How to…build resilience

By Carole Pemberton

What makes some people more able to bounce back from adversity than others? While resilience may be inbuilt in some, coaching can help others find their way again – by showing clients how to accelerate that learning

Resilience has interested psychologists for the past 50 years, but it has found its coaching zeitgeist in this recession, when uncertainty, increased pressure, reduced resources and job losses are stretching our clients, sometimes beyond their capabilities.

So what is resilience? One definition is “the ability in the face of difficulty to retain flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses”1. If you stretch rubber bands, some will break, but most will revert back to shape when the tension is released. The same is true of individuals.

Most of the time, when stretched, we hold under pressure, eventually getting back to an equilibrium. However, the process is often difficult. Like elastic, we become rigid when stretched. The individual able to deal with ambiguity and to adapt to changing conditions becomes fixed on doing things one way, and is actively resistant to alternatives.

Those who laugh at themselves and the ups and downs of working life, narrow their range of emotional responses. Those who see themselves as creative thinkers find their thoughts repetitive and negative.

Take Sophy, a director in the public sector. She sees that change is placing less value on her area of expertise, so she becomes fixated on the failings of her staff. She is constantly angry at their inability to understand what she wants. She sees her boss as not supporting her. She works harder, sleeps rarely and instigates a punishing exercise regime built around goal achievement rather than enjoyment. She stops meeting friends as she can only see how she is failing in comparison to them. When her personal rubber band breaks she is forced to take time off work and re-evaluate the life she has created.

What made Sophy’s experience so difficult for her was that she never expected it to happen. She is what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a “perfectionist” – people who expect their journey through life to be “direct, smooth and free from obstacles”.2

It drives them to control the journey through a focus on outcomes, being highly demanding of themselves and fearing failure. Many of our coaching clients are perfectionists, but their very success can make them susceptible when bumps appear. It is then that it is more valuable to have the skills of the “optimalist” – believing that life is not a straight line, that obstacles are inevitable and that when we are less harsh on ourselves we become more adaptable.

Psychologist Mark Seery has shown that too much adversity is harmful to mental health, but too little means there is nothing to call on when difficulty strikes.3 Perfectionism is a great driver for success, but optimalism makes us hardier.

We all know individuals who are innately resilient. They deal with whatever is happening while continuing to function, keeping a sense of perspective and remaining anchored to who they are. It came with their DNA. For this reason many psychologists see it as a desired attribute of leaders. Others see it as a continuum of behaviours along which we move in response to events. What is known, however, is that most people become more resilient over time, not to bounce back but to move forward. As coaches, we must accelerate that learning.

Diane Coutu, in an article in the Harvard Business Review 4 highlighted three elements that help build resilience:

  • Facing down reality
  • Finding meaning
  • Innovation

When Christopher Galvin, Motorola CEO (and grandson of the founder), was sacked, he said “the most terrifying thing to look at is a blank piece of paper”5.

When resilience goes, life looks like a blank piece of paper from which achievements have been erased. Coaching is about helping them find ways to start rewriting the page.

Make it work

If a client has lost resilience, invite them to:

  • Do something new It should be something that positions them completely outside of how they are seeing themselves, for example, salsa dancing or rock climbing, It takes their mind off the immediate worry and provides pleasure.
  • Do something different Spend time with people who are different to them, spend a different quality of time with family, put themselves forward for something at work they would normally shun. Flexibility increases when we break our habits.
  • Keep connected The enemy of resilience is isolation. Contact with people who are ‘on side’ gives an alternative view of themselves.
  • Develop ABC thinking patterns Where A is the activating event, C the consequential act and B, the beliefs they bring to the event, from which their action follows. Recognising that it is not the event itself but the beliefs we attach to it that shape our outcomes, allows the client to start developing plasticity in their thinking.
  • Reconnect with core values

They should be values from which they want to live their life.

  • Test resilience Complete an online questionnaire such as Robertson Cooper’s i-resilience ( to both celebrate what is there and to identify areas that need attention.
  • Write down their worst case scenario Think colourfully then look at the results with their rationalist self.
  • Notice the differences Our resilience goes up as well as down, so it is vital to notice when it is available and when lacking.
  • Think of times of resilience What were they thinking, doing, feeling and how were other people involved? What can they take from that?

Fatal flaws

  • Colluding with the client when tough stuff happens
  • Denying the impact of negative experiences
  • Offering false optimism

Moving forward means learning to live with what is, not hoping it ‘is not’. As reality is faced, the individual can start to find the meaning that they want to make of the experience and can be helped to contextualise the event within a wider picture.

Carole Pemberton runs Coaching to Solutions, is a faculty member of the Academy of Executive Coaching and author of several books, including Coaching to Solutions.


  • 1. M Neenan, Developing Resilience, Routledge, 2009
  • 2. T Ben-Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect, McGraw-Hill, 2009
  • 3. M Seery, A E Holman and R C Silver, “Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability and resilience”, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), pp1025-1041, 2010
  • 4. D L Coutu, “How resilience works”, in Harvard Business Review, 8(5), pp46-57, 2002
  • 5. A Redmond and P Crisafulli, Comebacks: Powerful Lessons from Leaders who Endured Setbacks and Recaptured Success on Their Terms, Jossey-Bass, p85, 2010

Coaching at Work, Volume 6, Issue 3

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