A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Broken, Made or Tested by Adversity

The Psychology of Resilience

Biographers and those interested in famous, infamous, or essentially high profile individuals often pick over the details of their lives trying to establish what made them the way they are or were. Everyone accepts that people inherit certain aptitudes and personality traits, and that a variety of very specific and personal experiences shape the person they become.

Being a refugee; losing a parent; being a member of a despised, discriminated against, or easily identifiable minority. Having a physical disability; being separated from family; experiencing chronic illness. We all face degrees of adversity, however major or minor, over a lifetime.

Adversity can test people to their limits; traumatise them for all time; break them. They can live for the rest of their lives with ghosts from the past; powerful memories that shape and shake all aspects of their adult functioning. Sometimes people live with a “monkey on their shoulder” who whispers to them at critical moments: “What do you know? You never went to university” or “How could you ever be accepted by that lot?”

Others are made by adversity in the sense that the testing hardens them, like steel. They are made stronger, more resilient, less fragile. People who do time in jail or prison camps sometimes joke that the harsh environment is no worse than their boarding schools: the cold, the bad and inadequate food, the uncomfortable living conditions. They have been there, done that, experienced the extremes.

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Nearly all training for the professions and, of course, the military, introduces some level of adversity, be it sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, or overwork. It is no accident that business and medical schools pile on the pressure. They believe they should give their students a taste of real life.

Resilient people cope better. They bounce back faster. They carry less baggage from the past. They feel less influenced by fate, less victims of (bad) luck, more in control. They are able to maintain a steady course when the economic, political and psychological weather deteriorates.

Resilient people know who they are, who they can count on and where and when to get help. They don’t bluff about their toughness and certainly eschew the model of the stoical, macho male. They are self-aware.

Failure and setback teach lessons. Enquire into any person’s background – successful or not – and they will tell of things that tested them. The death of a relative; a sudden change in family fortunes; the discomfort of a move. These are early indicators of resilience.

Resilient people are hardy and have good coping skills. We all get stressed, that is self-evident, but resilient people can reduce the resulting acute and chronic effects quickly and efficiently.

But can you learn resilience? Can you change a person’s mindset, the way they look at the world, to change them from vulnerable to resilient? There are popular books that give suggestions such as those below:

• Visualise first, then enact how your capabilities will enhance your performance;

• Remind yourself of what you are really good at and what others value you for;

• Take control of your life and drop all that negative ‘can’t do’ thinking;

• Try serious optimism: do ‘glass half full’ and opportunity thinking;

• Reduce your stress levels by being more realistic, calling on the support of others and expressing your feelings more;

• Ask for and give help to others when they need it;

• Learn to be comfortable around conflict;

• Invest time in your learning;

• Work on your mental and physical fitness;

• Reframe the way you see setbacks. Think of learning challenges rather than fatal drawbacks;

• Buck up, tighten up, and toughen up.

That is the distillation of those self-help books in one go. The idea is this: if you have had some serious setbacks, they may have given you the opportunity to learn all those resilient reactions. If not, they may have caused you to be rather vulnerable, deeply risk-averse and stress-sensitive. Maybe the earlier one learns, the better. The later you leave it, the harder it is, but the message is clear – resilience is an extremely valuable life characteristic that can, and needs to be, always nurtured.

 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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