What is personal resilience and how do we build it?

Updated: Aug 8, 2018

I often hear organizational leaders talking about the need for employees to ‘build their resilience’ during change. Why is this seen as so important to organizational success and how can employees achieve it?

Well, first, we know that people with strong resilience have the capacity to absorb high levels of change and stress with minimal disruption to their performance. They are more adaptable to life’s inevitable stresses and setbacks and they bounce back faster and better. How many organizations wouldn’t want that?! And frankly, what individual wouldn’t want that? Nobody wants to feel high levels of stress during change and everyone wants to feel good about their performance.

However, what we know is that different people have different resilience capacities. In fact, neuroscience research suggests some people may be genetically programmed to be more resilient. Fortunately, however, all of us can work to develop this quality!

So, how can we do this?

In my personal experience and when working with organizational clients, I have found that some of the most powerful strategies for building resilience have one thing in common: in any given moment, they help us step into the highest and best version of our self - our highest point of consciousness. They help us evolve.

The good news is, people are hungry for this inner transformation and everyone stands to benefit. Science tells us that at higher levels of consciousness people see things differently because their brains and attitudes re-wire. They are more naturally and easily engaged, better at engaging themselves, less easily triggered and they recover more quickly. Their effectiveness increases, and they lead with greater levels of well-being, empathy, creativity, collaboration, adaptability, happiness and resilience.

Here are four consciousness raising strategies that can help build resilience:

1) Clarify and honour your top values

As we deal with the uncertainty of change it is powerful to remember what won’t change, which is who we are at the core – our deepest values. Values provide a container for decision-making and help us operate from an internal locus of control.

Honouring our values helps engage our pre-frontal cortex and calm down our stress response.

For instance, let’s say a top value for a change leader is ‘transparency’. The more often they honour that value in their actions, the more grounded they will feel. It might mean playing out of their comfort zone and having an honest conversation about where an employee’s performance or attitude is lacking, but the courage it takes to have the conversation and honour that value will feel satisfying and deepen their sense of resilience.

2) Practice gratitude

A regular gratitude practice is a way of activating positive brain neuroplasticity which is a means to achieving higher states of consciousness and deeper levels of connection and joy. Happiness expert Shawn Achor says if you commit to a daily gratitude practice of just two minutes, and you commit to it for 21 days you’ll see a significant improvement in your overall happiness. Furthermore, according to the Global Centre for Resilience, the pursuit of gratitude and compassion will make you happier than the pursuit of happiness (and happy employees tend to be more resilient).

Gratitude exercises:

  • Be grateful for what is: This could be gratitude for possessions, relationships or life circumstances. One strategy is to list at least 3 things you are grateful for each day (in writing, out loud or inside your head). Example: I am grateful for my new patio flowers, my good friends and the fact I get to live in beautiful Vancouver.

  • Create a gratitude affirmation: This is a statement of what you intend to manifest. Make it your screensaver or write it on a post-it® note and stick it where you’ll see it frequently. For instance, I recently wrote on my office chalkboard: My cup runneth over. Just seeing that statement each day feels good because it reinforces where this is currently true and over time it helps me recognize more ways in which this is true. It’s like a gift to myself that keeps on giving.

  • Practice global gratitude: When you listen to the news, be intentional about listening to the good part of the story. Rather than focusing on the plight of people in a war-torn country, instead pay attention to the heroic efforts of the brave volunteers who are helping bring them to safety.

3) Stop complaining and start making requests

When I ask people in workshops if they like to avoid conflict, the vast majority raise their hand. Unfortunately, a common result is that people do not deal with their frustrations and instead, complain – overtly or covertly. Not only is this toxic for the individual and the organization, complaining doesn’t typically work to get our needs met. Instead we need to help ourselves (and those we work with) uncover the request hidden in the complaint.


Complaint: We should be using the old process. This new one is totally stupid and confusing.

Unmet need(s)/want(s): To understand how the new process will benefit the individual and/or the organization; to receive more training in the new process; to be reassured it’s ok to make mistakes in the learning process.

Request(s): I am confused with the new process. Could you explain to me the intended benefit of this change? Could we spend 10 minutes reviewing the key steps, so I am more confident with the process? How do you think I’m doing with the new process?

Obviously, it can take courage to make a request. We may feel vulnerable or we may feel it takes time that we don’t really have. However, not only is it far more empowering to make a request than stay stuck in a cycle of complaints, by asking, we increase the chances of getting what we want!

4) Strengthen your observer mind through mindfulness

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of where you are, what you are doing and what you are thinking and feeling. Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader, contends that being more mindful will help people heal toxic workplaces and reduce stress, be more resilient through difficult times and lead with wisdom and gentleness, rather than through ego and aggression.

One simple way to begin this practice is to start noticing your thinking. Simply program your phone or computer to send you a message every hour that asks: What am I thinking? This is powerful because it will allow you to catch any thought that feels bad and choose a new one that feels good. For instance, you might notice your inner voice is saying: What if I mess this up? Now, because you are aware of this thought, you are now in the position to replace it with something that feels better like: I’ll handle it. This simple act of reframing our thinking activates the pre-frontal cortex, calming down our stress response. Over time, this practice will strengthen our observer mind and further build our resilience.

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