Through it all, confronted with so many challenges, people showed a remarkable spirit of resilience. Individuals, families, and organizations displayed an inspiring adaptability. Disruptions caused setbacks, but we responded with flexibility and ingenuity.
As valuable as resilience is in the face of adversity and uncertainty, what is it, really? Is it a display of character? A test of will? It’s easy to couch resilience in heroic tropes. But those will get you only so far, especially in business. Researchers are digging deeper into the roots of resilience—what it is and how it works. The hope is that in understanding resilience better, it will become a skill individuals and teams can consciously grow.
As remote work has become the norm for employees around the world, they’ve found themselves wrestling with overwork, videoconference fatigue, cabin fever, and uncertainty about the future. They’ve had to tap into their reserves of personal resilience. In July, leadership researcher Marcus Buckingham investigated how individuals around the world have coped with these difficulties. His findings suggest that resilience has characteristics of both a trait and a state. “A trait is something that you presuppose cannot be changed,” he says. “A state is something you can change about a person.” In other words, some aspects of resilience seem to be with you for life. But some are fluid.
In the workplace, Buckingham says that resilience isn’t just about a high tolerance for stress and uncertainty; it’s about a particular type of mental responsiveness. “A reactive frame of mind enables you to withstand challenges in life and bounce back—not just bounce back, but bounce up,” he says. “You withstand them, you sway in the face of them, and you come back stronger.”
“When we ask an interviewee, ‘Tell me about a time you were in a crisis,’ we are really asking about the components of their resilience framework. Are they intentional about figuring out the outcome of a situation?”
Whether consciously or not, managers have long sought out this quality of responsiveness in new hires, and the trait is sure to become even more prized in a future increasingly defined by disruption and uncertainty.
“When we ask an interviewee, ‘Tell me about a time you were in a crisis,’ we are really asking about the components of their resilience framework,” says Jennifer Eggers, the author of Resilience: It’s Not About Bouncing Back. “Are they intentional about figuring out the outcome of a situation?”
In the past, employers have used intelligence tests to assess employees’ strengths. More recently, “emotional intelligence” measures have shown some correlation with job performance. Could a similar methodology determine someone’s “resilience quotient”?
Researchers have used the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (2003) and the Brief Resilience Scale (BRS) (2008) widely in clinical settings to gauge the psychological wellbeing of someone who’s undergone a trauma or is being treated for depression. Bruce Smith, who designed the BRS, says that the scale has been used to analyze the resilience in specific occupations. But these have largely been aggregate studies of particularly high-stress jobs, such as emergency response.
For managers across a wider range of organizations, the key consideration isn’t whether an employee comes equipped with resilience as an innate trait. It’s gaining a better understanding of resilience as a state—and helping everyone on their teams develop their own capacity for resilience to the best of their ability.
Resilience, says Eggers, reveals itself in the face of tumult and rapid change, but it’s not simply about having a tolerance for uncertainty. It’s “the power to be energized and elevated by disruption. Resilience is about intentional preparation for disruption and becoming better for it.”
“Silence matters. Silence is the space between the notes, to make the music. I want to help create a cultural norm where every knowledge worker can create this space, make it OK to block time off for deep work and for themselves.”
At an organizational level, trust in leadership is one of the most important factors that affect resilience in the workplace, according to Buckingham’s workplace resilience study, conducted with payroll provider ADP. An element of that trust involves setting realistic goals and accounting for the unpredictable. “Employers don’t trust a leader making Everest-like pronouncements about what’s going to happen around the corner, because they know that you don’t know,” Buckingham says.
Managers should also make a point to check in with every employee individually (not in a group setting) at least once each week. And they should strive to create an environment where employees feel they can take risks without fear of punishment.
On a personal level, Kamal Janardhan, the general manager of Workplace Intelligence for Microsoft 365, says the company’s research has shown that resilience can wane as the move to work-from-home environments erodes a sense of life/work balance. Her key message on how to combat this: Make time for downtime. “Silence matters. Silence is the space between the notes, to make the music,” she says. “I want to help create a cultural norm where every knowledge worker can create this space, make it OK to block time off for deep work and for themselves.”
“We try to build advanced algorithms to intuit what people are feeling. But the biggest piece of resilience can be a moment of reflection, simply asking people how they feel.”
Janardhan says that the more a company can do to encourage—or even mandate—that employees have meaningful downtime, the more resilient that employee will become. To that end, she says the new resilience tools built into Microsoft 365 have led to millions of users booking “focus time.”
Buckingham says that personal resilience can be improved by developing three key areas of behavior. The first involves agency: Are you conscious of what you can and can’t control in your life, and have you developed strategies to determine which is which? The second is compartmentalization: If a problem happens in one facet of your life, are you able to make progress in the other facets—and can you use those stronger aspects of your life to help deal with the problem? Lastly is simply joy: The Mayo Clinic found that to effectively avoid burnout, you need to be invigorated by 20 percent of every day’s work activities. With each percentage point below that, the risk of burnout rises by 1 percent.
Insights are one thing, but using them to create actionable results are another, says Janardhan. Microsoft has been beta-testing an extension to the Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams ecosystem that gives managers aggregated and de-identified data about the resilience of teams, as well as tools to improve it. “Customers were asking for insights,” she says. “Now they want to act on these insights.”
The key is reflection. “We try to build advanced algorithms to intuit what people are feeling,” Janardhan says. “But the biggest piece of resilience can be a moment of reflection, simply asking people how they feel.”