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Why resilience is not just a business buzzword

A buzzword which has been enjoying a longer shelf life than most is ‘resilience’, but during its time in the management theory sun it has experienced a subtle change of meaning.

Once it was a compliment, paid to someone who had survived a period of great adversity and emerged whole. But I am starting to hear ‘resilience’ being used as a kind of judgment and a criticism. It appears to be an expectation and I am hearing people being blamed if they are not ‘resilient’. Indeed, I am hearing whole sectors of society being (subtly) blamed for not being ‘resilient’; these include the poor, the unemployed and the lowest paid.

Some managers are seeing resilience as an excuse to get blood out of a stone. It has become another stick to beat workers with. They are expected to work longer and longer hours (while being continuously and uncomplainingly innovative and passionate, of course), and if they stumble under the pressure they risk being seen as lacking resilience. Their card (aka performance review) may be marked.

Human beings are naturally very resilient – we have to be to survive! – but resilience, like anything else, is not endless. Like elastic, if it is stretched to its limit too many times it will eventually lose its grip. Resilience in the face of adversity or a crisis is only possible if people know that the situation is temporary. Resilience is do-able when you feel that if you grit your teeth, put your head down and endure what you must in the short term, relief and reward await you in the future.

When ‘resilience’ leads to burnout

Burnout is what occurs when people have been asked to do too much for too long with no relief in sight. Burnout is not a failure of resilience; it is a consequence of resilience being taken for granted.

Human beings need rest. They need recreation. Their relationships and family will collapse if they are too exhausted to put time and effort into them. People enduring family breakdown have few emotional resources left over for resilience in the workplace so it makes sense for businesses to encourage workers to spend time on their personal lives.

Human beings thrive on praise and respect. They wither and die under constant unrelenting pressure and criticism. If the bar is continually raised so it is always out of reach, it is not just natural but sensible to give up and stop trying. Success creates more success, but failure reproduces itself, too.

The most resilient people I know are those who have great support systems around them and who see hope in the future even in the darkest times. They see that hope because they have memories of good times and an incentive to regain them. Resilient people are often the lucky ones. I don’t mean rich (necessarily!), but I do mean loved and supported. The world has treated them well so they can imagine a time when it will again.

It is not acceptable for the lucky to expect the unlucky to be ‘resilient’ and blame them when they are not. It is not acceptable for managers to create workplaces that require employees to be endlessly ‘resilient’. In fact, it should be seen as a symptom of very poor management.

Please don’t turn a compliment into an insult.

Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy. She worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and is now an author, journalist, lecturer and media commentator.


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