In my work as a researcher at BetterUp Labs, I have an opportunity to speak with business leaders across multiple industries about their biggest challenges. One theme continues to emerge—change at breakneck speed has become the norm in business today and it’s overwhelming our workforces.
Workplace environments are reaching a breaking point. Employees are under enormous pressure to continuously adapt to new technologies, shifting priorities, and ways of working—and they aren’t equipped to keep up.
Coping with change can be difficult for most of us. As humans, we are biologically wired to prefer routine, so we often focus on the negative during uncertain times. We also may not have developed the skills that can help us manage stress and navigate challenging situations.
But change can actually offer opportunity for employees to learn and develop—if they have the resilience to help them through. Consider the nature of a palm tree. Palm trees are able to weather storms because they have a stable foundation that enables it to flex with strong winds. They are able to bend—but will not break—despite the conditions.
Like the palm tree, employees can also develop an ability to be resilient. They can learn how to bounce back from change and even grow from difficulties and adversity.
Resilience Improves Organizational and Employee Performance
In today’s organizations, resilience has become a key human capacity required for peak performance, and an increasingly important characteristic for organizations to cultivate in employees.
Research shows that resilience can be a powerful buffer that enables organizations to remain profitable and competitive, even during turbulent times. In their book, The Agility Factor, Williams, Worley and Lawler highlight that organizational agility is highly correlated with organizational resilience and together, both factors determine the adaptive capacity of an organization. This adaptive capacity enables organizations to quickly perceive and respond to changes, whether it’s grabbing hold of a new business opportunity or addressing a potential threat.
Resilience also shapes the way employees respond to and manage the stress of change. BetterUp Labs found that employee resilience is associated with decreased stress and that people low on resilience are 4 times more likely to burnout.
Resilience is also associated with increased work engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. This is likely because people who are better able to bounce back from stress and adversity apply those skills to the workplace as well. Rather than giving up due to the inevitable setbacks they encounter in the course of their work, they’re able to carry on and focus on the big picture.
The resiliency of leaders impacts how they lead and the performance and engagement of their teams. BetterUp Labs has found that when leaders experience stress, they report engaging in fewer inspirational leadership behaviors such as sharing optimistic visions of the future, setting ambitious goals, and communicating confidence in reaching those goals. Leaders are also less likely to engage in fundamental management behaviors such as clarifying roles and goals and recognizing performance.
Instead, stressed leaders are more likely to take a passive approach to leadership, only intervening once there are performance problems, or avoiding making decisions or taking responsibility all together. This can have a trickle down effect to their teams, influencing their attitudes and behaviors about work.
In contrast, our research shows that resilient leaders are more likely to engage in inspirational leadership behaviors, such as providing creative perspectives to help problem solve or encouraging others to meaningfully contribute and participate.
Three Skills Important for Resilience
What makes some employees more resilient than others? It’s not that resilient individuals have fewer stressors at work—they are just better equipped to cope with the challenges they face.
Research shows that resilient employees engage in three behaviors that help them remain focused and optimistic despite setbacks or uncertainty:
Emotional Regulation. This skill involves the ability to monitor, recognize, and respond to our emotions effectively, so they don’t impede with our functioning. Developing strong emotional regulation skills helps build resilience by allowing us to continue functioning through a wide variety of internal personal experiences, including those that are difficult.
One example of this is having the ability to notice when you are triggered by something a coworker says. This awareness provides an opportunity to pause and make a decision about how to respond. Storming out of the room or responding in anger may be less desirable than taking a few deep breaths and readdressing the issue after a night to sleep on it.
Self-compassion. This behavior focuses on bringing mindful, kind, and forgiving attention to our experience, rather than harsh self-criticism. It can help support resilience because it helps us soothe difficult emotions and harness powerful sources of motivation during challenging times.
Cognitive Agility. This skill involves recognizing when our thinking about a situation has negative results and shifting how we think about it in a way that benefits us. It helps support resilience because it allows us to continue functioning regardless of the situation.
For example, we generally have the opportunity to choose the story we tell ourselves about an event. When you realize you’ve been left off that meeting invitation, you can choose to interpret it as an intentional act of disrespect from your coworker—or the kind of mistake you’ve made yourself many times. Reframing your thinking to something that results in more positive emotions generally creates more possibilities.
Most Successful L&D Interventions at Building Resilience
Organizations have introduced a variety of L&D programs today aimed at helping employees better manage stress—but most are missing the mark. Initiatives such as global wellness programs are beneficial to employees, but they don’t have the components or structure that supports the development of meaningful and lasting behavior changes.
Based on a meta-analysis of 37 studies of resilience programs in organizations, research shows that individually focused resilience development programs such as one-on-one coaching and mentoring tend to perform better than group-level training, computer-based training, and train-the-trainer programs.
These results support what we’ve seen in working with organizations to build resilience. BetterUp Labs found that after just 3-4 months of coaching, resilience increased across all individuals by an average of 9%, burnout decreased by 19%, and stress decreased by 24%.
Coaching is effective because it is personalized to the individual. We all have traits and qualities that make us respond to stress in different ways, and we come from different circumstances and work contexts. Coaches are able to meet employees where they are—to better understand the whole person and help them develop skills in the context of their unique work situations. Coaches also provide the support that is needed when doing the hard work of making changes.
How Coaching Builds Resilience
Coaches can work with employees in multiple ways to help them develop skills that increase their resilience. Here are a few examples of interventions a coach would use to help an employee:
Teaching reframing techniques: The way in which someone views an event— including its meaning, magnitude, and what is required to overcome it — is one of the most significant contributing factors in resilience. Coaches can teach employees cognitive reframing techniques, which help them see the new possibilities in a situation. With this new perspective, employees are better able to bounce back, grow, and move through the challenge.
Providing social support. At both an individual and organizational level, social support is a critical factor in our capacity to bounce back from challenges, stress, or hardship. The trusting relationship between a coach and client can provide a source of social support for the client. Coaches can also help clients build or draw on social networks from within the organization and outside support.
Developing strengths. Increasing an employee’s confidence and self-efficacy can create buffers against stress. Coaches help employees build these skills by highlighting their strengths and exploring how to use them to address challenges.
While the world of work won’t slow down, organizations can help equip their employees with the skills they need to adapt. Resiliency is key to creating an agile workforce—and helping employees learn how to not just adjust, but thrive in change.
For a deeper look at employee resilience, read BetterUp’s report “5 Key Questions about Employee Resilience.”