People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2022

Workplace Resilience Begins with Leadership

Leaders are uniquely positioned to model behavior and skills to the broader group, and unlock resilience in others by evincing empathy.

By Jim Link, SHRM-SCP
Invariably, people and organizations encounter obstacles to their objectives. The ability to progress in the face of deterrents, distractions and disturbances is what is known as resilience. To be clear, we’ve witnessed resilience demonstrated in our society, our companies and our personal lives in ways we never thought imaginable two years ago. After all, resilience is a measure of how well people can retain or restore focus to achieve their goals amid a crisis. 

On an individual level, resilience is rooted in being emotionally agile, maintaining mental health and well-being, and having the buoyancy to rebound from setbacks. When people encounter an unexpected roadblock on their journey, it’s common and understandable to be emotionally deflated. Having enough emotional buoyancy enables people to rebound faster. Having too little can lead to failure. Emotional and mental health and well-being contribute to personal resilience by expanding individual capacity for managing stress. 

Fostering resilience in groups and organizations begins with having leadership that can be simultaneously problem-aware and mission-focused. Leaders are uniquely positioned to model behavior and skills to the broader group. Leaders can demonstrate how better managing their outlook and emotions allows them to pivot and discover solutions quickly. Leaders can also unlock resilience in others by evincing empathy.

Empathy creates a space to understand and appreciate others’ life experiences and enables leaders to meet employees where they are at that exact moment. It calls for people to step into others’ shoes to validate their perspectives and creates room to process those emotions. The better people become at processing emotions, the more they trust their ability to bounce back and model resiliency. As with many things, emotional agility improves with practice. It’s evident that empathetic leadership is fundamental to cultivating a more resilient and agile workforce.

For an organization to be truly resilient, this quality needs to be embedded in the workplace culture. Culture is the unifying characteristic that defines how an organization operates on a daily basis and how it chooses to respond in moments when things are going great and—just as importantly—when things aren’t going so great.

When workers embody desired core principles, organizations should celebrate them. Resilience is as much about confidence as it is about skill. Confidence is created when workers have the requisite resources to overcome challenges and trust that their organization will respond to any issue following a demonstrated set of cultural norms. When people managers highlight workers’ strengths and achievements, they instill in workers the belief that they can endure and thrive, despite challenging circumstances. Focusing on developing a resilient culture gives workers something to lean on when they face difficult times. 

With organizational challenges, honesty and transparency truly matter. When workers are left in the dark about what’s happening, anxiety, doubt and fear are amplified to fill the narrative. Keeping workers updated allows them the time and space needed to process and pivot. Having situational awareness sparks the generation of innovative solutions and collaborative efforts needed to overcome a crisis. Understanding what the problem is and what’s needed cues workers to summon their reserves of confidence in their abilities. How well employees collectively respond to challenges can mean the difference between surviving and thriving in subsequent crises.

Jim Link is CHRO of the Society for Human Resource Management..