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So, you’ve learned you need to be resilient? Good – but it will cost you

Published 9 March 2023 in Leadership • 9 min read

COVID-19 heightened appreciation among executives of the value of resilience. Now they need to engage in clear thinking about what the term means and how to instill it in their employees and teams.  


What is this characteristic in which everyone is interested? 

In a crisis, some may thrive, but many will fail. The recent pandemic was no exception. That event, like other shocks before it, focused minds across society on how to be ready for future disruptions. The term “resilience” has therefore attracted much greater attention, not least among corporate executives. Even at a basic level, as this Google Trends chart shows, the volume of Internet searches for the word in business-related pages had been steadily growing since records began in 2004. In early 2022, though, it made a quantum leap and has not declined since.

Need to be resilient
Source: Google Trends,, NB: Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means that there was not enough data for this term.

While resilience sounds like an attractive quality amid episodes of disruption, the first hurdle facing executives seeking to develop it is the lack of consensus on what the term means. At a practical level, its attributes can differ widely depending on context. A resilient person’s ability to deal with tragic news, for example, draws on quite distinct assets from the capacity of that individual’s house to survive an earthquake. Not surprisingly, therefore, at the broader conceptual level a substantial academic debate rages on how to define the term. Amid the many viewpoints, a helpful definition is that resilience “is the capability of a system, organization or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Two important insights arise from this description. First, resilience is useful not only in the face of adversity. A pressing necessity for change can also come from a positive development, such as a dramatic technological innovation, that nevertheless requires a certain resilience to navigate. The second noteworthy element of the definition is the importance of purpose and integrity. Maintaining consistency in the reason why people and organizations do what they do is, ultimately, more important than the particulars of how. Not surprisingly, those with a strong sense of purpose and the ability to find meaning in what happens to them therefore tend to be more resilient.  

What does resilience look like for individuals and teams (including boards)? 

Resilience is a reactive capability. It helps to deal with problems, but nothing can prevent individual or systemic crises completely. 

When faced with shocks humans, whether alone or in teams, tend to act in similar ways. The Kübler-Ross model, the basis for the Five Stages of Grief, describes the most common steps through which the majority of people go.

The need to be resilient

Of particular importance here, the first three stages after the shock itself – denial, frustration (which includes anger and bargaining), and depression – are largely emotional reactions to adversity which reduce the mental and physical capacity to act. After reaching a nadir with depression, the cognitive system kicks in. People then start to experiment and engage with the new situation. This allows an active decision to learn how to work in, and ultimately live with, the new situation. Finally, people integrate the change into their lives, which can give some sense of meaning to what they went through. 

Higher or lower levels of resilience arise from individual or group attributes which let people minimize the debilitating aspects of adversity and focus on beneficial ones. Broadly speaking, four qualities are important. These take different, albeit related, forms among individuals and groups. 

For the former, the first attribute is realism married to self-awareness. Optimism will not necessarily help: optimists can end up losing hope if their expectations of a problem diminishing quickly go unfulfilled. Instead, a staunch sense of reality, including what a person can and cannot do, is far more useful. Second comes resourcefulness, so the individual can, despite anxiety or fear, as questions such as “What can I do?” and “What are my options?” Their choices might be very limited, but resilient people find them. It is the opposite of self-victimization.  

The third characteristic, which grows from the first two, is that resilient people use their agency, applying pragmatically any resources they can find to overcome their crisis, and ability on which survival may depend. This is not hyperbole. Resilience is a human survival skill in the face of adversity. Finally, resilient people, at the end of the process, ask, “What can I learn from this?” In this way, they find meaning in what took place, can deepen the purpose they feel in their lives, and are also better prepared for the next period of disruption. 

The parallel attributes for teams, including corporate boards, begin with group members having a somewhat accurate mental model of the strengths and weakness of both the team as a whole and its constituent individuals. This requires not just mutual understanding but open channels of communication as a crisis unfolds. The team equivalent of individual resourceful pragmatism is the capacity to improvise and to leverage the experience within the group. This helps explain the common academic finding that well-managed diverse groups tend to outperform ones made up of similar people in crisis: the former are more likely to have a wider range of experience. Nobody knows which experience might be needed when, so the more diverse at team is, the better prepared for the unexpected. 

The third attribute of resilient groups is potency – the ability to act with the right blend of confidence and caution even when the team’s – or the company’s – existence might be at stake. Here, high-performing and resilient teams differ. In a safe, stable environment, the former may thrive with an attitude of “Go, go, go, go, go, the sky’s the limit!” But a resilient team is able to dial back on confidence and balance it far more prominently with caution to ensure survival. Lastly, resilient teams also need to go through a process of reflection and sense-making. For this to occur, a psychologically safe environment is a fundamental pre-condition. 

Steps towards inculcating resilience 

The good news is that resilience can be learned. The bad news is that it may not be straightforward – or pleasant – to develop. 

