Resilience: The Secret to Success

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Salvatore R. Maddi, Deborah M. Khoshaba

Why do some people remain so calm and collected in the face of looming deadlines, combative meetings, impending layoffs, and turbulent changes? And why are these seemingly unflappable people the ones who consistently get ahead in their lives and their careers?

The key is their resilience. More than experience or training, resilience in the face of stressful situations and rapid changes determines whether you ultimately succeed or fail in the workplace. It allows you to thrive even in tumultuous conditions, to turn potential disasters into growth opportunities.

Resilient people seem so capable that it is easy to think they were born that way. The good news is that resilience in the face of life’s problems is not an inborn personality trait, but a set of skills and attitudes that you can actually learn and develop. Based on a 12-year study of Illinois Bell Telephone employees as they experienced immense organizational change, as well as hundreds of subsequent studies and firsthand consulting and training experience, we learned what it takes to succeed in even the harshest environments.

Certainly, some youngsters do show early signs of hardiness. Think of youngsters eager to learn everything and interested in everything around them, as compared to youngsters less involved in life. But, even if hardier adults report enthusiastic and purposeful childhoods, it may be a mistake to conclude that genes determine resiliency. After all, we know that some people emerge as hardy only later in their development. So where does resilience come from?

Early Experiences That Build Resilience

  • Early Stress. Interestingly, many of the employees who tested high in hardiness reported stressful early lives. Their stress included serious illnesses in themselves or family members, single-parent households, divorces, financial difficulties, unemployment, alcoholism or substance abuse in family members, and frequent, disruptive changes in residence. These early lives if anything were more stressful than reported by those employees low in hardiness.
  • Sense of Purpose. Another important feature of those high in resilience is that many of them recalled their parents' singling them out as special in some important way. Talents, skills, maturity, or other unique, defining features contributed to parents elevating these children's role within the family. As such, the parents supported these youngsters' capabilities through either encouraging their gifts and talents or assigning them family responsibilities, or both. These children developed a keen sense of purposeful direction in school, community, and work activities. In contrast to less determined youngsters, these children emerged hardier and were responsive to growth-promoting opportunities and were creative in carving out niches that fully expressed themselves.
  • Nutured Confidence. In school, teachers or other adults spotted and nurtured these youngsters. This helped their confidence. These youngsters' openness to and involvement with the environment must have gotten their teachers' attention. In any event, the high-resilience employees had found learning stimulating and fun. They further expected their efforts to lead to good results and cherished their central roles at home and at school. When these hardier youngsters encountered personal frustrations or setbacks, they utilized the help and encouragement of others.

The Following 10 Resilient Attitudes Will Help You Turn Work Stresses to Your Advantage:

  1. Stay involved with what‘s going on, rather than backing off. (Commitment)
  2. Try to have an influence on outcomes, rather than giving up. (Control)
  3. Remember that stress and change are normal and are a stimulus to your growth. (Challenge)

    Transformational Coping:
  4. When a stress occurs, don‘t let yourself deny, overreact, avoid, or strike out.
  5. Put each stress in a broader perspective, so that it‘s more tolerable.
  6. Analyze each stress, so that you can see how best to solve it.
  7. Make a decisive action plan to turn each stress to advantage, and carry it out.

    Social Support:
  8. Don't act in a way that lets conflicts with those around you drag on or that make the conflicts worse.
  9. Put each conflict in a broader perspective and analyze your role and that of the other person in it.
  10. Take unilateral actions to resolve each conflict by replacing it, instead, with a pattern of giving and receiving assistance and encouragement.

How to Acquire Resilience in Adulthood

As long as you can use life experiences to grow, psychologically, and socially, you can learn to be resilient as an adult. Resist falling into the trap of thinking that once you reach adulthood, you are what you are, and nothing will change that. Research on the effectiveness of hardiness training shows a number of beneficial results that persist over time:

  • Trainees become more imaginative about how to bridge the gap between their needs and those of their company and coworkers. They are no longer overcome with panic, anger, and detachment.
  • They feel more self-confident, as they think through all the changes that are taking place. They no longer feel inadequate and vulnerable.
  • They feel more energetic and enthusiastic on a day-to-day basis. They have fewer headaches, upset stomachs, aches and pains, and don't have trouble getting out of bed anymore.
  • They feel more involved in the events going on around them, and think they can really make a difference. They don't think of themselves as victims being preyed upon by those in power.
  • They have a sense of a better future for themselves, rather than thinking it is only other people that can get what they want in life.
  • They procrastinate less, avoid less, and do less stress-related eating and drinking.
  • As they come to feel less overwhelmed and powerless, they cut corners and disregard rules less.
  • They feel more flexible and open to whatever happens. It is less likely that they get stuck in old beliefs about how the world works, as they become more open to possibilities and how they can actually improve their lives.

In Conclusion
Developing resilience in people is our life's work. We enjoy helping people to improve their hardiness and, as a consequence, to enhance their performance, health, morale, and conduct. It seems clear from the research on adolescents and adults that you can learn hardiness; it is not just in the genes. Our goal is to help people successfully navigate whatever work challenges come your way.

Adapted from RESILENCE AT WORK: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You, by Salvatore R. Maddi and Deborah M. Khoshaba (AMACOM Books).

Author the Author(s)

Salvatore R. Maddi has a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He began developing the resilience and hardiness approach in 1975, and founded the Hardiness Institute in 1984. The author of nearly 100 papers, he is internationally recognized as a leader in psychology and continues to win prestigious awards for his hardiness-based consulting and research work. An international survey in 1986 named him among the top 175 psychologists in the world.
Deborah M. Khoshaba is director of Program Development and Training at the Hardiness Institute, teaches graduate students in psychology at Pepperdine University, and lectures for psychology undergraduates at the University of California, at Irvine.