“Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.”  Bernard Williams

The idea of resilience originates from material science, where it describes the property of a material to resume its original shape after distortion or stress. The word “resilience” is widely used in business.  It can be applied to people, it can be applied to teams, it can be applied to organisations.

Resilience has different meanings in different contexts.  In fact, resilience is a metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes the subject by comparing it to, and describing it in terms of, another otherwise unrelated topic.

  • Metaphors can represent experiences more fully as an abstract concept and so enable more effective communication.
  • Metaphors condense information making things more tangible and easier to work with.
  • The metaphor for an experience has a similar structure to the experience that it represents.

Resilience as a metaphor in the context of human psychology and behaviour can work for all these reasons, but the metaphor from material science has serious limitations.

What about too much resilience?

What about learning, growing and developing through stress?

What about adapting to situations and environments?

In all these scenarios, the metaphor doesn’t work so well.

How would you react to a natural disaster, an aircraft crash, a terrorist attack, being caught up in a civil uprising, being taken hostage, losing a limb, the death of a loved one in unusual circumstances, financial ruin and so on?

How calm would you be?

Fortunately, it’s statistically unlikely that you will experience any of these situations, but what if you do?

Your reaction may surprise you. You may remain calm and respond well or you may react in a way that will cause you anxiety over time. The intensity of the situation and the strength of your emotions will cause you to do one of the following things.

  • Freeze, where you’re unable to take any action at all.
  • Show a fight response, aggressively facing the situation head-on.
  • Show a flight response, get away from the situation as quickly as possible.
  • React with an appropriate set of behaviours to deal with the circumstances.

You’re not going to know how you’re going to act until you experience this extreme adversity, yet how you react on one occasion will not necessarily determine how you respond if you’re faced with another adverse situation. Underpinning your resilience will be your ability to accept the reality of the situation and its meaning to you.

Conscious decision making is going to be underpinned by a strong sense of core values that enable you to use your flexibility and creativity to improvise in a way that will see you through to a suitable end point.

So, let’s look at a meaningful definition of resilience that works in human psychology.

If you have good levels of resilience, you possess three defining characteristics.

  1. An ability to accept harsh reality, to take an objective view of the situation without a subjective overview, without denial or without emotion.
  2. An ability to find meaning in adversity, to build bridges from an ordeal in the present to a fuller, better future.
  3. An ability to continually improvise, to put resources to unfamiliar uses and imagining possibilities that others just see.

Fortunately, you can learn to develop all of these characteristics that make up resilience.