Resilience – debunking myths and resurfacing perspective

Difficult times give us the opportunity to be resilient, i.e. ‘bounce-back’ or ‘be bulletproof’ and more. Find out how you can improve your resilience here.

Anyone thinking that the interest in resilience was just a ‘flavour of the month’ five or six years ago when a plethora of books on the subject hit the bookshops, may need to think again.

The number of articles I still see in journals and newspapers on the subject suggests that interest does not seem to have waned.

And this isn’t surprising when you consider that workplace stress is still as prevalent as it has ever been.

For example, our Singapore Management Agenda research found that  44% of managers in Singapore report workload as the main source of workplace stress, with management style and lack of support the next two most common. 

Looking back, some may have treated it as ‘the latest flavour’ in the early years and simply renamed their stress management training as resilience programmes. But alongside this superficial rebranding, there has been serious effort in other camps to redefine what is needed in order to survive and thrive in the turbulent world that seems to be the new normal for us all.

And yet, I still feel that some of the definitions of resilience that have surfaced have been found wanting and don’t really describe the kind of resilience we need.

What is resilience?

Many define resilience as the ability to ‘bounce-back’ or to ‘be bulletproof’. Nietzsche would probably have agreed with these definitions when he stated: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me strong”.

I understand the emphasis on the ability to get through tough times and to cope with repeated setbacks. At the same time, I think there is a sense of poverty and danger in these simple definitions. 

Difficult times give us the opportunity to 'bounce forward' not just bounce back to where we were before. There is potentially much learning to be gained from adversity. Also, the macho impression of being 'bulletproof' and not letting anything get to you may be ok for fantasy figures like Superman, but isn't very human – except perhaps for psychopaths!

In my experience, rather than ‘bounce-back-ability’ or ‘being bulletproof’, resilience is more about:

  • Remaining vulnerable enough to feel for and with others
  • Becoming strong enough to live with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Learning to grow, not crumble, through adversity

Based on research, Roffey Park has a developed a model which highlights five key factors in improving your resilience. These are:

  • Perspective – being able to take a step back from a challenging situation, accept rather than deny its negative aspects whilst finding opportunity and meaning in the midst of adversity.
  • Emotional Intelligence – being aware of, understanding and regulating your emotions.
  • Purpose, values and strengths – having a clear sense of purpose in work as well as a belief that the work we do is congruent with our personal values and plays to our strengths.
  • Connections – having a wide network of friends of colleagues who are able to provide you with support.
  • Managing physical energy – finding time to keep fit physically, eat well and have time away from work

Let’s take two of them – Perspective and Purpose. How do we develop, and maintain, a long-term perspective and sense of purpose?

An exercise I use to good effect on my resilience programmes is: ‘90th Birthday Speech’. I invite participants to write and deliver the speeches that they would like to be given in their honour by friends, colleagues and family on their 90th birthday.

What would they want them to say about the person they have known and what you have achieved by that stage of your life? It can be a profound and deeply moving exercise both to complete and then to witness those speeches being delivered.

This exercise can also be a useful precursor to an exercise that Covey (1984) suggests in ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’. His third ‘Habit’ is to: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. Towards this end, he encourages the reader to write their own personal mission statement, something that expresses what they value and what they aspire to, towards a long-term sense of purpose.

Is it our problem?

Some may ask whether HR, OD or people developers should be getting involved in helping employees discover a sense of purpose or perspective. Isn’t this something they should pursue in their own time? Not if Dan Pink (2011) is to be believed:

“Humans by their nature seek purpose – a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. Traditional businesses have long considered purpose ornamental – a perfectly nice accessory, so long as it didn’t get in the way of the important things. But that’s changing…purpose maximisation is taking its place along profit maximisation as an aspiration and a guiding principle…”


Written by Adrian Lock, Senior Consultant, Roffey Park Institute


Adrian Lock has published a paper called “The Resilient Leader” which is available to download from Roffey Park’s website . To assess your own resilience capabilities using an online tool visit  

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