In Times of Crisis, Can We Learn to Be More Resilient?

Helping people maintain a positive attitude; building confidence and trust; and making employees feel valued, connected, and empowered can tip the balance toward greater resilience.

Mark Marone, Ph.D., Director of Research & Thought Leadership, Dale Carnegie and Associates

The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked some inspiring stories of resilient people and organizations—those who are working together to innovate new ways to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity. For example, restaurants became grocers and caterers to hospital staffdistilleries began producing hand sanitizerperformance art organizations redefined audience engagement, and professionals from physical therapists to event planners reinvented their work to accommodate social distancing restrictions. Yet, given the challenges that remain as a result of the pandemic’s widespread disruption, stories like these also have kindled some envy among leaders who wish their own organization’s resilience levels were a little higher.

Resilience refers to people’s ability to bounce back from unfavorable and unpleasant experiences, negativity, or challenges and is characterized by the capacity to cope, recover, and learn from adversity. Resilient employees are better at adapting in the face of new conditions; resilient teams demonstrate greater cooperation; and, organizations with a high level of resilience are more agile—advantages that are even more valuable during periods of crisis and uncertainty. 

Competing Theories of Resilience

Given its desirability, many are wondering: Is it possible to increase resilience? Some experts have argued that resilience is a stable, innate trait and, therefore, hiring for it is the only solution. That doesn’t help organizations with a need for greater resilience right now. More recently, researchers are suggesting that resilience is the result of a process that combines individual characteristics, behaviors and attitudes, and work-related environmental factors, many of which can be influenced by leaders, even during times of crisis. This second theory suggests it is possible to increase anyone’s resilience at any time.

That’s good news, since a February 2020 survey conducted by Dale Carnegie Training of more than 6,500 employees across 21 countries and territories found that 72 percent of respondents had experienced one or more conditions that can be considered a form of adversity in the workplace, and of those, more than 7 in 10 reported the resulting stress as moderate to high. Recent events undoubtedly have increased those percentages. In the absence of resilience, stress—whether sudden and intense or of lower-level intensity but ongoing—can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion, sleep problems, low energy, limited concentration, poor performance, and more. 

So how can leaders boost resilience?

Tipping the Balance Scale Toward Resilience

Helping people build and access resources—whether tangible or intangible—to meet the demands of their work can tip the balance toward resilience. This effect can be explained by the Job-Demands Resource model, which suggests that stress is a response to having inadequate resources to meet work demands. 

The first option for maintaining balance is to reduce job demands, but that may be difficult in light of staffing cuts. The other is to provide additional resources to offset stressors during challenging times. While finding more tangible resources right now may be impossible, intangible resources can help, too. 

6 Tips for Supporting Resilience in Individuals and Teams

Here are six tips for supporting resilience that don’t have to cost a penny.

1. Model and support a positive attitude. Finding ways to frame difficulties as opportunities and expressing conviction that they can be overcome can inspire people to find solutions. When people see adversity as a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, they are more inclined to take action and less likely to feel powerless. That’s one way that having a positive attitude enables resilience. 

2. Protect and develop people’s self-confidence. During a crisis, fear, uncertainty, and adversity can weaken employees’ self-confidence, negatively affecting their ability to learn and to perform just when their best efforts are needed most. Recognize and remind employees of their past achievements and strengthen their belief that they can adapt by supporting their efforts to grow and develop professionally. 

3. Increase team resilience by helping people feel connected by demonstrating and coaching interpersonal skills that foster strong, supportive relationships and create an environment of psychological safety within the team. Strong social ties at work improve performance, and this team connectivity has been identified as an important antecedent of resilience. That means a team’s success is heavily dependent on its members’ social intelligence.

4. Give people autonomy and make them feel empowered. It can be tempting to take charge, becoming more hands-on during difficult times, but that can be counterproductive. Empowered teams feel greater control over their work, which reduces the psychological demands of negative stress and boosts resilience. Whenever possible, provide clear strategy, objectives and critical guardrails, but give teams the freedom to determine how best to achieve the objectives. Empowered teams often find creative, new, more efficient ways to get the job done.

5. Build and maintain trust with transparent communication. Trust makes it easier for people to take calculated risks, speak up on important issues, and offer ideas that can lead to innovation. Protecting it requires leaders to be both consistently honest and true to their stated values and principles. People want reliable leaders whose actions match their words. When the news is bad, deliver it with empathy. Admit mistakes, even when it’s hard. Listen to and show respect for other people’s opinions and attempt to see things from others’ points of view. 

6. Unite people with a shared purpose and make them feel valued for their role in achieving it.Organizations typically exist to make life better for their customers or clients in some way—large or small. It’s easy to lose focus on that in a crisis, but people are more resilient when they know they are working toward a higher goal. Make sure people understand how their work fits into delivering on the organization’s purpose and give them something to work for beyond a paycheck. 

The ROI for Resilience

The ability to cope, recover, and learn from adversity is becoming more valuable as the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. But resilience merits leaders’ attention in any business environment. Highly resilient employees are more likely to be engaged, consistently give their best efforts at work, and embrace change. Despite stressors and demands leaders can’t control, helping people maintain a positive attitude; building confidence and trust; and making employees feel valued, connected, and empowered can tip the balance toward greater resilience. While the material investment required to do so may be small, the return may prove to be immense.

Mark Marone, Ph.D., is the director of Research and Thought Leadership for Dale Carnegie & Associates, where he is responsible for ongoing research into current issues facing leaders, employees, and organizations worldwide. He has written frequently on topics related to corporate culture, leadership, sales, and customer experience and has coauthored two books on sales strategy. Marone can be reached at: mark.marone@dalecarnegie.com.

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