Rising Up From Defeat

January 8, 2019

Resilience in the workplace means rising up from disaster stronger than before. But how do you transform failure into a growth opportunity?

The Fort McMurray wildfire, which forced more than 80,000 Albertans from their homes in May of 2016, was the costliest insured disaster in Canadian history. As with any major disaster, the inclination was to rebuild things as they were. However, in a piece he wrote for the Globe and Mail, Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, stressed the importance of building resilience instead. According to McGillivray, in the event of a catastrophe, there is always a rush to restore everything exactly as it was, but this only leaves communities as vulnerable as they were before. While some aspects of a disaster are outside anyone’s control, there is always an opportunity to learn.

The essence of resilience is not just surviving a disaster but allowing it to change you, and emerging from it stronger. We are familiar with the concept of resilience in our personal lives, but resiliency is increasingly becoming a vital characteristic in the workplace.


Meet Jeff and Michael. Both are dynamic over-achievers — top-of-the-class MBA grads who had no trouble landing high-powered jobs where they’ve shone ever since, but now the stars have been unexpectedly dimmed, as both suddenly find themselves laid off.

Fast-forward a year and how are Jeff and Michael doing? Not surprisingly, both initially went into a tailspin of self-doubt and depression. For Michael, the feeling of helplessness didn’t last long. He realized the lay-off was due to the economy and had nothing to do with him as a person. He refocused his energy on new opportunities. When local firms in his field didn’t offer him a position, he expanded his job search, eventually landing a promising job in a new city.

Meanwhile, poor Jeff didn’t fare as well. When he wasn’t berating himself for the supposed inadequacies that he felt caused his dismissal, he was busy casting himself as the powerless victim of a global recession beyond his control. When the applications he sent out came back as rejections, he grew convinced that he no longer had what it took to succeed. Bitter, angry and frustrated, he stopped his listless job search and moved into the basement of his parent’s home.

“…resilient people are different after experiences that might harm others. They come out stronger because they’ve learned a mindset that lets them bounce back.”

Two similar setbacks, two different responses, two very different outcomes. But why? Why do some individuals rise up like a phoenix from the ashes of disaster, while others crash and burn? What does it take to not only survive, but thrive, in the face of failure?

Thirty years of scientific research is beginning to reveal why some of us react to unexpected challenges by trying harder while others sink into defeat. The answer is linked to resilience. Resilience is one of the most valuable characteristics to have in the workplace today, as adaptability has replaced stability as the new corporate goal and resilient workers and organizations are what’s needed to achieve it.


So what is this elusive, yet highly prized quality? “Resilience is more than the flavour of the month,” says Jenny Howe, a facilitator and executive coach with more than 25 years of experience. “It’s the adaptive piece we all need to succeed because the old system isn’t working. The new reality is that change and complexity are increasing. Resilience equips us to cope and succeed in circumstances that are difficult to forecast or control.”

Another Canadian expert in the field of personal and corporate resilience shares that perspective. Dr. Symeon Rodger, Chief Training Officer at Global Resilience Solutions, and author of Resilience Culture points out that we are all born with a capacity for resilience, which many of us lose later in life. “Look at children,” Rodger says. “They get knocked down, and they get right back up and keep on going.”

On an organizational level, Rodger finds that a resilient business is more than a company staffed by personally resilient people. Rather, resilience needs to be an integral part of its corporate culture. “Old-style corporations are built on the principles of command and control,” says Rodger. “This makes them slow to adapt to change and challenges, and they fail to generate the loyalty from staff that a company needs to survive tough times.”

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Rodger contrasts this dysfunctional power structure with cultures based on cooperation and trust, where employees feel a sense of ownership, not entitlement. “In hierarchical corporations, people react to problems by saying, ‘I don’t have to fix that; it’s not my problem.’ In resilient cultures, employees are invested in the company’s mission and success. They see a problem and say, ‘How can I find or be part of the solution?’” Rodger’s experience is that resilient corporate cultures “do wildly better than traditional centralized-command companies in their field.”

Howe says the term “resilient” is often misunderstood. “Emotional toughness is not resilience and resilience is more than stress management. In fact you won’t even know if you’re resilient until you’ve been tested by adversity. Many people perform well as long as things succeed, but the first time they fail — and we’ll all fail at some point of our careers — they’re devastated.”

You’ll see many definitions of resilience, but here’s the one that Howe feels truly captures its essence: “Resilience is the capacity to adapt positively to pressure, setbacks, challenge and change, in order to achieve peak performance and well-being.”

Howe likes this definition because it includes the idea that a person learns and grows after a difficult situation and emerges stronger as a result. “Resilience has a steeling effect,” she explains. “It’s similar to an inoculation. Being exposed to a threat can lead to the development of greater strength to face future adversity.”

Howe says some people compare resilience to a crucible, a container capable of withstanding temperatures high enough to melt or alter its contents. “The key point is that resilient people are different after experiences that might harm others. They come out stronger because they’ve learned a mindset that lets them bounce back.”

Both Howe and Rodger agree that everyone has the potential to become resilient; you don’t have to be Wonder Woman or Super Man. Howe says that, while some people might be naturally more inclined to resilience than others, anyone can improve their resilience, and although each person’s road to resilience is different, there are some key steps along the route.

