Resilience at work

Why is it that some people thrive in the face of challenge and adversity at work, while others panic and withdraw into themselves? And why is it these same people who appear to get ahead while others tread water, or slowly drown in turbulent waters of life?
Most people think that a combination of intelligence, long working hours and lots of experience allows people to thrive in potentially hostile working environments. In fact, it is those with resilience who cope best with challenges like constant organisational change and upheaval, impending staff cutbacks, looming deadlines, argumentative meetings and incessant competition from business rivals.

The good news is that although some people seem to be born with more resilience than others, those whose resilience is lower can learn how to boost their ability to cope, thrive and flourish when the going gets tough.

Management consultants Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba conducted a 12-year study into staff who were undergoing constant organizational change at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) company.

Every year for 12 years some 450 IBT supervisors, managers and executives were interviewed, given psychological tests, put through performance reviews and given medical examinations. During that period the company underwent seismic change as the telecommunications industry in the USA was de-regulated. IBT, and its people, had to switch from operating as monopoly suppliers into facing up to competition in a tough market.

During those 12 years almost 50% of those sampled lost their jobs, while two out of three suffered serious stress-related events in their lives such as divorce, heart attacks, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse. Yet, despite the enormous upheaval in their working lives, roughly one in three staff not only survived the stress and constant change, they actually appeared to thrive.

According to the researchers, 'If these individuals stayed at IBT, they rose to the top of the heap. If they left, they either started companies of their own or took strategically important employment in other companies."

Why did some people not only cope, but actually flourish in those hostile conditions? The researchers concluded that those with the resilience to bounce back from adversity shared three attitudes: commitment, control, and challenge.

In their book, Resilience at Work, the authors say: Hardiness is a particular pattern of attitudes and skills that helps you be resilient, to survive and thrive under stress. Simply put, these attitudes are commitment, control, and challenge. As times get tough, if you hold these attitudes, you'll believe that it is best to stay involved with the people and events around you (commitment) rather than to pull out, to keep trying to influence the outcomes in which you are involved (control) rather than to give up, and to try to discover how you can grow through the stress (challenge) rather than to bemoan your fate.

In short, their commitment allowed them to engage more fully on the job in hand, which helped them to understand and interpret the events that were having an impact on them.

Their sense of control empowered them, allowing them to work out ways in which they could have an influence on the changes that were affecting them. They had the ability to reflect on the impact of change on themselves, their workmates and on the company as a whole ? and were able to weigh up ways in which they might have an influence on those changes. Their less resilient colleagues tended to panic and withdraw, believing there was little they could do to ameliorate or the shape the changes that were happening all around them.

Those who saw the changes as a challenge tended to look for the potential opportunities that change would throw up, taking the view that change is an unavoidable part of life. Although they might not enjoy the stress, they were able to cope because their positive outlook meant they were prepared to keep an eye open for new opportunities.

When combined, these attitudes gave them what the researchers call transformational coping and social support. They were able to:

  • Approach change as a meaningful challenge, rather than detaching and giving up.
  • Map out sound problem-solving strategies.
  • Resolve ongoing conflicts, and build an environment of assistance and encouragement among co-workers
  • Increase positive attitudes like commitment, control, and challenge, while decreasing those of isolation, powerlessness, and threat.
"People who are high in hardiness enjoy ongoing changes and difficulties. They find themselves more involved in their work when it gets tougher and more complicated. They tend to think of stress as a normal part of life, rather than as something that's unfair,''  says Dr Maddi, a professor of psychology at the University of California.
Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006