. Warren Bennis said “I believe adaptive capacity or resilience is the single most important quality in a leader, or in anyone else for that matter, who hopes to lead a healthy, meaningful life.”

Learning the skills of career resilience

How we react under pressure, at work, is an important thing to learn about ourselves as early on in our careers as possible. Our unconscious reactions are closely watched (and assumptions made about what this means) by colleagues, team members and bosses. The more resilient we are, the more in control we’ll be in the face of challenges. Setbacks can make us leap to conclusions, lose perspective and catastrophise. For example, making an important mistake, feelings are quickly engaged (our friend the Amygdala, again) e.g. feeling unable to cope, a failure, or angry with someone else.


These feelings can be particularly harsh when they are felt by people who Tal Ben-Shahar of Harvard Business School calls ‘perfectionists’. What he means by this are individuals who expect their route through life to be “direct, smoooth and free from obstacles.” When they hit a bump in the road after years of uninterrrupted success, they can be ill equipped to deal with a different reality. Terrified of failure, their feelings show themselves in actions such as avoiding friends and colleagues, working even harder, setting themselves impossible goals – but goals which do not match a changed reality, or even, become paralysed – unable to do or say anything.

Albert Ellis offered a model to help us interrupt the Amygdala hijack and keep our frontal cortex engaged. It is termed the ABCD model. We have an event (A) which starts to trigger familiar feelings (C) of dread, failure, anger. The feelings are caused by the thoughts (B) we have about the event. We need to look at the thoughts that are making us feel this way. Things like “I always say the wrong thing”, “I never judge the right time to send emails” or “I can’t manage under pressure, I always make mistakes”. Then we can ask if these thoughts have any foundation. Then we decide what action to take (D).

Seven habits of highly resilient people

Here are some of the characteristics of resilient people (loosely based on research by Karen Reivich and Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania):

  • High level of self and political awareness.
  • Comfortable with uncertainty, see things in perspective and avoid jumping in.
  • Optimistic, but with feet on the ground.
  • ‘Can do’ approach, improvise, use resources available, see problems from many angles, solution focused.
  • Empathic, well connected, know how to ask for help, build strong relationships.
  • Confident in own abilities – expertise well known and sought out.
  • Seek out new and challenging experiences, see failure as natural part of life and actively learn from it.

Fit for Life

As executive coaches we have often talked to our coachees about the importance of holding all aspects of our lives in healthy alignment. A delicate, personal, complex equilibrium that’s constantly in need of our attention. We’ve come up with a simple model to explain this:


Personal fitness is about feeling physically and mentally fit. Getting enough sleep, the diet/exercise regime, how we take care of our family and friends, nurturing ourselves and our relationships. Women in general, and working mothers in particular, take a lot of responsibility for the caring for others part of this dimension, sometimes at great personal cost. We’re not great at asking for help at the best of times, but guilt can cause us to run ourselves ragged trying to achieve the ‘perfect family life’.

Job Fitness is the area that often we give the most attention to. We achieve demanding deadlines, set ourselves very high standards and let our work speak for itself. Often our coachees have been highly successful by focusing on this area. Then suddenly notice all the best work/cases/clients go to colleagues who aren’t as good at the day job, but who’ve managed their profile strategically....This brings us to the final area, career fitness.

Career fitness can get overlooked in busy lives but it is this aspect which will help us should something happen to our job or organisation. It also means we have a game plan, career-wise, strong networks and relationships and high levels of self awareness. We take appropriate risks to stretch ourselves. We manage our PR, make sure we’re known for something, by the right people, and we know how marketable we are. All this gives us confidence to exploit our current roles for opportunities to play to our strengths and broaden our experience.

For a life less ordinary

The more that all of these aspects of our lives are strong and the equilibrium maintained, the more we can remain pragmatic and optimistic with our key ally the frontal cortex in charge. This helps us to communicate assertively, to spot the right risks and opportunities to go for and to continue to build our natural level of resilience.

By Kate Buller, Executive Coach, The Executive Coaching Consultancy

November 2011 Newsletter Articles - quicklinks

Posted on: 04.11.2011

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