The before nine take on...resilience

Resilience is our ability to adapt well in the face of adversity

We’re living, working and operating in an uncertain and rapidly evolving world. So, it’s not surprising that resilience is the buzzword of the day at the moment – especially in business. But why does it matter in an organisational context?

Read on for before nine’s take on:

  • The three types of resilience
  • Why resilience matters in today’s volatile world
  • The three Rs of resilience: Resistance, Recovery, Reconfiguration
  • The capabilities we need across our organisations

Why should I read this?


  • understand the different types of resilience needed for your organisation to adapt to challenge and change

Directors of HR/Chief People Officers:

  • understand how resilience is defined in both business and psychology terms


  • understand the role you play in your organisation’s continued success in today’s environment

Where did it all start?

You’ve probably seen the word resilience a lot lately – it seems like everyone’s talking about it. There are good reasons for that, but as a concept it’s actually been around since the 1970s, when psychologists started investigating the factors that led some children living in disadvantaged communities to succeed while others didn’t, and why some people recovered from adversity or trauma, when others don’t.

The word entered the corporate dictionary about 30 years later, when businesses started thinking more systematically about risk and how disruption from issues such as terrorism or cyberattacks might adversely affect operations and require a capability to continue operating.

The difficulty when talking about resilience as a psychological concept, though, is that the psychology world has some 122 different definitions of the term! That tells you a lot about how tricky it can be to pin the concept down and why, when two people are asked if they consider themselves resilient, you’ll probably get two completely different answers. It also explains why we used to get two different answers when we asked an IT department and Finance department whether their functions were resilient.

The other challenging characteristic of resilience is that it can change from day to day. How resilient an individual feels or business is on any given day will depend on a host of factors, such as how well you slept or the strength of that new cyber security software you invested in.

The three types of resilience:

As I mentioned, resilience isn’t just about the individual. In fact, there are three main recognised types of resilience and each one can have an impact on the other:

  • Organisational: e.g.: how will my business adapt to the digital revolution, new competitor landscape or economic downturn? Or even ‘new normal’?
  • Operational: e.g.: how will my business continue to deliver its critical services in the face of a a serious cyberattack and transform the way we do things as a result?
  • Personal: e.g.: how will I cope with – and adapt to - losing my job, experiencing a personal tragedy or living under sustained workplace pressure?

To misquote Madonna…

So why does all this matter? Well, to misquote the original material girl, we’re living in what’s now dubbed a VUCA world. You probably think this sounds like another trendy corporate buzzword – and you’re not wrong – but it’s what lies behind the acronym that is so crucial. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. In other words, it’s hard to feel certain about what’s going to happen next and how this will affect us.

The combination of complex social, environmental, public health and economic issues has created a feeling that we’re all living in a perpetual EastEnders cliff hanger! I don’t mean to be flippant about the issues we’re facing – but the reality is that this mix of globalised challenge, the pressure on organisations and personal stress can leave us exhausted.

The three Rs of resilience

In the research on personal resilience, there are three emerging themes :

  • Resistance: how well an individual stands strong in the face of adversity.
  • Recovery: how well that individual adapts to their new circumstances.
  • Reconfiguration: the extent to which an individual changes as a result of their experience.

One way to frame these is to consider sunflowers. They grow deep roots (resistance), bend easily in the wind without their stem snapping (recovery), and turn their face to the sun to adapt to external conditions (reconfiguration).

A Positive Working approach - what capabilities do we need?

We can apply the 3Rs to all three types of resilience, not just personal. So, what does this mean for organisations looking to ensure these capabilities are in place?

Organisational Resilience

“An organisation’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper”, BSI[1].

In our experience, organisations assume that this just requires a focus on managing threat and effective continuity and crisis management i.e. a defensive approach.  Yet, it goes much further. An organisation needs to focus proactively on creating the conditions for opportunity exploitation, agility and innovation. Our Positive Working approach helps organisations whose efforts are driven by a negativity bias to move to an affirmative bias. Not that this means losing sight of threat. But it’s only when we focus on both threat and opportunity that we can truly get on the front foot when faced with failure, disruption, or change.

