Resilience is about high performance

Dominic Irvine provides an alternative look at the meaning of resilience. 

After the first world war, research was undertaken to try and find an objective test for fatigue. The outcome was that the term fatigue should be banned from scientific debate because it was deemed such a subjective term that there was no way it could be measured objectively (Lewis and Wessely 1992).

The term ‘resilience’ is similar in that it cannot be understood outside of the context in which it is being used. It is one of those terms that means different things to different people.

Whilst academics wrestle with the complexities of this multifaceted concept (Daly 2020; Almedom and Glandon 2007), a search online for resilience training programmes provides pages and pages of options, many of which are rich in content but light on clarity as to what they mean by resilience. 

It’s used interchangeably and erroneously with stress management, mental toughness and/or wellbeing and these are aside from the materials science definition of resilience.

On balance, it is seen as the thing you have or that you do when the going gets tough to help you cope. But rather than see it as something you need to survive, turn the concept on its head and instead view it as something to help you thrive.

Resilience is a key component of high performance. Let’s take two definitions of resilience from the work of (Almedom 2013), the first her own and the second by Bennett 1996 cited by Almedom.

“The plasticity of the human being – mind and body – allows adaptive responses to potentially traumatic events to be integrated in the active learning, personal growth and transformation that ensues.”(Almedom 2013)

Turn the concept on its head and instead view it as something to help you thrive.

My interpretation of this definition is that it reflects the way elite athletes, musicians and our top leaders in business adapt to situations as they develop such that what could have been traumatic is not, because of how they choose to respond.

It’s more than just a response, they reflect on what happened and learn from it, modifying their approach to the next event that happens based on what they have learnt from the past. For example, imagine you have been asked to deliver a presentation at a conference to 100 of your company’s top customers.

Just as you are about to begin, the technology fails and you are unable to present your beautifully created slides and videos. This is a potentially traumatic event. Instead of panicking, in which case it has become traumatic, you invite the audience to take five minutes whilst you see if the problem can be fixed.

You use that time to leave the technicians working and explore whether the venue has other technology you could use, or instead whether you could swap the agenda around and have the delegates do an alternative activity.

Whatever subsequently happens, that adaptive response enables you to make the best from a difficult situation. But you don’t stop there, afterwards you review with the team what happened and you also think about how else you could have delivered the content should this problem ever happen again.


The lessons you learn mean that next time you will have a ready solution. This in turn means even more could go wrong before it becomes potentially traumatic, and so your ability to perform under even greater pressure rises. Your ability to perform rises.

Let’s add in the second definition:

“When existing realities pose threats to human survival or simply need to change in order to turn anticipation into reality, people use their cognitive capacity to imagine and change their realities by conceiving of new possibilities, thereby creating new anticipations.”

This concept of resilience is about creating options. There is no point in being resilient in bumping your head into a brick wall. It is better to find a way around the wall. In this instance it is not so much about coping with adversity as it is about the ability to conceive of alternative futures.

Let’s suppose the presentation to the customers was stopped completely in advance of the event by a pandemic (sound familiar?). It doesn’t matter how resilient you are, the end of the road has been reached, the conference cannot go ahead.

What this situation needs is the ability to imagine an alternative future. In this case it may mean setting up a virtual conference, for example, or creating a video podcast to send to your customers. The important distinction is that resilience is not always about hunkering down to face into the storm, sometimes it means finding a way around the storm.

Achieving high levels of performance means being curious and open minded to the possibilities that exist no matter how challenging a situation can become. It means building the adaptability and creativity that allows a flexible and adaptive response, thereby enabling the optimal outcome to be achieved.

Resilience then is a way of responding to challenges that is outcome driven, that sees challenges as opportunities to refine and develop solutions and capabilities that enable ever higher levels of performance to be achieved. It is a complex psychophysiological response (Kemp and Quintana 2013; Mehta et al. 2016).

Humans are not machines. If we wish to get the best from ourselves we need to optimise our performance through understanding these psychophysiological responses. This is key to determining how to optimise our performance.

Whilst this includes the flight/fight response, it also involves the way habits are formed, visualisation and how we ensure we are fit for work through the sleep and exercise we get and the food we eat. We should stop framing it in terms of helping people cope with stress, a somewhat negative perception, and focus instead on helping people to optimise their performance.

Resilience is something that you can develop to cope with more pressure allowing ever higher levels of performance. This applies equally to athletes, musicians and people in business. 

Dominic Irvine is speaking at day one of this year’s World of Learning Conference. Find out more here.


About the author

Dominic Irvine is managing partner of Epiphanies


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