You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down

IN THIS DEPRESSING JOB MARKET, I’ve met with numerous managers who are looking for advice, referrals, or sometimes just a pleasant conversation with someone who knows how competent they are. Some of these folks are becoming increasingly desperate to find work; others are in situations that they know can’t continue. I’ve been struck by the varied approaches these executives have taken to conducting their job searches, even to the extent of the ways in which they have contacted and interacted with me.

Irrespective of their formal credentials, years of experience, or the severity of their current plight, a number of these individuals seemed to be in better shape than others. To me, a potential source of influence (or at least free advice), these few came across as attractive job candidates in comparison to the others. I suspect the people who have real jobs or job leads to offer will perceive the same kinds of contrasts in the candidates they meet.

What made the difference in the condition and appeal of these managers? Some of it can be attributed to resilience, the human ability to persevere under arduous conditions, and to rebound more quickly than the average person when a negative circumstance occurs. This ability to bounce back is highly desirable, and it’s not just a tendency to “go with the flow,” although that can be useful at times. Nor is it perseverance alone, although surely that is a valuable attribute.

Think of the folks I’ve been seeing in these hard times. As an employer, wouldn’t you prefer candidates who could continue to function well in the face of adversity, focus and produce under pressure, and recover well even when things went wrong? How many otherwise excellent staffers have you known who didn’t work out because they were unable to adjust to new bosses, new roles, or new assignments?

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can necessarily afford to reject candidates out of hand if they have the appropriate credentials and experience, but seem a tad more fragile, a little less flexible. It is quite possible to cultivate resilience in employees once you’ve hired them, so you can plan on improving the likelihood of tenacity and success in everyone who works for you. You just need to learn the underlying principles and some supporting methods of interaction.

Unfortunately, the business literature on resilience in the workplace is sparse as yet and somewhat general, but there is a body of transferable material that comes out of child development literature. In Raising Resilient Children (Contemporary Books, 2001), Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein define resilience as “the capacity to cope and feel competent … the ability to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others, and to treat oneself and others with respect.”


Of course, there are significant differences between parents who are nurturing and strengthening the beliefs and behaviors of growing children and employers who hope to modify the behaviors of adults in the workplace. It’s completely unrealistic to think you’re going to change an adult’s beliefs merely through everyday business interactions and interventions. But it is perfectly legitimate and feasible to require and effect changes in behavior, performance, and even demeanor if you establish the necessary context and maintain both effort and emphasis. And the potential to increase resilience and the benefit of it are not limited by job function; it is as applicable to company leadership and middle management as it is for frontline workers including those who have to cope with customers.

There is no quick fix, however. Good intentions and professions of management support will not be enough on their own. There are specific thought processes, communication techniques, and modes of interaction that can help individual employees increase the value of their talents as well as the outcome of their actions. To produce and thrive, to do better and feel better on the job, employees need to work in environments that focus on strengthening and enhancing their skills and abilities through a combination of realistic goals, well-communicated expectations, clear rules including values and standards for behavior, supportive feedback, management attentiveness, and consistent encouragement.


But look at the payoffs if you forge ahead. When confronted with change or threat, employees who are not resilient continue doing more of what’s not working, albeit longer, faster, or harder. Or they give up altogether.

Resilient employees size up situations realistically and act appropriately; they know when to switch to plan B or even plan C; and they work well with supervisors, subordinates, peers, suppliers, and customers. Resilient employees know the score, never go into denial, learn what works, and proceed with alacrity. They come up with reasonable suggestions and recommendations, not just problems and complaints. They know how to compensate for their own weaknesses and when to get help. They adapt well to new technology, new regulations, new customer demands, new organization structures, and politics. To start generating more resilient behaviors in a workforce, managers must strive to become more conscious of their own entrenched beliefs about individual workers, their tendencies to make snap or stereotypical judgments and act on them, and their assumptions that their own experiences of learning and of business growth are the most appropriate model for other humans (you don’t know many managers who behave like this, do you?).

This column launches a series that will give you ideas and tools you can use if you’re interested in developing your own management style and creating a context for and adopting practices that can foster greater resilience in your employees. I’ll be addressing such topics as listening to understand, not just reacting; identifying strengths and making them stronger, whether or not you have a use for them; worrying about precedents less and individuals more (or the art of bending and rewriting rules); and speaking to be understood so workers know what you really mean. And if you’d like to share workplace experiences in which you or others endured and thrived in the face of adversity, I’d like to hear about them, especially about the conditions that made such success possible.

LIZ KISLIK, president of Liz Kislik Associates, can be reached at 100 Merrick Road, Suite 505E, Rockville Centre, NY 11570, or at (516) 568-2932.

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