Another theme that we see lacking in many organisations is the focus on setting the conditions for positive mindsets and behaviours which promote flourishing, resilience and agility across a range of scenarios. All too often, organisations expect individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing and resilience, states which have a significant impact on the organisation’s ability to weather storms and adapt to change.

They fail to recognise that wellbeing is an outcome of organisational life, and that whilst individuals can tap into their own resilience strategies, there is also a requirement on organisations to consider the workplace conditions, demands and resources which are either undermining or promoting resilience. Finally, they use processes to promote agility without recognising that agility is driven by a culture in which diversity of thinking, curiosity and psychological safety are present.

Operational Resilience

“An organisation’s ability to prevent, adapt, respond to, recover and learn from operational disruptions”, Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) [2].

Whilst most organisations recognise the valid need to embed risk, continuity and crisis management capabilities across their functions and services, the missing piece of the jigsaw tends to be based on the 3rdR of resilience – reconfiguration. The organisations we have worked with often lack the ability to reflect, learn and transform as a result of their disruptions.

They are naturally exhausted after having to firefight through the incident or – for more severe incidents – crisis. All recovery efforts are focused on processes and services. Often, little reflection is given to the recovery needs of their people. Reflection requires mindfulness – that is, the presence and the ability to pick up on signals coming from our people - as well as the compassion to move beyond noticing suffering to empathising, assessing the causes and responding in a way that aligns with organisational values.

Another missing piece relates to the way in which organisations choose to reflect on the experience in order to learn lessons. Typical post-incident reviews do involve a consideration of what went well and what went less well during the response and recovery phase. Yet, most organisational effort is focused on fixing the negative i.e. the repair shop perspective. Whilst this is necessary to meet regulatory requirements, far less emphasis is placed on how the organisation can harness the positive, strengths and opportunities resulting from the experience. Until organisations re-balance their review and learning approaches, vital cues and clues for wider organisational resilience will go untapped.  

Personal Resilience

“An individual’s ability to cope, adapt and even thrive in the face of adversity, sustained pressure or change”, before nine.

If the look at the 3Rs of resilience in psychology, it’s clear that we’re looking at three different phenomena within resilience: standing strong (coping), recovering (adapting) and reconfiguration (thriving). Much of the discourse on personal resilience has tended to focus on coping, with plenty of advice given to people on the importance of self-care to nurture positive mental health during difficult times. Their thinking goes something along the lines of “If we look after ourselves, we are resilient”. This is not true. Resilience is a cake baked with multiple ingredients: physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural. We cannot rise using flour alone.

In many organisations, efforts at supporting employee resilience focus on mental health, wellbeing and stress management programmes. Yet, they don’t support people in accessing their existing  resources or developing news ones to enable them to adapt the way they think, feel and act when faced with challenge or change. Nor do they understand the employer responsibility for enhancing resilience.

With a Positive Working approach that applies positive psychology to resilience-building:

  • the resources and strategies used by individuals to unlock or enhance their resilience enable them to both ‘survive’ and ‘thrive’.
  • organisations understand how their environments, culture and leadership can actively promote employee resilience

What resilience is:

  • Multidimensional - A capability comprising many different resources and strategies used flexibly across a range of scenarios to absorb, adapt and transform
  • Learnable – we can develop resilience ‘muscles’ – whether in our systems and processes at the operational level, or in our emotions and behaviours at the human level
  • Dynamic – it can increase or decrease over time depending on the situations we face, the resources and practices we use and the focus we place on learning and growth

What resilience isn’t:

  • One-dimensional - A specific resource, tool or behaviour
  • Fixed – something that we’re either born with or automatically built into organisations
  • Static – the same from one day to the next

Try this today…

Think about your organisation’s approach to resilience, specifically the various types mentioned here. In your next team meeting, spot how many times the discussion reveals a negativity bias in the way that resilience is viewed? Count how often someone demonstrates a focus on the positive – whether in terms of strengths, opportunities and growth.

One last thought….

We all have a level of resilience. We wouldn’t exist – as organisations or humans - if we didn’t. The key is to identify what we are already drawing on to help us adapt during challenging times, what’s still left in our own arsenal and what additional strategies or support we may need to help us remain flexible.