Building resilience

Written by Michael Pearn, Jill Flint-Taylor and Cary Cooper on 1 September 2013 in Features

Michael Pearn, Jill Flint-Taylor and Cary Cooper outline eight ways to enhance wellbeing and performance

Supporting the development of resilience forms a core element of our practice as business psychologists. In this article, we explore the nature of resilience, how it can be developed within and beyond the work context, and how this can deliver improved performance for the organisation as well as enhanced wellbeing for employees.

What is resilience?

Resilience takes different forms at the individual, team and organisational level but, in all cases, the central question is the same: what can be done to improve ‘bouncebackability’ and strengthen coping resources for the longer term? Although we work across all three levels, our focus here is on personal resilience (sometimes referred to as individual, psychological or emotional resilience) and its impact on organisational performance.

We define this kind of resilience as bouncing back from setbacks combined with remaining effective in the face of tough demands and difficult circumstances, and growing stronger in the process. In line with current theory and research1, we take the view that personal resilience is best understood in terms of process and outcome – the process of working through difficult challenges, and the outcome of quicker recovery combined with an increased capacity to cope with pressure.

Seen like this, resilience is neither a fixed trait nor a set of personal qualities that develops over time. The process of being resilient is, however, underpinned by clusters of individual characteristics, which we refer to as “personal resilience resources”. Many of these characteristics are personality-related, including self-belief, optimism, sociability, empathy, self-control, sense of purpose and adaptability. Intelligence also turns out to be an important predictor of resilient outcomes, at least to the extent that the ability to solve problems acts as a protective factor against stress and poor performance2.

Given that these personal characteristics differ from one person to the next, it is not surprising that some people are more likely to achieve a resilient outcome than others, when faced with difficult or stressful situations. Viewing resilience as a process, however, means that personal resources are just a starting point. It is the way a situation is managed in practice that determines the outcome and this is a competence that can be developed over time.

So taking stock of your personal resilience resources is a good beginning, but the key to building resilience lies in learning more about how to prepare for, and manage, difficult and potentially stressful situations. Developing this capability is central to coping with everyday problems and challenges – the need for personal resilience is by no means restricted to extreme circumstances or heroic acts.

What can managers and organisations do to build resilience?

By the time a person enters the workplace, he has already developed various coping strategies – some more effective than others! Even in the work context, building resilience remains primarily a personal responsibility. There are various ways, however, in which managers and organisations can support – or undermine – this process.

There are two broad approaches to building resilience:

  • the cognitive approach This is a process of overcoming negative thinking habits and getting things into perspective. It involves (a) identifying underlying beliefs and assumptions, (b) checking them to see how realistic and helpful they are, and (c) adjusting them to ensure that things are being seen in the most positive and realistic light (sometimes referred to as ‘re-framing’)
  • increasing positive emotions Positive emotions (happiness, enthusiasm, gratitude, satisfaction etc) have an inoculating effect that delivers sustainable benefits for wellbeing and performance in individuals and teams. When a person’s average level of positive experience is increased (by improving the ratio of positive to negative emotions experienced in a day), it strengthens his ability to respond in a resilient way.

Putting these approaches into practice at a particular point in time may be seen as good stress management. Resilience is a longer-term outcome achieved by a variety of factors such as giving up deeply held but inaccurate beliefs that undermine your confidence, building your personal relationships and recognising what really matters to you in life.

Within these two broad approaches to building resilience are a number of more specific practices, ranging from physical exercise to identifying and making the most of your character strengths. A good working knowledge of these practices (described in detail in our book Building Resilience for Success3) enables managers, L&D professionals and others to weave them into individual feedback and coaching sessions, induction and training programmes, team building and other interventions.

Delivering improved performance for the organisation

In addition to improving individuals’ wellbeing, our experience shows that building personal resilience can improve organisational performance in eight main ways:

