Learning & Development, Talent

Is Resilience an Inherent Trait, or Can It Be Developed?

As a result of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, resilience has become a topic of intense interest for organizations around the world. When the crisis hit in spring, many leaders saw firsthand that their employees’ responses to adversity varied dramatically. Some faced challenge after challenge with energy and resolve, while others nearly shut down from the stress. The value of having people who are resilient—who can cope with, recover from, and grow in response to adverse experiences—became starkly apparent.


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Confirming those observations, Dale Carnegie Training conducted a study of more than 6,500 employees across 21 countries and territories in February of this year and found that highly resilient employees were far more likely to be engaged and willing to consistently give their best efforts at work and embrace change.

Other studies suggest that resilient teams cooperate more effectively, contribute with behaviors above and beyond those required by their own role to elevate team performance, and are better at finding solutions when faced with challenges and adversity. These kinds of benefits, combined with enhanced collaboration resulting from team cohesion and cooperation, give resilient organizations greater capacity to adapt and innovate and better position them to thrive in rapidly changing environments.

All of this makes having a resilient workforce appealing, so a key question to address is: Can people become more resilient, or is it something that is just inherent in them?

Either They Have It or They Don’t?

Whether resilience is an inherent trait or learned has important implications for how to achieve a resilient workforce. Opinions differ, with some researchers theorizing that resilience is a single or group of innate traits that people either have or do not have. They suggest screening candidates for those traits before hiring.

But other research proposes a view of resilience as the result of a process that combines individual traits, attitudes, and behaviors together with work-related environmental factors, many of which can be developed or modified to strengthen resilience in individuals, teams, and the entire organization. If that is the case, doesn’t hiring for resilience make sense?

At first glance, looking for candidates with resilient traits isn’t a bad way to begin. It makes sense that an organization would be more resilient when its employees demonstrate resilience individually. If, however, resilience is malleable, as much of the research now suggests, it means an individual’s resilience can be strengthened or depleted by his or her work environment.

That means hiring for resilience may be ineffective in the long term unless it is combined with a commitment by leaders to sustain it. Otherwise, organizations risk watching their carefully selected, resilient employees become less so over time.

5 Strategies to Support a Resilient Workforce

Several important drivers of resilience have been identified by researchers, which can provide direction on creating a work environment that strengthens resilience. Here are five strategies for leaders based on those drivers.

  1. Model and support a positive attitude. Positive attitudes facilitate resilience by steering people toward viewing adversity as a solvable problem or series of problems. This, in turn, encourages action and reduces feelings of powerlessness. People with positive attitudes expect and get positive outcomes more often than those who don’t, perhaps because positivity gives humans a broader range of potential thoughts and behaviors as opposed to negativity, which limits them. When possible, leaders should frame challenges as opportunities and clearly and regularly communicate the organization’s strategy for getting beyond any crisis to a brighter future.
  2. Protect and develop people’s self-confidence. Adversity can undermine self-confidence, which negatively impacts people’s ability to perform and learn. That’s a serious disadvantage when, especially in difficult times, people need to anticipate issues and find new approaches and solutions. Leaders can build self-confidence by helping employees grow and develop professionally and by giving them confidence that they can adapt to a changing world, as well as by recognizing people for and reminding them of their achievements.
  3. Build and maintain trust. Trust makes people more likely to speak up, share information, take calculated risks, and offer ideas that can lead to innovation. To protect it, leaders need to be genuinely honest and reliable, but they should also take care to avoid common communication mistakes that damage relationships and psychological safety. That means not criticizing or condemning people. Admit mistakes. Listen to and show respect for other people’s opinions, and try honestly to see things from others’ points of view.
  4. Give people the resources they need to get the job done. While “we’re just going to have to do more with less” is a common refrain in tough times, it is draining to have to constantly fight for adequate resources. It’s even more demoralizing when sacrifices aren’t shared by everyone. If resources are in short supply, consider whether work is clearly prioritized. When offering additional tangible resources is unfeasible, think about providing intangible resources such as empowerment and autonomy, which can unleash people’s creativity to find new, more efficient ways to get the job done.
  5. Unite people with a shared purpose. Every organization exists for a reason, often to make life better for its customers in ways large or small. Show people how their work fits into delivering on the organization’s purpose. It will give people something to work for beyond a paycheck. People are more resilient when they feel they have a role in achieving a larger goal.

Recognize the Power of Resilience

Resilience offers significant advantages. It helps organizations rebound from crises and adapt to change. It serves as a building block for agility and sustained performance. Recognizing that people’s inherent resilience can be either enhanced or diminished by work-related environmental factors provides important insight into the power leaders have to help their employees cope with, recover from, and learn from adversity.

If leaders want a more resilient organization and all the benefits that go with it, hiring people with resilient characteristics is not enough. They need to embrace the responsibility for creating a work environment that supports it.

Mark MaroneMark Marone, PhD, is the Director of Research and Thought Leadership for Dale Carnegie & Associates, where he is responsible for ongoing research into current issues facing leaders, employees, and organizations worldwide. He has written frequently on topics related to leadership, sales, and customer experience and has coauthored two books on sales strategy. Marone can be reached at mark.marone@dalecarnegie.com.

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