Building Resilience

Failure is inevitable in many aspects of life; it is one of life´s most common traumas. Quoting J.K. Rowling “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all”

The term resilience, originally used to refer to the elasticity of materials, is now commonly used to express the capacity of a person to recover quickly from difficulties.

After a difficult experience some people fall into hopelessness, paralyzing fear of the future or even depression but many go back to where they were before the trauma after a short period of anxiety. A third reaction to failure is possible, the one of those who not only recovers from failure but also experience a post-traumatic growth.

Can resilience be measure and taught? Can those individuals who will collapse after failure be distinguished from those who will grow? A pioneering program for teaching resilience is now being tested in the U.S. Army, an organization where trauma is more common and more severe than in any corporate setting. Businesspeople can draw lessons from this approach, particularly in times of failure and stagnation.

Optimism is the key

It is often the person’s habitual way of looking at experience – a person’s explanatory style – which determines how they explain an event they have experienced and influences their cognitive (optimistic/pessimistic) expectation of future events.

Optimists have the habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary (“it´s going away quickly”), local (“it´s just this one situation”) and changeable (“I can do something about it”). Techniques for becoming more optimistic. By teaching people an optimistic explanatory style we immunize them against learned helplessness, depression, anxiety, and against giving up after failure.

Looking for psychological fitness

Individuals should be as fit psychologically as they are physically. Psychological fitness implies:

  • Emotional fitness: how to amplify positive emotions and how to recognize when negative ones, such as sadness and anger, are out of proportion to the reality of the threat they face.
  • Family fitness: skills to remain intimately involved with their families
  • Social fitness: practice identifying emotions in others, learning empathy
  • Spiritual fitness: belonging to and serving something larger than the self

The five elements that contribute to post-traumatic growth

  • Understanding the response to trauma, which typically includes shattered beliefs about oneself, others and the future.
  • Reducing anxiety through techniques for controlling intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Engaging in constructive self-discourse. People are encouraged to tell their stories.
  • Creating a narrative in which the trauma is seen as a fork in the road that enhances the appreciation of paradox – loss and gain, grief and gratitude, vulnerability and strength.
  • Articulating life principles: new ways to be altruistic, crafting a new identity.

Core competencies for any successful manager

Building mental toughness

Following Albert Elli´s ABCD model: A would stand for adversity, B for one´s beliefs about adversity, C for the emotions generated by those thoughts and D for the expectations. We build mental toughness when we learn that C stems not directly from A but from B, when we separate B from C and finally when we quickly and effectively dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.

Avoiding thinking traps like overgeneralizing or judging on the basis of a single action. Icebergs are deeply held beliefs such as asking for help is a sign of weakness. Teaching a technique for identifying and eliminating those, which are overly rigid and not accurate in a specific situation, is highly beneficial.

Help others put things in perspective and to minimize catastrophic thinking by considering worst-case, best-case and most likely outcomes.

Building signature strengths

Individually rank the top 24 character strengths, values such as persistence, creativity, curiosity, bravery, integrity, leadership, fairness or self-regulation.

In small groups discuss these questions: What did you learn about yourself? Which strengths have you developed in your work experience? How do your strengths contribute to your completing a mission and reaching your goals? What are the shadow sides of your strengths, and how can you minimize them?

Building strong relationships

Learning practical tools for positive communication, starting for identifying how they typically respond. Here the four styles of responding with an example: “Hey, I just got a promotion”

Active constructive: authentic, enthusiastic support.

“That´s great. What are your new duties? When do you start? What did the captain say about why you deserved it?”

  1. Passive constructive: laconic support.

“That´s nice”

  1. Passive destructive: ignoring the event.

“I got a funny e-mail from my son. Listen to this …”

  1. Active destructive: pointing out negative aspects of the event.

“You know there´s no extra pay, and it will eat up a lot of your R&R time”

When an individual responds actively and constructively to someone who is sharing a positive experience, love and friendship increase. 


Resilience training and positive psychology can make people in a large organization more effective.

Active constructive individuals rise to the top and are the ones whom organizations must recruit and retain in order to succeed. Companies full of active destructive employees are doomed in hard times.

Managers can change the culture of their organizations to focus on the positive instead of the negative and, in doing so, turn pessimistic, helpless employees into optimistic ones.



SELIGMAN, M. “Building Resilience”, HBR