Mar 05, 2014

    Learning to thrive on adversity

    IN BUSINESS, as in life, there is no such thing as a journey unmarked by setbacks, hurdles and unexpected events. However, it is how a business copes with these stressors that will ultimately dictate its ability not only to survive, but also to thrive in a changing environment.

    In 2000, educational sociologists Stanton-Salazar and Spina neatly defined resilience as: "A set of inner resources, social competencies, and cultural strategies that permit individuals to not only survive, but recover, or even thrive after stressful events, but also to draw from the experience to enhance subsequent functioning."

    Yet the importance of resilience - commonly described as the ability to bounce back after adversity - is often underestimated, both on an organisational and an individual level.

    Think of Kodak, once a behemoth of its sector, now extinct, thanks to its inability to bounce back from the advent of digital photography.

    Or Steve Jobs, famously fired from his own company, but later returning in one of the greatest business comebacks of all time.

    What is business success but the ability to rise above adversity and adapt successfully in the face of challenging or threatening circumstances?

    As Ernest Hemingway said in his novel, A Farewell To Arms: "The world breaks everyone and, afterward, many are strong at the broken places."

    Martial-arts experts know this from experience - a broken hand, once healed, is an even stronger weapon for the next big fight.

    Likewise, resilient organisations and people are those who have encountered stressful events, learnt from them, and can draw on their past experience to guide their future behaviour.

    Resilience is likely to become a key issue for employers, particularly as the younger generation moves into the workforce.

    Unlike their parents, many of those aged between 18 and 25 have not had to struggle, and they have had less chance to experiment and fail than any generation in history.

    At the simplest level, Google is there to answer any question, online cheats can be found for any video game, and YouTube is packed full of instructional videos to help solve any problem.

    Ready access to (admittedly convenient) tools such as these has meant that the young are less used to the process of problem solving and have been cushioned from trial-and-error learning to a large degree.

    In most cases, they have also grown up in a time of prosperity and peace, in the absence of challenging circumstances that might otherwise have allowed them to experience failure and develop resilience.

    So how can businesses help their employees develop the resilience and skills they will need to persevere in the face of future challenges?

    Just as a parent may teach a child to ride a bicycle by holding the bike steady, and then gradually letting go, so too can businesses help employees learn to face new challenges.

    Whether adult or child, at one end of the spectrum, the individual needs to feel cared for and appreciated. It is all about creating a supportive environment.

    At the other end of the spectrum, the individual needs to have autonomy over his actions and decisions. And it's the balance between the two that really matters.

    Wrapping a child in cotton wool or protecting an employee from the possibility of failure does not help him develop his skills. But setting an impossible challenge without any support only teaches an individual to expect failure.

    In the ideal world, when individuals experience adversity, they also experience individual and environmental protective factors that act as a buffer to that adversity.

    With enough of these protective factors in place, individuals will be able to adapt to adversity without experiencing a significant disruption to their lives.

    Resilient individuals primarily remain within a comfort zone or at "homeostasis", where they seem to weather life's difficulties without much disruption. In addition, in the process of overcoming adversity, individuals may gain more skills and greater strength.

    Employers looking to promote resiliency among their workforce can help by increasing connections between staff, setting clear and consistent boundaries, and providing access to skill development.

    At the same time, employers need to provide a caring and supportive workplace, set and communicate high expectations, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation.

    That said, there is also much to be said for engineering artificial opportunities for failure. Only by facing adversity is it possible to develop strategies for handling it - something to think about when hiring a 23-year-old with little life experience.

    For resilient individuals and organisations, a setback is not seen as the end of the world - it is acknowledged and experienced as a learning opportunity, and a chance to do better next time.

    And that is something every successful business and individual understands.


    The writer is an associate professor in the department of management and organisation at NUS Business School. A version of this article will be published on the school's Think Business portal (thinkbusiness.nus.edu). This article first appeared in The Business Times.