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The Thinking Cap


Bouncing Back: Building a Resilient Workforce

Article prepared: 31 October 2013

Failure is a common occurrence within the workforce. Applying for a tender and missing out, a colleague being promoted over you, experiencing a safety incident, or having a setback on a project deliverable are all examples of the perceived failures we can face at work. How your workforce responds to these perceived failures can affect the competitiveness of your organisation and the degree to which employees reach their potential.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine you have two employees, Jane and Simon, who have just received negative performance appraisals. Both initially feel a little hurt, demotivated and are unable to concentrate properly for the rest of the day.  

However, when your team meets the next morning, Jane arrives brimming with enthusiasm. Overnight Jane has reassured herself that she is good at what she does; she can improve on some keys areas and decides to schedule a meeting with her supervisor to discuss the review in detail. Meanwhile Simon is still dejected. He feels the performance appraisal confirms his belief that he isn’t able to work in such a competitive environment. The performance review echoes in his mind every time he thinks about work. Several months down the track, Jane has applied for two development courses and has received a promotion. Simon begins to spiral into hopelessness and eventually leaves his role for something with less pressure.

What differentiates the Janes from the Simons? Can you engineer a resilient workforce?      

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability of an individual to positively adjust to adversity or to develop adaptive strategies to deal with adversity. The study of resilience and other similar positive psychology traits have recently been brought into the spotlight through the work of Martin Seligman. Seligman began his career studying failure and helplessness. He and his colleagues developed the theory of ‘learned helplessness’, a condition whereby animals and humans learn to behave helplessly, failing to change their behaviour even though there are opportunities for them to help themselves.

In a famous experiment, Hiroto and Seligman (1975) randomly divided people into three groups. The people in the first group were played an annoyingly loud noise that they could silence by pressing a button in front of them. In the second group, people were exposed to the same noise but weren’t able to turn it off. In the third group, the participants couldn’t hear anything. Later that day the participants were all faced with a new situation that exposed them to the same loud annoying sound. In this case, all participants had to do to silence the sound was to move their hands approximately 30cm. The people in the first and third groups were quick to realise this and learnt to avoid the sound. In contrast to this, the people in the second group typically did nothing. They had ‘learnt’ earlier in the day that their behaviours had little effect on the outcome of turning the noise off, so did nothing. They have literally learned helplessness. What is interesting is that approximately one third of people and animals exposed to similar situations and experiments never learn helplessness. They continue to fight to improve their situation. Seligman suggests that this largely to do with an individual’s disposition towards optimism and resilience.

What are the benefits of a resilient workforce?

There are both individual and employer benefits for improving resilience within the workplace.

For individuals, resilience has been linked to:

  • improved well-being
  • reduction in stress
  • positive affect
  • improved performance.

Benefits at the individual level have a positive flow on effect to the organisational level, where resilience has been associated with:

  • reduced turnover and turnover intentions
  • reduced employee sick leave
  • fewer compensation claims
  • achieving better performance outcomes (eg. care outcomes in a hospital setting).

Can you develop resilience?

The simple answer is yes. Resilience is similar to a skill like time-management. Some people seem to naturally have the skill and are able to seamlessly apply it to their work, whereas others need the skill developed. Martin Seligman has recently pioneered a global resilience development program within the U.S. Army, an organisation with high-risk of trauma and adversity. They have had a high degree of success and buy-in from the army personnel. Resilience development programs have also been suggested for hospital nursing staff who are often confronted with a number of challenges such as staffing shortages, bullying, abuse and violence, occupational health and safety issues, and frequent restructuring (see Jackson, Firtko & Edenborough, 2007).

If you would like more information about what PSB Solutions can do to help build resilience in your workplace, give us a call on (08) 9489 3900 or email us.

Reading List

Seligman, M. (2011). Building Resilience. Harvard Business Review, 89(4), 100-106.

Jackson, D., Firtko, A., & Edenborough, M. (2007). Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: A literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60(1), 1-9.


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