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Main Content

Strengthening Your Resilience Ability

When you're resilient, you:

  • Handle pressure and psychological stress well

  • Recover effectively from difficult times

  • Know how to keep life's vicissitudes in proper perspective

What does resilience look like in action? Here's one example: You were halfway through a particularly difficult course when you were in college, and your teacher told you that you were on the verge of failing. You'd received extremely low marks on several interim tests, and the midterm exam was coming up — which you suspected you stood little chance of passing.

You panicked: You had to pass this course to complete your major. But instead of sinking into despair, you rallied and committed to bringing your grade up. Deciding that studying with others might help you, you found some classmates who were interested in forming a small group to prepare for the midterm. The group met several times a week in the month leading up to the midterm — exchanging ideas, mastering the course content, and coaching each other. When the midterm came, you passed the test with a respectable B-.

Here's another example: Owing to an unfortunate mistake in handling a purchase order at your company, you've just received a furious letter of complaint from a major customer. Your boss is livid, and has told you your job is on the line if the customer defects to a competing firm. Your rent has just gone up, and the thought of getting fired has you in a cold sweat.

But rather than crumbling under the pressure, you take a deep breath and concentrate on the actions you can take to save the day. You contact the customer, apologize for the mistake, and express your understanding of the customer's frustration. You explain what you're doing to fix the situation and then offer him a generous gift certificate to your company's online store. The customer mutters his thanks. A week later, he places a large order with your firm.

As these examples suggest, resilience is a valuable ability in all of life's endeavors. To strengthen this ability, consider these suggestions:

  • Read a book on the subject. Potential useful titles include The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You by Salvatore R. Maddi and Deborah M. Khoshaba, and The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life by Robert Brooks et al.

  • Take a self-paced online learning course. Examples include the "Managing Crises" and "Managing Workplace Stress" modules in the Harvard ManageMentor series, developed by Harvard Business School Publishing. Online learning courses often introduce key concepts related to the topic, provide hands-on practice in related skills, and offer helpful tips and tools. Your employer may have a site license to such courses that you can access through your company's intranet. You may also be able to purchase individual CDs containing modules of interest to you, or download them from the Web for free or for a small fee.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone at school or at work who you view as particularly resilient. Ask this person how he has improved this ability.

  • Attend a workshop, training session, or course on managing stress, dealing with crisis, and other elements of resilience. Your employer may offer such educational opportunities, or may be willing to fund your tuition if you take such a course. Your local adult education programs may also offer such courses and workshops.

  • Prevent chronic overload.  If you're like many people, the ubiquity of communication technologies has made you feel that you're always on the job: Cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), email — you're constantly flooded with input to which you feel pressured to respond. This flood can wear down your resilience if you don't regain control. To do so, put boundaries around your use of communication technologies. For example, commit to dealing with emails for just half an hour at two designated times during each work day. And shut off your cell-phone ringer at night, so you won't be tempted to take business-related calls.

  • Establish boundaries with your boss. Many supervisors assume they can keep upping their demands on employees as long as no one is squawking. Learn to say "no" at times — but be savvy about it: If your boss has piled one too many tasks on you, explain that you'd be happy to take on his latest request but that you'll have to delay or cancel another task. Ask your boss which task he most prefers you to work on. That way, you're letting him know your limits while also giving him a choice.

  • Stop caring. This advice may sound harsh, but it really is helpful. Resilient people understand and accept that not everything works out as intended — and they know how to cut their losses and move on after a failure. To embrace this attitude, when things go wrong, ask yourself, "What's the worst that can happen?" Often, the answer will be surprisingly manageable.

  • Transform anxiety into excitement. Recognize that the emotions of anxiety and excitement catalyze identical physiological responses (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shallow breathing). What distinguishes these two emotions is how you forecast the outcome of whatever event has caused these physiological responses. If you forecast the outcome as positive, you experience excitement. If you forecast the outcome as negative, you suffer anxiety — which can eat away at your resilience. To enhance your resilience, you thus need to transform anxiety into excitement. How? Every time an event gets your heart pounding or your palms sweating, identify all the positive outcomes that could emerge from that event. In other words, look on the bright side (as the old adage goes). For instance, an irate customer is not a problem — it's an opportunity to improve your work processes and secure the customer's loyalty by fixing the mistake promptly and pleasantly.

  • Recharge your batteries. There's a myriad of mind/body disciplines (yoga, meditation, therapeutic massage, exercise) designed to help people revitalize themselves during stressful times. A discipline that works for one person may not work for another. Select and practice one or more that seem most helpful to you.

In an age of rapid change and increasing pressure to do things "better, faster, and cheaper," it's easy to feel overwhelmed in all dimensions of our lives. For this reason, resilience has become more crucial than ever for combating the burnout that can eventually come from relentless stress. Thankfully, you can strengthen your resilience — by adopting some or all of the practices listed above.