Howe trains business professionals to move from what she says some researchers call the F State (“frenzied, frenetic, fearful, forgetful, frustrated, fragmented, fractious”) to the C State (“clear, calm, concentrated, curious, creative, convivial”) by developing resilient attitudes and creating better habits. Howe notes that her techniques don’t just apply to the senior staff traditionally classified as company leaders. Instead she uses the term “leader” in its broader sense of self-leadership and empowerment. The following three key characteristics can be embraced by anyone:



Howe admits this doesn’t come naturally to her. “I’m more of a glass-half empty kind of person, a worrier, maybe because I grew up in the U.K. and we bond over things that go wrong.” But Howe points out that experience is not what happens to us; it’s what we tell ourselves about what happens to us that determines our response and outlook. The situation might be beyond our control, but we control our reaction to it. Remember Michael and Jeff, the two laid-off MBA grads? Michael lost his job, but not his self-respect and bounced back. Jeff either blamed himself or felt he was a powerless victim, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Howe suggests developing a habit of mindfulness, a mental check of how you’re reacting. If your mind always jumps to the negative and worst-case scenarios, learn to stop that line of thought, and reframe the situation in a more positive light.


“Purpose is key,” says Howe, who advises that we always ask “Why?”, rather than just questions about what and how. Don’t put yourself on autopilot. Ask yourself daily, “What is my purpose and why am I doing this?” to find the meaning in your work. Then set clear and meaningful goals. You’ll be better able to go through rough patches if you see them as steps on the way to your ultimate goal. “Look for fulfillment and learn what gives energy back to you. Strive for fullness in life,” counsels Howe. Put yourself in charge of your own development, on and off the job. Applying this principle to a corporate culture is possible, and Rodger suggests that a company should start by honestly answering these three questions: What can we be the best in the world at? What is our mission and our passion? What drives our economic engine? Then, having refocused your purpose, the next step is to share the vision with all employees and empower people at the operational level to take real ownership of their jobs and real responsibility for the results.


The American Psychological Association has found that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships, within and outside the family. Learn to accept help and support from those who care about you. Find a mentor and be a mentor. Seek kindred spirits among your colleagues. Invest time in nurturing relationships and you’ll be rewarded with support when you need it most.

In the past, when businesses looked for intelligence as an indicator of success, IQ tests were important. The recognition that emotions are significant came later and EQ tests for emotional intelligence were added. Now, corporations have added another skillset to their list — resilience — which some refer to as the Adversity Quotient, or AQ.

Since the only true test of resilience is to face adversity and survive, Howe says that some tests are being developed to assess an individual’s resilience potential. Questionnaires and self-assessments are available that look for factors related to resiliency: a positive self-image, an attitude of optimism, flexibility, the capacity to make realistic plans and see them through and a mindset open to continuous learning. A lack of resilience often goes along with depression, defensiveness, cynicism, fatigue and burnout.

In-depth study of resilience is now leading researchers into the emerging field of neuroplasticity, the study of how our brains are wired and what we can do to engender new habits and responses that encourage peak performance, including strategies for resilience.

As science is validating the importance of the mind-body connection, we can use this new knowledge to actively reframe our attitudes and rewire our responses. Learning to optimize our brains in this way is called neuroleadership. Howe points out that neuroleadership reinforces what stress management consultants have long been telling us — if the mind and body aren’t in balance, we’re not operating at our full potential, and we’re definitely not in a zone that encourages resilience and self-renewal.

Since stress is part of life and can also be a motivating force, we need to build internal shock absorbers into our lives and daily routines to ensure we receive manageable amounts. Howe is a big believer in the power of both exercise and music as stress-reducing allies. Breathing exercises, meditation and visualization are also powerful tools. Howe stresses the importance of paying attention to the basics: a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and taking time to take care of yourself. Increased energy — and resilience — will be your reward. “Making very small changes to your life, like getting an extra hour’s sleep, can make a big difference,” says Howe.


Ready to start your own resilience building program? Howe offers this four-step model as a starting point:


Build in pauses to your schedule. Stop, step back, breathe deeply and focus on separating emotion from facts.


End the blame game. Suspend judgment about who or what is wrong. Instead broaden your view to look for options. Look at things differently and step outside your habitual reactions.


Take time to narrow down all the possibilities you’re faced with. Separate what’s not important from what is. Ask yourself: What do I (or my group, or the company) need? Clarify your objectives.


Commit yourself to a larger purpose. Define the first steps and take them.

As with many of life’s journeys, fake it until you make it. Even Martin Seligman, now known as the father of positive psychology, says he had to learn to think like an optimist “through many years of research on failure and helplessness”. It may feel contrived to build the “stop, reorient, focus, invest” process into your life, but this kind of mindful awareness can help you rewire your brain. Soon what was once a self-imposed ritual will become an automatic response and you will have developed the habit of resilient thinking.

So who do you want to be? Jeff, the unemployed MBA who let an unforeseen layoff defeat him? Or his counterpart Michael, who faced the same adversity but went on to thrive? The powerful message we can take from resilience research, is that we’re not pre-destined to be a Michael or a Jeff — as individuals and as organizations, we have the potential to rise up from the ashes of defeat, and allow it to transform us into something better.

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Lisa Ricciotti
Lisa Ricciotti is an award-winning writer and long-time editor based in Alberta, now enjoying the freelance life specializing in magazine writing.

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