Resilient Workers

In the workplace, setbacks abound – the coveted promotion that went to an outside candidate, a mediocre performance evaluation.

Can you bounce back from these types of upsets? Can you work with the new manager after your great boss got promoted? Can you rally after being laid off or fired?

Everyone experiences varying degrees of adversity during their careers: periods of fear, vulnerability or upset. The ability to deal with, overcome, learn from and in some cases, be transformed by this adversity is resilience.

Edith Henderson Grotberg, a US psychologist, says being resilient is not a special trait evident in only certain types of people. She believes everyone can become resilient and that resilience can be promoted in the workplace.

Cultivating resilience is helped by maintaining external supports that promote the trait (having a trustworthy friend or family member), developing inner strengths to deal with adversity (the ability to be calm and good-natured), developing interpersonal skills and coming up with new ideas and new ways to do things.

Besides having a stable family and a good friend or role model, how can workers boost their own resiliency? The answer is to practise how resilient people cope:

Practise Being Likable, Calm and Good-Natured.
You don’t have to see yourself as affable and relaxed to apply these skills. Try smiling at people and greeting them when you see them. If you are naturally outgoing already, be sure to communicate acceptance to the people you interact with daily. Make sure you tell people when you are grateful, happy with something they did, or that you like them. People like to help and team up with positive, optimistic people.

Avoid becoming impatient with colleagues. This is easy to do during times of stress or conflict. Consciously calm down before entering a stress-filled meeting. Try to project a sense of calm. People who anger easily find dealing with adversity even harder. If you can practise approaching most situations calmly, you will find it easier when tensions run high.

Think About the Worst And Plan For It.
If you suffer a financial setback, how are you going to handle it? What is your back-up plan? Do you have enough money to live on for six months if you should lose your job? Be prepared to deal with adversities. Life has a way of interfering with our goals. We can’t anticipate all of the difficulties we may face, but we can plan for some of the more frightening ones. What if the new job doesn’t work out after the probationary period is over? What will you do?

Planning for the worst-case scenario doesn’t make you a pessimist. It helps you become more resilient in the face of upset.

Respect Yourself
Many difficulties arise at work when staff feel disrespected by customers, colleagues or a supervisor. Feeling taken for granted or taken advantage of can lead to resentment, yet it is almost inevitable that you will experience some form of disrespect during your career. How you deal with it will help you remain resilient in the face of humiliation, ingratitude or prejudice, for example. Staff who cope well with disrespectful situations believe hurtful circumstances or people cannot take away their self-respect. They find ways to communicate their sense of self-respect to others, from excusing themselves from the room when being denigrated to using humour to handle gossip.

Care About Others
Resilient people try to see things from the other person’s point of view. When dealing with a difficult workplace relationship, for example, it is important to try to empathize with the other party. Someone who’s critical of your work is perhaps struggling with insecurity about her own role. Someone who’s burned out and cynical might seem disinterested in your idea. Think about what else (besides wanting to hurt you) could be going on in your colleague’s life. Trying to see if adversaries are facing difficulties can depersonalize a situation.

Work On Being Optimistic and Hopeful
It may seem counterintuitive to adopt an optimistic outlook when you’re feeling down but research indicates that people can “try on” new ways of seeing things. Start telling yourself that things will work out somehow if you try your best. Once again, you may not believe it at first, but experimenting with being hopeful won’t hurt. This is especially true when you are engaged in a frustrating job search or are swamped at work.

Stick To It
Practise sticking to a task or project. Persistence is important when cultivating resilience. Refusing to give up makes it more likely that you will overcome obstacles. If you know you can make a commitment, see it through and celebrate your achievements, the next time your job sends you a curve ball, you’ll know you have the fortitude to deal with it.

Trying to see the funny side of a difficult situation makes people resilient. Humour can reduce tension, lighten a mood and shift negative feelings, especially when we laugh at ourselves. Beware of taking your role at work too seriously. Have a laugh at your own expense. Humour helps staff remain non-defensive and aids in keeping perspective. If we can laugh at our foibles and the things that get under our skin, we’re better prepared when more painful events occur.

Practise Telling The Truth
This doesn’t mean being brutally honest which usually translates into trying to convince someone else of the merits of our position by putting them down. Use a cautious approach whenever you feel the urge to tell someone “how I really feel”. Truth telling is different from brutal honesty. Finding the truth in a situation and communicating it to others increases resiliency. For example, if you are finding a co-worker ‘s unreliability is interfering with your ability to get the job done, tell the truth: “I’m feeling frustrated with the job especially when I can’t add your part, because it’s not done yet. What can we do about this?”

Ask Yourself “What Could I Learn From This?” You may wish you didn’t have to learn anything from difficult situations but being willing to consider that adversity can be an excellent teacher will help you cope. What people learn from trouble at work can include something new about themselves (I can endure discomfort until resolution occurs), their abilities (I can speak the truth), or their values (I take short cuts when I shouldn’t). Sometimes wisdom is gained and lessons can include ways to deal with similar situations when they occur.

Resilient people aren’t necessarily “nothing gets to me” types. They feel upset when bad things happen. What sets them apart is, they rebound, keeping their spirit and healthy outlook intact.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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