Resilience is relational

8th December 2020

So many of us have shown tremendous resilience this last year, in coping with the confinements, illnesses and bereavements that are the legacy of the coronavirus. Resilience is also a leadership capability that many businesses are increasingly interested in cultivating, both as an antidote to stress and burnout as well as a support to agile work practices. Yet the focus of corporate work on resilience assumes that it is a personal quality, rather than a systemic capacity.

Consequently, individuals are encouraged to look after their mental health and wellbeing by adopting different coping strategies such as exercising regularly or eating healthily. A recent article1 in the Financial Management magazine exhorted leaders to build resilience by staying curious, operating flexibly, acting decisively, and maintaining employee performance.  Of course, taking responsibility for ourselves is important but not to the exclusion of the possibility that resilience is relational – it arises from the quality of our connections and interconnectedness, as well as from our sense of belonging. Without attending to the systemic dimensions of resilience we risk putting more pressure on individuals to cope with overwhelming situations alone.

What exactly is resilience?

In physics, a resilient substance is one that resumes its original shape after being subjected to pressure. In psychology, resilience is the quality that allows us to bounce back and continue towards our goals after being knocked down and set back by the adversities of life.

Resilience is a property of systems

If you wanted to go white-water rafting and enjoy yourself (even though you can predict some unexpected twists and tumbles), you might need to pay attention to two related dimensions of the experience. First, how you prepare yourselffor the adventure, in terms of your physical fitness and mental attitude; and second, how sure you are that the boat and crew you will be rafting with are safe and reliable… The same holds true for resilience: we need to do what we can to develop our individual resilience but also ensure that the company we a part of is prepared and unsinkable, and the team we are with is dependable as we head towards those inevitable rapids…

Becoming more resilient as people

Some people come by their resilience naturally – yet we are all capable of becoming more resilient. Factors associated with resilience include:

  • Holding positive views about ourselves and others
  • Having the support of family, friends and colleagues
  • Nurturing the capacity to make realistic plans and stick to them
  • Communicating our feelings and developing our emotional intelligence
  • Seeing ourselves as fighters rather than victims
  • Having some sense of self-agency, that we can influence events

A practical way to develop greater resilience is to focus on two keys: self-care, and radical acceptance.


This is about looking after ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

  • Physical self-care is perhaps the easiest to understand but often the first area that we neglect when we are under pressure! It involves making time to eat, hydrate, sleep, and exercise. It is also about touch – zoologically we are ‘social apes’ and like all Great Apes we need a bit of grooming – in the form of strokes and hugs! At the moment with infection control measures in place, it might be harder to come by some friendly touch, but it remains important to our resilience.
  • Mental self-care is no less vital. This is about cultivating optimism; practising gratitude; having a meaningful focus for our personal development (which includes learning something that is fun and interesting for us, personally as well as professionally); and developing our creativity.
  • Emotional self-care is equally important. This is about working on our self-awareness (which could be as simple as asking for feedback) and our emotional intelligence, about setting an intention simply to have fun, and also showing empathy and care for others – in fact, acts of selflessness are one of our most enriching feel-good factors!
  • Spiritual self-care is not just about having a religious or spiritual practice, although for some this is deeply important. It is more generally about cultivating a sense of purpose, clarifying and acting on our values, being of service to others, and acting with integrity.

Radical Acceptance

In addition to bringing greater attention to the four practices of self-care described above, the second key to personal resilience is to practice acceptance… How unconditionally accepting are we of ourselves? Usually, our Inner Critic is busy judging us… we seem to ourselves to be too loud or too quiet, too thin or too fat, too shy or too whatever… actually silencing our Inner Critic and accepting ourselves just as we are is a deep practice. Equally important is our acceptance of others just as they are – trying to bring an understanding that people are doing the best they can, in life, can be immensely enriching. And finally having some basic trust in Life itself is important. Paradoxically, accepting the situation we find ourselves in, and working from there with more kindness to ourselves and others, results in greater and easier levels of change!

Attending to business resilience

Research shows that companies whose values and purpose are deeply embedded and widely understood, seem to be more agile and decisive during a crisis. Also, cultural alignment on purpose and vision creates cohesion and adds momentum. Business resilience is not about performance management – it is about embracing complexity, uncertainty and interdependence, and having a longer timescale perspective than just generating short-term financial returns.

Martin Reeves and Kevin describe this in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review2. They say,In the current model of corporate capitalism, each company is treated as an economic island to be optimized individually. While this simplifies management and accountability, it masks the extent of economic and social interdependence between different stakeholders. In contrast, resilience is a property of systems: an individual company’s resilience means little if its supply base, customer base, or the social systems upon which it depends are disrupted.”

From this perspective, building resilience starts with an awareness that companies are embedded in complex business ecosystems of supply chains, economies, communities, societies and the natural environment – and ensuring that corporate purpose and policies are aligned with these interconnected systems and stakeholders. It is about attending to alliances and networks; adapting business culture and practices to make it easier for people working from home to manage childcare or ageing parents; considering diversification to spread risk across products, markets and investments; and through creative collaboration with other players.

Business resilience is not about performance management

As Reeves and Whittaker go on to say: “Business ecosystems such as digital platforms, can increase their collective resilience through access to new capabilities, through increased flexibility, and by reducing the fixed cost of entry into businesses where assets can now be shared. Shared platforms essentially create “real” insurance against the unexpected through investment in shared execution, adaptation, and innovation mechanisms.”

A White Paper earlier this year by The Centre for Economic Business Research3 suggested that developing business resilience involves paying attention to six factors:

  • Workforce resilience – looking after our teams, which involves good people management, monitoring employee engagement (and taking action on findings) as well as anticipating future challenges by identifying skills gaps.
  • Social & environmental resilience – ensuring that we have a positive impact on the communities and environments in which we operate. Promoting diversity and inclusion, operating ethically and promoting environmental sustainability are key.
  • Operational resilience – which is concerned with implementing risk-management procedures and contingency planning to protect against unexpected events. It also encompasses planning to protect ourselves against unfavourable market conditions.
  • Commercial resilience - focusing on making good use of insights and business intelligence to improve services for and relationships with our clients.
  • Financial resilience – concerning the assets of our business, the reliability of our cashflow and reserves, and our ease of access to funding in times of need.
  • Future resilience – which is about remaining competitive – attending to thought leadership and innovation, having strategic flexibility, and ensuring our continued relevance to our clients.

So resilience is about attending to the me and the us – not exhorting individuals to develop, improve or fix themselves without also looking to the systems we are so intimately interconnected with, and seeing how we can cultivate greater connection, belonging and aliveness across our networks.


  1. Oliver Rowe, FM Magazine, 11 March 2020.
  2. Martin Reeves and Kevin Whitaker, July 2002, Harvard Business Review.
  3. Centre for Economic Business Research, in association with Aviva. UK Business Resilience – The State of the Nation. January 2002.
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