What Really Makes Us Resilient?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Marcus Buckingham for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Miemo Penttinen/miemo.net/Getty Images

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Eleven years ago my friend Sally was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the degenerative motor-neuron disease which gradually renders you unable to move, to eat, to talk, and in the end to breathe. She had just turned 40, two kids, happily married to a prince of a guy, so much to look forward to, for all of them. And then this horrible suffering. This “very slow car crash” was her husband’s description and I can’t get that image out of my head. The wreckage, the brokenness, the inevitability of pain, and nothing anyone can do about it but look on helplessly. “I think I’m disappearing,” Sally told me back then. “What am I going to do when no one sees me anymore?”

Today, against all the odds, she is still alive. Yes, she can’t move, or talk, or eat, or breathe on her own, but she has not disappeared. Instead, with the aid of her eye-powered talking machine, she is as feisty and loving and wise as she ever was. Sally can convey more meaning in one glance than most of us can in a 20-minute rant. “How do you do it?” I asked her. “How do you stay so strong for your hubby, for your kids?”

“There are so many things I can’t do, Marcus,” she replied. “But why bother looking at those? Instead I spend all my time focused on those few things I can do. I can still love my husband. I can still love my kids. I’m still here.”

She is so very present. And these days folks like Sally have so much to teach all of us about resilience. For more than a decade she has been sheltering in place, socially distancing herself from those who might infect her, unable to get out and move around, and yet she has retained her verve and her spirit. Would that we all could tap into such reserves of strength and forbearance. Would that we could all sway in the face of life’s awful challenges and bounce back stronger than we ever were. What is it that Sally had access to? Was it simply a part of her genetic makeup that allowed her not to cave, or was it something she did consciously? What is this thing called resilience, and how can each of us cultivate it in our own lives?

To begin to answer these questions, my team at the ADP Research Institute undertook two field studies. The first focused on identifying the sources of resilience, pinpointing the best questions to measure it, and then playing out the specific prescriptions to increase resilience in yourself and those you lead and care about. You can find the full set of results here.

The second was a global study of resilience around the world. We asked 25,000 working adults in 25 countries 10 key questions about resilience. In each country we first constructed a sample stratified to reflect the demographic make-up of that country’s workforce, and then in July 2020 we posed these 10 questions to determine the percentage of workers in each country who were highly resilient.

My thesis going in was that those countries which had responded most effectively to the Covid-19 epidemic — as measured by number of deaths and cases per million — would display the most resilient workforce. I expected countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea would show very high levels of resilience, whereas countries such as Brazil, India, and the U.S. would have comparatively lower levels of resilience. The U.S., for example, has only 4% of the world’s population, yet more than 20% of the world’s Covid cases. Surely this outsized number of cases would have had a negative effect on resilience levels.

I was wrong. My thesis didn’t hold up. Instead a very different pattern emerged, one that revealed not only how you can build resilience in your own life, but also why so many of our senior leaders are pursuing the wrong path in their attempts to increase resilience in those they lead.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Marcus Buckingham is the head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute and a coauthor of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World (Harvard Business Review Press).


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