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When Resilience Outlives Its Usefulness

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A 2010 study of resilience in ecosystems identified resilience as the ability to return to an initial state after a disturbance and the ability to maintain that state during a disturbance. But continuing in an initial state can be counter-productive if that initial state is what caused the disturbance in the first place; for example, high turnover leads to overwork of those remaining which leads to high turnover. 

On the one hand, resilience can present itself as resistance to change—or a tendency to cling to business-as-usual. On the other hand, resilience can cause unwarranted optimism—every challenge, every change is welcomed as an opportunity, whether or not that aligns with the facts.

Resilience and Risk-Taking

In studies of both humans and mice, resilience was found to have biological as well as psychological roots. Scientists have found a lower incidence of PTSD in soldiers who generate a higher level of neuropeptide Y (NPY), a protein that works against anxiety during stress and helps to power down from stress after the stressful situation is over. Thanks to low levels of NPY, some people are less stress-sensitive and more resilient.

But now we come to the problem. When soldiers return from war suffering from PTSD, we don’t stop the war; we send in more soldiers with, we hope, greater resilience. The same thing happens with a company or team that thrives on risk and boasts about its intense environment and fast-paced culture. Soon, weeded out by stress and by a poor fit with the culture, no one remains who argues for caution. Without appropriate risk management, you soon have another bankrupt company that grew too large too soon, took out too many loans, broke too many laws, or rushed products to market way too fast. 

Companies that thrive need people with low resilience and high-stress sensitivity to put on the brakes, question assumptions, and talk about risk.

Resilience and Team Building

A study of at-risk children who benefited or did not benefit from interventions revealed a genetic component: those with certain gene configurations that increased their risk were helped with most by intervention while those without those particular configurations were more resilient, unaffected by whether they received extra support.

Here’s the problem: One university professor argued that we should reserve our greatest interventions for children with the gene configurations that increase risk, giving little or no support to at-risk children who are more resilient. When this happens in businesses, the attention of the leader is focused on the team member(s) with the least resilience, the poorest habits, and the fewest coping skills. As a result, the rest of the team—the more resilient part, even if that difference is only marginal—begins to flounder and may even resent the “preferred” member.

The opposite result may also occur: that the more resilient team member is preferred because that person is more productive even under stress; regains enthusiasm quicker, and needs less management to deliver results. The more resilient team member reaps all the awards and attention.

Teams that thrive need a leader who pays attention to the team, not merely to the most or least needy member. A leader is not responsible for other people’s lives and choices but can only point strugglers in the right direction; for example, toward SMaRT techniques, mentoring, or professional help.

Avoiding the Downsides of Resilience

So how do you break resilience to avoid its downside of supporting the status quo and encouraging complacency?

  • Be willing to question your goal and your method for achieving it. 
  • Give the nay-sayers attention and respect. Those who are most risk-sensitive can make valuable contributions to assessing risks and costs.
  • Remain aware of individual differences, but encourage your team to act as a unit. 
  • Focus in minimizing stress and on adding re-charging time into your schedule. 

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