Why settle for resilience?

I’m fortunate to work with many organisations around the world. Not only do I get to share my work with them; I get to learn about the goals they see as most important to their organisation.

Developing resilience is one of the most common goals I hear about. In fact, it is often the reason why organisations are drawn to my work with Growth Mindsets and Learning Agility.

But recently, I’ve been questioning resilience. By making “resilience” our goal, do we set the bar too low? Could we do better?

Let’s take a look at what resilience is and why organisations are so interested in it.

What is resilience?

Dictionary.com defines resilience as: “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. The power or ability to return to original form.”

Toni Noble and Helen McGrath, authors of Bounce Back!, discuss resilience in terms of the “ability to cope or ‘bounce back’ after encountering negative events, difficult situations, challenges or adversity and return to almost the same level of emotional wellbeing.”

Mindmatters.edu.au defines resilience as “the ability of an individual … to manage life challenges or adversities so as to maintain mental wellbeing.” It goes on to discuss the balance of risk and protective factors.

Richard Sagor, associate professor at Washington State University, says 
[1] resilience can be thought of as an antibody that enables businesses, leaders and employees to ward off attackers that might stop even the most formidable among us. He defines resilience as a set of attributes that provides people with the strength and fortitude to confront the overwhelming obstacles they are bound to face in life.

It seems to me that much (but not all) of the discussion about resilience centres on the belief that people need protection from negative disruptions. That without resilience, they will undoubtedly suffer from the overwhelming challenges and negative events they will encounter.

Organisations, therefore, seek to equip their employees with the skills necessary to defend themselves against these disruptions and return to their original state unharmed.

The assumption is that people are fragile. That when they encounter challenges or difficulties, they are prone to breaking – often recognised as poor mental health or a lack of progress in learning. In this light, our job as leaders is to “toughen them up” and help our workers become more resilient, so they can withstand or recover when the big, bad world happens to them.

But why do we regard these events and challenges as negative? And why is getting back to the original state our goal?

Why be Resilient, when you can be Antifragile? 

In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the concept of antifragile. Taleb makes the point that everyone understands what fragile means: something that breaks easily when it encounters a disruption or disturbance. But Taleb notes that we don’t have a word that describes something that is the opposite of fragile.

When considering the opposite of fragile, many people think of “robust” or “resilient”. But these are not the opposite of fragile. To be robust or resilient simply means an object can withstand disruptions without breaking and return to its original state. 

The opposite of fragile - something that is "antifragile" - benefits from disruption. It grows stronger because of a challenge.

For example, think of the way many plants recover from a good prune. These plants could be described as antifragile because they grow back – not to their original state, but stronger and with more sprouts. They improve and benefit from the disruption of a decent prune, more so than they would from being left alone.

I like the term antifragile. I think it’s an extraordinarily powerful concept, and it has an especially influential role to play in our organisations. By giving a name to the concept of benefiting from disruption, antifragile has the potential to transform the way we talk about our organisations goals – including resilience.

Look again at the way our discussion of resilience has (typically, but not always) been framed. We’ve talked about “negative events”, “adversity”, “recovering”, etc. It seems to me that we’ve been engaging in a deficit discourse, assuming disruption is harmful – that we need to develop the “strength to withstand” and the “ability to recover”. 

But events aren’t negative. Outcomes are negative. Situations are only adverse if they have unfavourable outcomes; recovery is only necessary if there has been damage.
These days, almost everyone has heard of the research around post-traumatic stress. But fewer of us have heard of the research around post-traumatic growth. This research shows that some individuals, when faced with adversity, actually thrive. 

Perhaps you know someone who has been through a divorce, redundancy, bankruptcy or illness, and has come out the other side saying things like, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me!” Of course, the experience might not have been pleasant, but the end result was beneficial. These people are antifragile.
The antifragile employee

What if an event that we assume to be negative could lead to growth and positive outcomes? What if we could teach our employees to look at challenges and disruptions not as unavoidable evils, but as things to seek and welcome as necessary to grow? What if we could teach people – and organisations – how to be antifragile?
Antifragile people grow in the face of challenge. They are courageous during adversity.

Just as pruning a tree makes it stronger and healthier, antifragile employees don’t return to their previous state. Disruption leaves them stronger and better able to face future challenges.

So, how might we develop antifragility in our employees?

An important foundation is a Growth Mindset. It teaches us that although some challenges are beyond our current abilities, those abilities are not fixed, so those difficult challenges need not remain out of reach. We can develop our talents, skills and intelligence to become better able to succeed.

However, a Growth Mindset on its own is not enough to develop antifragility (or even resilience). A Growth Mindset is the understanding that you are capable of growth, but it is not actual growth. Growth requires action. Without the behaviours and processes to achieve growth, “not yet” will become “still not yet”.

A Growth Mindset is the beginning. To develop antifragility in our employees, we must also change the way they respond to challenges and help them develop the necessary Habits of Mind. We must engage them in Virtuous Practice so we can ensure that disruption and challenge lead to the growth of their abilities.

In other words, a challenge isn’t something to fear and overcome. It’s something we must leverage to help us improve!

Growth Mindset, the Habits of Mind and practice unite in Learning Agility: the ability to turn a Growth Mindset into actual growth. It’s the combination of understanding that you are capable of growth and the capacity to achieve growth that results in  employees becoming antifragile. Challenges and disruption become a source of nourishment rather than fear. 

In a world of disruption and challenge, resilience will help you and your organisation survive. But Learning Agility will help you become antifragile and thrive!

If you’d like to work together, to help build Learning Agility in your team and help your organisation become AntiFragile, just hit reply and let me know a little about your context. Or book a time in my calendar for a zoom meeting and we can talk about how I can support your work.

Best wishes

  1. Sagor, R., 1996, Building Resiliency in Students, ascd.org, accessed 29th January 2018, www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept96/vol54/num01/Building-Resiliency-in-Students.aspx
  2. Anderson, J., 2017, Why we need Agile Learners, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 29th January 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/need-agile-learners/

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