  • enhancing performance in general In this scenario, employers help individual employees review and build personal resilience as strength-building in the present and for the future, rather than as a response to weakness. Almost all employees can benefit from raising their average resilience levels. Here the employer is not in crisis and, despite a challenging environment, employees are not generally suffering from high stress levels. Resilience-building in this context is equivalent to going to the gym on a regular basis to improve stamina and fitness levels and to strengthen immune systems, resulting in improved health. Research findings include improvements to the wellbeing and also the sales performance of financial advisers4
  • responding to stress or unusual circumstances In this scenario, the organisation responds to a major setback. An example from our experience is the pharmaceutical company that was responsible for a serious break in the supply of medicines, causing severe hardship to patients around the world. The employees were deeply upset by what had transpired, and were under enormous pressure to return to previous output levels and prevent another break in supply recurring. Stress levels were very high. The company we worked with started on a small scale, providing voluntary workshops on personal resilience-building, and progressed to incorporating personal resilience-building into all its leadership development programmes
  • accelerating team integration A senior executive in a manufacturing company we worked with was trying to integrate the leadership teams of two separate companies. In both teams, there was a high level of suspicion mingled with fear, resulting in a high level of defensiveness. Individual resilience-building was used as part of the team integration process. The two leadership teams came together to create a shared vision and to explore how personal resilience could help them in the transition process to an integrated operation. The personal discussions about resilience and how it can help both at work and in one’s private life, combined with exposure to tools that build resilience, led to an openness and personal disclosure that is uncommon within groups in transition
  • turning around an under-performing organisation To be part of an under-performing team or organisation can be stressful enough, especially when jobs are at risk or the business is threatened with complete failure or closure, but it is even more stressful for people in leadership roles who are responsible for improving performance overall. Introducing resilience-building to these individuals, whether in the form of workshops, one-on-one coaching, or both, can have a significant impact on individual performance, leading to increased capacity to manage change positively. The focus is on building on personal strengths, finding where energy is released rather than consumed, and finding alternative behaviours, habits of thought, words and feelings that help the individual remain, or become, more effective during a difficult and challenging transition
  • strength-building in organisations that routinely face demanding and stressful conditions Police forces, fire and rescue, armed services, and health care and social services routinely face extremely stressful and demanding situations. The US Army’s resilience-based Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program is designed to help soldiers and their families cope with the pressures of army life and also to strengthen the overall capability of all army personnel to thrive and be effective in challenging circumstances. The benefit to these organisations of the resilience intervention is the increased effectiveness and wellbeing of all personnel, to help them do difficult and demanding jobs
  • facilitating start-ups Starting a new business can be very stressful. Strong personalities substitute for effective leadership and can disrupt team behaviour, and people often become anxious and worried after the initial enthusiasm and excitement wears off. Similar pressures occur when venture capitalists invest in small businesses, or when a team is formed specifically for a critical product launch on which the hopes of the company are resting. Resilience-building has a role to play in helping team members to cope with the pressures, set-backs and disappointment along the way, and to function at their best, despite the unavoidable pressures
  • developing leaders to thrive in difficult and challenging times It is widely recognised that rapid change and turbulence are the norm in today’s world. Leaders need to know how to monitor and maintain high levels of personal resilience to be at their best. They also need to know how to support and foster the resilience of people in their organisations by attending to organisational practices that support resilience and wellbeing, as well as to the needs of individuals and teams. One pharmaceutical company we worked with incorporated resilience development into the top executive development programme it ran in collaboration with Harvard Business School. The US Army has incorporated resilience development into all officer training as part of its longer-term culture change strategy to make resilience (seen as psychological fitness) as critical to its effectiveness as physical fitness has been for the last 70 years
  • supporting organisational transformation In another example from our experience, resilience assessment, training and coaching were incorporated into a transformation process of a threatened, but strategically important, manufacturing site. The focus on resilience helped build confidence and increased the effectiveness of individuals within the leadership team during a bumpy ride over an 18-month period that saw the company escape the threat of closure and begin to emerge as a place of new investment and very high employee engagement scores. The general manager concluded that the transformation probably could have been achieved without the focus on individual resilience but it would have been more painful and would have taken a lot longer, and time was in short supply.

The use of resilience-building in this context is a bit like the use of medication in therapy that allows people to calm themselves and see more clearly how they need to respond with a positive rather than a negative or fearful outlook.

The future of resilience

In a very short period (possibly around 20 years), resilience-building has shifted from a narrowly-focused remedy or preventative measure designed to overcome high stress levels and anxiety, to be seen more broadly as a capacity or strength-builder enabling people, teams and organisations to sustain high levels of performance in challenging and difficult times. It has also shifted from a focus primarily on cognitive functioning (eg understanding and attacking automatic negative thoughts) to a broader construct embracing the whole life of the individual, where personal strengths are identified and built upon, positive emotions and social relationships are strengthened (as are meaning and purpose in life) and attention to the physical dimension (exercise, nutrition and sleep) is paid.

Resilience is an idea whose time has come – it is increasingly recognised as an essential contributor to the wellbeing and high performance of organisations and the people who work in them.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Michael Pearn is founder and CEO of Pearn Consulting; he can be contacted via

Jill Flint-Taylor is a founding director of business psychologists Rusando and an associate faculty member and research fellow at Ashridge Business School; she can be contacted via

Cary Cooper CBE is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School; he can be contacted via

They are the authors of Building Resilience for Success: A Resource for Managers and Organizations (Palgrave Macmillan)

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