Introduction

The year 2022 has been a transitionary year. We’ve emerged from the isolation of a global pandemic and moved forward, courageously, to design a new normal. We have felt and expressed fear and gratitude, sorrow and laughter, and the full spectrum of human emotion. We have, at times, been energized and then equally exhausted. But we keep moving forward because we are resilient. 

As we approach the close of 2022, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of resilience and how we can harness it in an uncertain world. This three-part series will focus on building momentum, ways to activate resilience in ourselves, and thoughts on fostering resilience in others.

Part I: Building Momentum

There is no denying that our personal and professional lives have been upended by the pandemic. No matter where we reside in the world or what stage we are at in our careers, it is likely that we have experienced some form of pandemic-related unease, uncertainty, stress, or fatigue. 

The science of resilience offers reason for optimism. Clinical psychologist, George Bonanno of Teachers College at Columbia University, notes three common responses following a psychological hardship – and these results hold true across diverse populations and socioeconomic statuses:

  1. Resilience Trajectory: 65% of people maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health
  2. Recovery Trajectory: 25% struggle temporarily with issues such as depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then recover
  3. Lasting Psychological Distress: approximately 10% experience lasting psychological distress

While no one is certain how these trajectories might shift based on the Covid-19 pandemic, they do offer a promising baseline for our ability to reflect, learn, rebound, and move forward. The outlier that psychologists continue to study is the lingering and uncertain nature of the pandemic which has led Bonanno to speculate that the response may be more like learning to manage constant stress.1

This view tracks with observations made by social psychologist Amy Cuddy and writer JillEllyn Riley. They coined the phrase “pandemic flux syndrome” to describe the roller coaster-like experience of cycling through periods of optimism and uncertainty that we have all come to know. In an August 2021 Washington Post article, they concluded, “[a]lthough human beings are more resilient than we generally appreciate, it will take time for many of us to stably recover, to reflect, and recalibrate.” 2

Cultivating Resilience

Effective strategies for coping with stress are already well known and were placed front and center early in the pandemic. Many organizations provide a wealth of coping resources for physical and mental health. Other useful mechanisms for moving forward may be found by looking more closely at the nature of resilience. 

Psychology Today describes resilience as, “…the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before… highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.”

Psychologist, Rachel Yehuda describes resilience as, a conscious effort to move forward in an insightful integrated positive manner as a result of lessons learned from an adverse experience… resilience involves an active decision… that must be frequently reconfirmed. That decision is to keep moving forward. 4

The American Psychological Association (APA) views resilience as a process of adapting well when faced with significant sources of stress. They see it as much more than simply “bouncing back” from adversity, as some definitions imply. Rather, they describe resilience as a resource that may be cultivated and that is available to each of us. Whether and how we choose to cultivate resilience is not always easy or comfortable; but it is within our control. 

APA notes, “There are many aspects of your life you can control, modify, and grow with. That’s the role of resilience. Becoming more resilient not only helps you get through difficult circumstances, it also empowers you to grow and even improve your life along the way.”5

Implications for Organizations

These definitions make explicit that many of us have the wherewithal to pursue resilience and there are two more principles that may be relevant to our collective journey toward cultivating resilience. 

The first is that resilience may be facilitated systemically6, when an organization provides the environment and resources to support its members’ resilience. It is up to each of us to tap into all that our organizations offer – purpose, values, ethics, inclusion, leadership, resource, and wellness groups – the list goes on and on. In this context, “tapping into” means being fully engaged – joining in, reaching out and seeking assistance, accepting feedback and coaching, and speaking out both with questions and feedback of our own – this is a learning loop that will bolster individual and organizational resilience.

The second is that, despite the fact that we have all experienced a similar set of stressors over the past few years, it is helpful to acknowledge that each person’s experience has been unique. Some may have already cultivated the skills, practices, and resources to harness resilience on their own. Others may require more time or assistance, such as through coaching or a referral to a licensed mental health professional. A key to this second principle is that we should never assume that because an obstacle was easy for one person to overcome, it will be easy for everyone to overcome. That means when we encounter a colleague who is struggling, we should be prepared to withhold assumptions or judgment and instead, offer empathy.

Offering empathy means a willingness to listen and understand what another is experiencing. It doesn’t imply agreement with their views or endorsement of their circumstances. It simply means quieting your own thoughts and views so that you can listen and understand theirs. It may seem counterintuitive to refrain from attempting to fix the problem for them. However, through listening and empathy, you may help to bolster a colleague’s resilience so that they may find new options and choose the best way forward. 

This second principle – the uniqueness of each person’s experience – is an area of great opportunity to take an organization’s culture to a new level by fostering resilience and empathy as a virtuous circle that begins with cultivating our own resilience and continues with offering empathy to others so that we may become stronger together as we navigate an uncertain world in the months and years ahead. 

By: Carolyn Esposito, Corporate Ombuds at AllianceBernstein and Certified Executive Coach 

Footnotes:

  1. The Biggest Psychological Experiment in History is Running Now, Lydia Denworth, Scientific American, June 2020
  2. Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious, Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley, The Washington Post, August 11, 2021
  3. Psychology Today, October 2021, https://www.psychologytoay.com/us/resilience
  4. Rachel Yehuda, Resilience Definitions, Theory, and Challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Steven M Southwick, George Al Bonanno, Ann S. Masten, Catherine Painter-Brick, and Rachel Yehuda, PMC, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, October 1, 2014
  5. Building Your Resilience, American Psychological Association, 2012
  6. Catherine Panter-Brick, Resilience Definitions, Theory, and Challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Steven M Southwick, George Al Bonanno, Ann S. Masten, Catherine Panter-Brick, and Rachel Yehuda, PMC, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, October 1, 2014