Resilience, Agency & Bouncing Back

I saw a great presentation this morning by Andrew Soren, an internal leadership consultant at BMO Financial. His topic was resilience, which—as he admits—is a bit of a loaded term. Unpacking his particular emphasis in usage (which itself draws on a pretty large literature out of the positive psychology movement), resilience explores how we overcome adversity and difficult or negative experiences.

Adversity itself comes in many forms, of course. There are the large scale, overwhelming life changes associated with death, loss of friendships, career transitions (whether voluntary or not) and ending of marriages (as well as, for some, possibly getting married in the first place). We also deal with adversity on a small scale every day. Whether someone cuts us off in traffic, we spill our coffee, the meal we order isn’t cooked to our satisfaction or our car isn’t ready on time, life offers us numerous opportunities to exercise our powers of resilience. It is, if you will, the gift that keeps on giving.

The challenge, of course, is how we respond to these situations when they occur. For some of us, any level of adversity is crippling. Some can ruin their entire day just thinking about what might go wrong. Most of us have a point of emotional critical mass where we find ourselves reacting in entirely unhealthy and unconstructive ways. A situation occurs, our values and beliefs are compromised and we emotionally respond in a manner that in the moment may feel justified—or even satisfying—but in the long term is neither useful or productive. The challenge for all of us is how to think—and ultimately respond—differently, if we want a different outcome.

The tools and factors of resilience are several. They include emotional awareness and regulation, impulse control, optimism, flexible and accurate thinking, empathy and connection and self-efficacy. The attentive reader will notice a lot of overlap of those concepts with the principles of emotional intelligence, and there is arguably a fair degree of alignment. As Andrew noted, consultants and academics are both often fond of creating their own models in their own image, with their own particular labels and constructs.

What is important is the ideas and strategies, and what they mean in terms of providing practical guidance to positively move forward. There is a great deal of overlap between the idea of resilience and the concept of agency, which was the focus of my last book. Being able to build the capacity for independent and confident action, as well as having the capacity to bounce back when we face difficulties.

The research that led to writing Exercising Agency demonstrated the power and influence of agency in navigating organizational politics, processes and structures in advocating for effective strategic decisions. The challenge is how to develop the capacity for agency. Resilience would appear to provide a very useful framework and set of tools to help develop this. Stay tuned for more on this in future posts.

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