When I was searching for a job in Germany, all the open roles I looked at described their ideal candidate as “belastbar.” This translates literally to “burdenable,” but it’s actually the German word for resilience.
Resilience has become its own buzzword in recent years, thrown around in areas like climate change, global development, and, of course, the workplace. “I don’t think there’s any skill more critical for success than resilience,” psychologist Adam Grant once told CNBC.
In psychological terms, resilience is “continued psychological and behavioral goal pursuit after a challenge, setback, or stressor,” said Danielle King, a professor of organizational psychology at Rice University. And according to her, it’s a term that’s been deeply misunderstood.
According to King, leaders and managers too often think of resilience as a personal trait—something you either have or you don’t. Instead, we should think of it as a state that any employee can attain as the result of a supportive environment. And, she added, employees often get stigmatized when they admit to going through challenges. “Everything is not solved with resilience. Sometimes it’s healthy to quit or change goals, and sometimes organizational change is what is needed, not employee resilience interventions or training,” she said.
Psychologists Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk point out that while resilience can only be developed through hardship, too much of it might make us too willing to tolerate adversity—and cause us to stick to tasks that are boring, unrealistic, or harmful. That could be enduring an under-resourced job, an unsupportive team, or a difficult boss for longer than we should.
As someone who wrote a book on wellness trends and covers workplace issues, I couldn’t help but notice that when a particular idea grabs the attention of employers or managers, it often gets either misused or applied in an oversimplified manner. In 2011, the management researchers Jason R. Pierce and Herman Anguinis argued that even the most positive things can end up having a negative effect when overused. They call this the too-much-of-a-good-thing effect, or the TMGT effect. Not far off is toxic positivity, the idea that people should maintain an optimistic outlook on life and its challenges, even when facing tough times at work.
The expectation of being burdenable puts too much pressure on people to be able to put up with everything and anything their boss expects of them. Any systemic problem can then be blamed on the employees: the work wasn’t too much; the boss didn’t have unrealistic expectations; the employee just wasn’t resilient enough. Connected to resilience are ideas of self-efficacy and independence, where employees might not receive the support they need because they’re expected to always be able to help themselves. But luckily, there are ways to turn workplaces into spaces where resilience can thrive.
“There’s a need for leaders to make space for employees to experience difficulty with grace, acceptance, and support, and not to always take an individualized approach,” said King.
Connection can be a path to resilience—and workplaces need to foster it
Human connection often gets overlooked when thinking about resilience, but could play an important part in fostering it. According to research, while loneliness can be harmful to our well-being, it’s our relationships with others that keep us happy and healthy, both in our private lives and at work. In a study by the onboarding platform Enboarder, 94% of surveyed US employees said they were more productive when they felt connected to their colleagues. And in a recent study from the MIT Sloan School of Management, employees say their company culture has a bigger impact than even their pay on their sense of well-being. That study found that a toxic company culture—including one that’s characterized by a lack of empathy—is more than 10 times more likely to contribute to workers quitting than their compensation. On the other hand, as King argued in a 2021 study, leaders who communicated to their team members that their ideas and suggestions are supported had teams with a greater capacity for resilience.
“As humans, we have a finite set of energetic resources, and [company leaders] have the choice to remove unnecessary, draining barriers,” she said. “[They should] offer supportive resources that can help employees overcome job-relevant and unavoidable challenges.”
Maybe it’s time to see resilience not as an individual character trait or something that managers can expect of their employees, but as a two-way street. As King pointed out, resilience is co-created between people and their leaders.