How to Be More Resilient at Work

Resilience means being able to recover from setbacks, adapt to change, and keep on rolling. That's great, but ... how do you do it? Modern Mentor explains.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #588
The Quick And Dirty

How do you rebound from setbacks? You make yourself more resilient. These four strategies will get you started.

  1. Manage your energy
  2. Stay connected
  3. Focus on learning
  4. Embrace change

I was voted Teachers’ Pet in my high school yearbook. Well, Matthew Silberstein and me. Suffice it to say, I hope I’m more fun to hang out with today than I was back then. Just don’t ask my kids for input on that.

I remember this well-meaning teacher telling me once, “Rachel, you’re bound for great things. But also ... you need to be a little more chill.”

So, I did what any Teachers’ Pet would do—I thanked him for the advice, pulled out my notebook, and waited for instruction on how. Because no one followed instructions better than I did.

But as it turns out, that was all he had for me.

What is resilience?

Have you ever been told to be more of a thing that didn’t seem part of your nature? I’d have loved to be more chill, but just hearing advice to be so was wholly unhelpful. In the workplace, resilience is the new chill. We all know we’re supposed to be it—whatever it is—but some of us need a roadmap to guide us.

So, what exactly is resilience, and how can we get there?

I’ve got some answers, so just chill.

Before we dive into the how, let’s begin with the what. We all know it when we see it, but how are leaders, in particular, defining resilience? A 2015 Harvard Business Review piece describes resilience as “ …the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.”

How to be more resilient

So, what are some actions we can take to enhance our ability to recover, adapt, and keep on going? Here are some of my faves.

Manage your energy

As psychologist and writer Barry Winbolt said, “Resilience is not a characteristic gifted to some individuals and not others… resilience is not a passive quality, but an active process.”  Leaning into change—understanding its reasons and impact, for example—requires energy on our part. Continuing to pursue a goal in the face of a setback requires stamina. We need fuel in the tank.

“If you’re trying to build resilience at work,” said researcher Shawn Achor in a 2016 Harvard Business Review piece, “you need adequate internal and external recovery periods... Our brains need a rest as much as our bodies do.”

Resilience isn’t a state of being. It’s an active process.

So, how do we get the recovery we need? In Episode 581, 5 Ways to Be More Productive By Managing Your Energy, I outlined my favorite strategies for keeping that energy on high! Knowing your tells and rhythms, harnessing slumps, and engaging buddies are a few that made the cut.

Stay connected

Having a network of trusted people around you is a known bumper-upper of resilience. When you hit a rough patch at work, having people around you who can support you, help you process what went wrong, and partner with you in identifying next steps can power your ability to stay strong in the face of adversity.

These people can be friends, but they don’t have to be. They should, however, be a collection of voices and opinions that you trust to have your back and keep your confidence.

Having a network of trusted people around you is a known bumper-upper of resilience.

This strategy applies equally to those who don’t work in an office setting. If you’re a solopreneur, an artist, or you work remotely, the same principles apply. If you don’t have colleagues in cubicles, then find support in your community, live or virtual, that can play the same supporting role for you.

When I first launched my business, I was both terrified and lonely. The smartest thing I did was to reach out in search of connections to other founders and practitioners in the same situation. I quickly built a personal network of support that I treasure to this day. I lean on that amazing group to help me power through moments of overwhelm or confusion. They make me stronger and help me find ways to keep on going.

Focus on learning

When something surprises or disappoints you, it’s normal to want a few minutes to wallow. Permission granted.

But sooner than later, it’s time to switch gears and take back the reins. So, you didn’t stick the landing. Okay. But what can you learn from the experience, and how will you use that learning to plan for a better outcome next time?

I spoke recently with a client who was having his wallowing moment after what he described as a “total flop” of a project he oversaw. The company had recently made changes to its compensation program. His job was to manage the communication explaining that change so that when it went into effect, employees would be clear and ready.

So, you didn’t stick the landing. Okay. But what can you learn from the experience?

The day came, and the change was chaotic. Employees expressed surprise and uncertainty around the changes. My client was beside himself. He had worked so hard to write and distribute detailed written communications and videos describing the changes.

“So, what did you learn from the experience?” I asked him.

The answer was: nothing yet. But I encouraged him to go out and talk to some employees and learn something constructive in hindsight.

What he discovered was that while his outbound communications were helpful, they weren’t complete. And what employees needed were live information sessions—meetings they could attend in which an expert on the subject could take and answer their questions real-time. Questions, it turns out, he hadn't anticipated.

By choosing to focus on learning over disappointment, my client was able to shift out of wallowing and into planning to build live Q&A sessions into his next change plan.

Lean into change

Change, as they say, is the new constant. With global markets and innovative tech startups keeping us on our toes, businesses need to be constantly looking for new ways to compete. That may mean yesterday’s strategic plan is today’s recycling.

Change may mean yesterday’s strategic plan is today’s recycling.

The thing about change is that we don’t always like it. We’re wired to seek constancy—the comfortable and familiar. You’re not a bad person if change rattles you. But you do need to push yourself toward embracing it.

We know that being resilient means being able to adapt to change. And one of the best ways to do that is to find ways to welcome change.

Let’s say your company makes a change to a standing process—it might be a change to how you engage with customers, submit expenses, or access key information. Whatever the change, it’s normal for you to experience a bit of upfront resistance. After all, you were comfortable with the old way. Now you need to learn a new one.

But what’s the upside of the change? Is there value in your learning a new system? Will there be an efficiency gain for you once you learn the new way? Will there be more transparency of information in the new system?

Resilience is a trait we can all dial up when armed with the right strategies.

There are pros and cons to every change. The more you focus on spotting the pros, the more change-agile—and therefore resilient—you’ll find yourself becoming.

Remember: Resilience is a trait we can all dial up when armed with the right strategies. But before you go forth, I offer one bit of caution. Resilience is a good thing to a point. Persevering through challenging times shows courage. But powering through impossible or overwhelming moments can be dangerous. So please know yourself. Set limits. And do not ever be afraid to ask for help, or to say enough is enough, when a limit’s been pierced.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.