Let’s start with this fundamental question: can resilience in the workplace really be taught? The answer is a somewhat cautious “yes”. Cautious, because, to begin with, a uniform and comprehensive understanding of the nuances of resilience is still evolving. As are the methodologies, tools and artefacts required for training interventions in this field. If as a subject of cognitive research, resilience is a relatively new entrant on the behavioural sciences map, then systematic applications of it, through focused training interventions in the workplace, are yet more recent and formative. But the signs so far have been positive.
In 2015, a systematic review by Robertson, Cooper, Sarkar, and Curran analysed a set of 14 different studies in industry, which investigated the impact of resilience training on resilience at an individual level. Through their study, four distinct categories of dependent variables came to the fore: (1) Outcomes around mental health and subjective well-being, (2) Psychosocial outcomes, (3) Physical/biological outcomes, and (4) Performance outcomes. Their findings show that resilience training can improve personal resilience as well as psychological well-being, in employees.
And less than a year back, in 2020 – Liu, Ein, Gervasio, Battaion, Reed and Vickers undertook a further analysis of various resilience interventions in the workplace. They focused on factors such as age, gender, duration of intervention, and the approach adopted. A total of 268 studies, with 1584 independent samples, were included in the meta-analysis. This multi-level, meta-analysis, too, indicated that resilience-promoting interventions yielded a statistically significant overall effect. But taking a step back from these studies, let’s examine a more innovative approach to competency and skills development.
So, imagine that building resilience at an organizational level didn’t involve some vastly expensive project, with an enterprise-wide series of interventions, all immaculately planned and executed, right down to the sessions for each individual employee. That resilience, as an attribute, could be built, ground up, without really having to focus on it at all, that it could be achieved on its own, organically, almost as a by-product. And that the entire process, far from involving surgical pain, would be positive, pleasant, even inspiring. Sounds too good to be true? Yet, that is precisely what two decades of research by positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her associates, indicates.
Fredrickson’s path-breaking ‘broaden and build theory’ makes two remarkable assertions. First, that positive emotions broaden an individual’s set of momentary actions in response to thoughts. Thus, joy gives rise to the urge to play, interest – to explore things beyond the quotidian, and contentment – to savour and integrate, whereas love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within a sphere of safe and close relationships. The second, even more powerful hypothesis is that positive emotions: (i) broaden people’s attention and thinking; (ii) undo the lingering of negative emotions in people; (iii) fuel psychological resilience; (iv) build consequential personal resources; (v) trigger upward spirals towards greater well-being in the future – and even (vi) pave the way for human flourishing.
And that’s not all. Further empirical studies by Fredrickson and Losada seem to have hit upon a single magic ratio that by itself could determine whether, beginning with a certain state of mind, we are likely to languish, slide into despair, or experience that elusive upward spiral of wellbeing, buoying you, and your organization, into a state of flourish. That special ratio is the proportion of positive to negative emotions, as experienced by people. It has been found that a ratio of 2.3:1 of positive to negative emotions is something of a threshold. Anything below it, and one has the tendency to lapse into despair. If this ratio is sustained, at best this still maintains only the status quo of well-being. But if on average, the ratio of positive to negative emotions experienced over the month is 3:1, individuals may be expected to set off on a trajectory of flourishing.
Thus, everything seems to boil down to positive emotions. But how can positive emotions be generated in the workplace, and sustained over time? Pondering this sets us off on a new journey of questions. How can employee policies and processes be curated so as to allow optimal empowerment and autonomy, while not compromising on compliances and data security? How can we make employee engagement genuinely effective, in the emergent hybrid workplace? How can the emotional and psychological fallouts of an extended WFH routine be addressed? How can we learn to be more adaptive to changing circumstances, on a continual basis? More fundamentally, how can we avoid the tendency to co-opt every new scenario that we manage to come to terms with – for instance, WFH – and turn it into a comfort fort that we’re then reluctant to leave?
The global pandemic outbreak and its aftermath, have certainly warranted a new CXO mindset for looking at the old problems. But before all else, the first and biggest demand made on the stakeholders – is that of empathy.