10 Things You Need to Know About Building Your Resilience

I was grateful to have the opportunity recently to listen to the Vice Chancellor of Napier University, Professor Andrea Nolan OBE, talk about her career journey. A couple of things stood out for me. She spoke about ‘resolve’ and always being open to possibility. When I googled ‘resolve’ the definition offered was ‘to have a firm determination to do something’. Thinking about resolve lead me to resilience. I asked Prof Nolan to talk about what resilience has looked like for her. She cited the example of regularly applying for funding and being turned down four times out of five. Despite being met with a list of reasons why applications weren’t successful, something spurred her forward to continue applying.

It seems to be that there is a certain je ne sais quoi in resilient people, it’s a little intangible, but it’s a quality I’ve seen in clients I’d describe to be resilient too.

It’s almost like they have permitted themselves to hear the word ‘no’, learn from it and move forward stronger as a result. I also have a sense that having a clear vision of the desired destination may be an essential ingredient. When I proposed that to Prof. Nolan, she considered this as something that may be important, but for her, it was clarity of values, both personal and of the organisation, which was vital.

She was also particular to point out that working in supportive organisations throughout her career has been invaluable. So it seems another factor in being resilient is about having an appropriate support structure and the ability to ask for help when you need it. She mentioned her network and mentoring as being key strategies she has employed when she has struggled or had to overcome obstacles. Getting good feedback has also been critical.  Resilient people by nature can be ‘knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes’.

So what is resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association resilience is about being able to adapt well to things like adversity and trauma but also to deal with significant sources of stress in the workplace which is where my interest lies.

“Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

Interestingly in the same article one of the key factors called out in building the resilience muscle is having ‘supportive relationships’ which speaks directly to what Professor Nolan suggested. Relationships that create “trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance, help bolster a person’s resilience.”

How can you become more resilient?

The Road to Resilience has some suggestions.  I’ve included my favourites along with my thoughts here.

1) Use your network and peer connections.

Prof. Nolan referred to how valuable her network is and how she is happy asking for help. She said Leadership is a lonely place at times and mentioned reaching out to other Vice-Chancellors to seek counsel. It’s also common for CEOs to have peer relationships with other CEOs, who else would they turn to, they have no internal peers.

“Whether they’re world leaders or friendly neighbours, find role models that you can look up to in times of stress.”

2) Change your perspective.

You can’t always change the situation you find yourself in, you can, however, change the way you perceive it and your emotional reaction to it. Much of the work I do with clients focusses on finding new ways of looking at situations and often a shift in perspective can completely change the behaviour and therefore the associated action taken in response.

3) Be clear about what you can control

Again, when I’m coaching a client around a situation or topic a question I often throw into the mix is ‘what can you control about this?’ Thinking about what action you can personally take can be extremely empowering and also helps to avoid a ‘victim’ mindset.

4) Take baby steps

One thing that often paralyses my clients is trying to think too big. Don’t get me wrong; big thinking has its place, and I spend a lot of time working on vision, dreams and overall agenda. That said, in certain situations, it can be liberating to keep it simple and focus on one or two small steps that would take you closer to achieving your goals. “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” I’ve seen clients have a breakthrough just by answering this question. The key is to get into action, no matter how small, as forward movement gathers momentum. From a personal perspective, I know that when I take action, I always feel better, but that’s maybe just me.

5) What matters?

When we have a sense of letting ourselves down, identifying how much this will matter further down the line can be liberating. Thinking about how this will be viewed next week, next month, next year, indeed in 5 years, can often provide us with the ability to let it go.

6) Optimism

It seems that the more optimistic you are, the more resilient you will be. Mindset is important.

“Recognize that you’re in control of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.”

Visionaries like Richard Branson and Elon Musk are famous for their public failures, yet they always bounce back and I love this quote from Richard Branson:

“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

7) Self-care

In today’s fast-paced world this seems more relevant than ever. Make time in your schedule for the things you enjoy, take part in activities that will allow you to think about other things rather than something that may be causing stress or anxiety in the workplace. Prof. Nolan said work-life balance is sometimes difficult. Having young children as she was building her career was something that allowed her to switch off from work. Focussing on their needs rather than being self-indulgent seemed to be an excellent tonic.

8) Play to your strengths

A pet hate of mine is Leadership Development that focussed on ‘fixing’ people.  I firmly believe that our workplaces are stronger and employees more engaged in a culture that nurtures strengths.  Einstein’s famous quote about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree is something I return to frequently.  Fish aren’t meant to climb trees but if we ask a fish to do that Einstein’s premise is that it will forever think itself stupid.  Focussing on strengths, in my opinion, is far more conducive to creativity, innovation and success.

“Do what you’re good at (or simply what you enjoy doing) and give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it.”

9) Ask what you can appreciate

A skill for resilience building is appreciation in any situation. There is always something to appreciate. Try asking yourself, ‘what is there to appreciate in this situation’? I’ve seen this be an incredibly powerful tool with clients. There may be something to learn or a different opportunity that you may not notice otherwise.

10) Be Vulnerable

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry’s view on this ties in neatly with Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and I’m a huge advocate.

“We need to be ourselves with other people for most of the time, not just the person we feel we ought to be. If you are in a business environment where everyone seems to be wearing a “game-face” and therefore you feel you must wear yours too, you run the risk of feeling unsupported, isolated and disconnected.”

She continues that if we only show strength rather than vulnerability we are part of the problem.  We are also part of the problem if we value profits above the people who create them.

The critical thing is that resilience is different for everyone, and it’s essential that you determine what your recipe is.


Could your organisation benefit from more confident, resilient & inspiring leaders who excel by bringing out the best in their people and drive employee engagement?


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