Resilience for Executives, Teams and US Army Soldiers

A key factor in high achievement is resilience, the ability to bounce back from low points. Long-term winners and long-term losers face the same problems, but they respond differently.

Many of the smart people I work with and coach have ingrained habits for responding to problems. Some of these reactions to mistakes are so automatic, people don’t even realize they engage in them. Before you know it, an impulsive reaction becomes a stepping stone to further problems. However, I’m convinced that most smart executives can learn to become more resilient with training and coaching.

I’ve seen it happen not just with the people I work with, but with many colleagues and in well-documented studies. A significant body of research has revealed how to build the skills to become more resilient.

What this research has shown is that people who are naturally resilient have an optimistic explanatory style: they explain adversity in terms of optimism in order not fall into helplessness. People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. They tell themselves:

  • “It’s going away quickly…”
  • “It’s just this one situation…”
  • “I can do something about it…”

Those people who have a pessimistic explanatory style respond differently to failure. They habitually think that setbacks are permanent, universal and immutable:

  • “It’s never going to be any different.”
  • “This always happens to me.”
  • “I can’t change it no matter what.”

University of Pennsylvania professor Martin P. Seligman suggests that most people can be immunized against negative thinking habits that lead to giving up after failure. People can be taught optimism and learn to be resilient by changing their explanatory style.

US Army Trains for Resilience

Thirty years of research suggests that resilience can be measured and taught. Seligman is testing this with the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a large scale effort to make soldiers as fit psychologically as they are physically.

A key component of the program is the “master resilience training” program for drill sergeants who learn the tools of positive psychology, mental toughness, using strengths, and building strong relationships. (Harvard Business Review, April 2011)

If the US Army can teach soldiers this stuff, why can’t we learn it and apply it to “business troops?” I believe the results will have significance for people working in organizations who wish to become more effective.

What do you think, can people really be trained and coached to change their ways of thinking?

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