Proximity to COVID-19 increases resilience

Need to be resilient
Respondents with personal connections to multiple people who had contracted COVID-19 were more likely to be highly resilient.

At the individual level, resilience is partly inherited, partly learned. Some people simply have a head start when it comes to resilience based on their DNA and upbringing. However, certain training, including regular physical exercise and mindfulness, seems to help build resilience. A bigger factor in developing resilience, though, is having been exposed directly to adversity and dramatic change. A recent global study of employee resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic found that the extent of this characteristic correlated with the number of an individual’s personal connections who had been infected by the disease. Resilience also was higher among those who had experienced a greater degree of pandemic-driven change in where and how they worked. In other words, experience of adversity is the best teacher of resilience. It reveals how individuals cope with the emotional and physical challenges of shocks. Reflections on how to do better the next time will build resilience. 

What does this mean for teams? Unfortunately, just assembling resilient people is no shortcut to creating a resilient team. Nor is bringing on board a resilient individual amidst adversity to bolster a team’s capacity to cope. In such circumstances the new member is most likely to grow frustrated and seek ways to leave. Resilient people eventually leave dysfunctional relationships. Instead, team resilience requires psychological safety, a strong sense of purpose, and meaningful collective experiences during which team members learn together about each other’s strengths and needs, also in the face of adversity.  

Obviously, it is neither ethically nor practically feasible to put individual employees and teams through emotionally harrowing ordeals to build resilience. Instead, executives and CEOs for boards need to do their leadership homework first: build a culture of psychological safety, inclusion, and respect, and then expose to adversity in a controlled manner with so-called ‘stretched assignments’ or difficult, but not impossible, goals. The degree and type of challenges used are a matter for careful judgement about how much risk is too much.  

This approach will also require buy-in from the affected employees and teams. Without such agreement, it will be impossible to create a culture of psychological safety and trust.   

A final consideration is the need to be aware of different kinds of adversity. Some implicitly assume that organizations experience and respond to acute forms of adversity in its entirety. The pandemic (and its associated restrictions) was a recent example of a crisis hitting the entire organization. But more often, challenges affect only parts of the business. This could be a problem in the supply chain, being suddenly unable to provide essential inputs, or the occurrence of a reputational issue which is growing out of control. Also, this adversity could slowly build up, like a creeping strain, and not hit all at once. Resilient teams and boards need to learn how to work together to survive such challenges rather than descending into the chaos of mutual recrimination. 

The drawbacks: Cost and uncertainty 

Although resilience, within companies and more broadly, has clear benefits in a crisis, two main reasons could explain why so few businesses are prepared when extreme challenges arise.  

First, without a recent upheaval to focus minds, interest in resilience is hard to maintain. Instead, fundamental tenets of conventional business wisdom undervalue the strategic choices required for its ongoing pursuit. In particular, efficiency is valued over resilience. In normal times, executives seek to make their businesses as lean as possible. Resilience relies on balancing caution and action rather than privileging speed and exceeding performance. It also often necessitates maintaining potentially expensive assets which the company might otherwise jettison as useless surplus. Slack has a negative connotation, but resources and capabilities without an immediate role when times are good may be essential in a crisis – and impossible to obtain at short notice. Your competition may sail faster without a heavy lifeboat, but its crew could die if the ship goes down in a storm. 

About the value and need to be resilient
Resilience is a reactive capability to survive. It can be built in “peace time” but only demonstrated in adversity.

Second, a worrying level of make believe exists – at both the individual and corporate level – as people naturally believe they are more resilient than they actually are. Research shows, for example, that leaders can rate the psychological space within groups much safer than team members do.

As stated earlier, resilience is a reactive capability to survive. It can be built in “peace time” but only demonstrated in adversity. This means one never really knows how resilient a person, a system, or an organization is until the moment that adversity hits. No guarantees exist that efforts to inculcate this quality will be sufficient when the next crisis comes, or involve the right mix of skills and assets for a particular crisis. It is therefore almost impossible to know when a business has done enough to prepare. The best option for any leader is humble self-awareness. 

These considerations make it all too easy to look the other way during good times. An important lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, is the danger of assuming that nothing will go wrong. Resilience is a quintessential survival skill, and, like risk management or insurance, executives need to think through the appropriate level and invest in it. 



Katharina Lange

Affiliate Professor of Leadership

Katharina Lange is Affiliate Professor of Leadership at IMD. She specializes in self-leadership and cross-cultural team leadership in times of change. Before joining IMD, Katharina led the Office of Executive Development at Singapore Management University (SMU, where she directed Open Programs such as ALPINE (Asia Leaders Program in Infrastructure) and the J&J Hospital Management Program. She is Co-Program Director of the Leading Customer – Centric Strategies and IMD’s signature Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program.


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