Scientists discover that resilience is dynamic, not a static character trait

August 1, 2021

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Scientists discover that resilience is dynamic, not a static character trait

This comes under the heading of “I told you so!” So nice when that happens.

A new study found that resilience is a dynamic process, rather than a fixed trait—and suggests this may have significant ramifications for the business world.

What the researchers say: “Organizations are interested in cultivating a resilient workforce, because they want people who are able to remain committed to an organization and its goals over time,” said the lead author of the study. “Our work here does a couple things: First it finds that resilience is more of a process than a characteristic. Second, it identifies some of the characteristics that can contribute to that process in a meaningful way. Taken together, we think the findings can inform recruitment, hiring, operations and training practices.”

At the heart of the study is the idea that resilience fluctuates, because it encompasses the way that an individual responds to a variety of circumstances over time. As I said—frequently.

“It’s impossible to assess dynamic resilience at any given moment,” he added. “Dynamic resilience is demonstrated across time. How does people’s behavior change over time? What influences that? Those are the sorts of questions we wanted to answer with this study.”

To that end, researchers worked with 314 members of a university marching band (I was in one of those for about a week—maybe I wasn’t resilient enough to stick it out). Study participants were surveyed weekly for 12 weeks. The surveys were designed to collect data on individual participants and their emotional and personal characteristics. To assess how resilience is functioning in individuals over time, the researchers also asked study participants about their commitment to the marching band as an organization, as well as their feelings of “burnout”—specifically, emotional exhaustion related to their work in the organization.

“Tracking the trajectories of commitment and burnout helped us see how resilience played out in real world terms,” the researchers said.

They found that, on average, emotional exhaustion increased over time and commitment decreased over time (you’re telling me something I don’t know?). However, there were factors that influenced those effects.

For example, experience within the organization exacerbated the effects of emotional exhaustion and decreased commitment. In other words, newcomers appeared to be more resilient over the study period (no surprises there).

The researchers also found that people who scored higher on assessments of emotional stability were better able to maintain higher levels of commitment.

Lastly, the researchers also looked at the trajectory of each individual’s commitment to the organization to see if it predicted “retention.” They found that positive commitment trajectories were associated with a greater likelihood of both planning to return to the organization for another year and then subsequently doing so.

“One takeaway here is that annual employee surveys may not be the best way to assess employee resilience and commitment to an organization,” they noted. That’s because annual surveys provide snapshots, while resilience is a dynamic process that fluctuates.

“Since resilience affects things like employee retention, which are important to a company’s bottom line, we really need to be touching base with employees more often,” the lead author commented.

The work also shows that resilience can wear down over time, even if people are only exposed to mild stressors. “Chronic stress can wear down resilience, with ramifications for employee retention and, in all likelihood, job performance,” he concluded.

“However, we also feel that thinking about resilience as a dynamic process creates opportunities to foster resilience in employees not only through recruitment, but through training, and even job design. In short, it’s not as simple as hiring the right person and assuming things will work out. Fostering resilience is going to be an ongoing task for management and human resources professionals.”

So, what? Much of what the researchers found was obvious to Alicia and I from our observations of working with organizations of all kinds for the last 25 years. However, as they point out, the implications are profound and say important things about the relationship between resilience, stress and human design specs.

From other studies, we’ve seen there is a genetic component to resilience—some people are naturally more resilient than others. However, this only accounts for about 10% of resilience. The rest, as I have long said, depends on upbringing, schooling and adult experience and context.

In work terms, the modern work context includes some very unfortunate stressors. These include inappropriate leadership styles (too much reliance on transactional approaches), overwork (we are not designed to do the amount of work we are currently expected to do), bullying (up over 50% during the 15 years pre-COVID) and employment uncertainty. Our evolutionary heritage didn’t enable us to cope with any of this over the medium-to-long term. Work stress increased by over 200% in the 10 years pre-COVID. We have witnessed a rapid decline in resilience both before the virus struck and even more since.

We can make people more resilient, whatever their genetics or even childhood experience. But we can’t do it with the way work and even society, is currently structured.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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