Organizational psychologists, workplace gurus, and leadership consultants are weaponizing our suffering. They want to fool us into believing that there’s something noble and courageous about being resilient. Here are some examples of things they earnestly said and wrote in 2020:
∙ Frontline workers demonstrated incredible resiliency during the pandemic.
∙ Doctors and nurses who worked tirelessly to save COVID patients are the living embodiment of resilience.
∙ Children were resilient in the wake of disrupted learning schedules.
That’s certainly one take. Here’s another: When we praise individuals for resiliency, we let powerful people off the hook for creating unequal systems and unhealthy environments that compromise our abilities to exist and thrive in the first place.
Resilience is a trauma response. It’s a response to systemic collapse. Instead of walking around, patting people on the back for being resilient, we should acknowledge what they’ve been through, help them and then ask ourselves how to prevent failure in the future.
Resilience is not a skill to pursue or develop. It’s the outcome of societal negligence and an opportunity to endure a situation to make life better for others. It’s a precursor to empathy and should be the cornerstone of action.
Resilience can change the world, but it’s the first step in a series of actions that ease pain and heal deep wounds. If you see resilience as an end-state, you miss the entire point of suffering in the first place.
What Is Resilience?
So what is resilience? Endurance. Courage. Persistence.
Those words are okay, but they fail to fully capture the resilient people we know in our everyday lives. The abused child who grows up to be a loving parent. The sick adult who defines her life by other terms. The impoverished community that turns out high rates of high school and college graduates.
Resilient souls are like rubber bands. They can return to their standard shape after being stretched or shrunk.
Someone who displays resilience might show a mix of physical strength, emotional courage, and the cognitive fortitude to spring back and recover from difficulties. Resilience is an excellent quality to have in your emergency toolkit if you’re facing a saber-toothed tiger, a natural disaster, or an accident that takes out your entire family. Our ancestors needed to be resilient so we could be here today.
But in 2020, resilience took a hard turn.
We started using the word worldwide to describe frontline workers in retail and food services who lacked financial resources and health insurance before the pandemic but came to work anyway because they had no choice.
It’s the term we used to describe doctors, nurses, and medical assistants who showed up and worked under daunting circumstances without regard for their personal health because hospital systems were understaffed and underfunded in local communities.
And “resilient” is how we described children who were suddenly forced to attend school at home — surrounded by rising rates of food insecurity, domestic violence, relatives with COVID, and inadequate internet infrastructure that would allow them to learn without disruption.
Yes, those people are resilient, but they are also victims of failed policies and neglected investments in basic workforce development and infrastructure. And when we focus on resilience, we let the people who made those decisions off the hook. We stop looking for answers in the correct place. We celebrate the people who make it through the ordeal (relatively) unscathed. What does that say about what we think about the ones that didn’t?
A chronic state of resiliency represents massive social failure.
If Not ‘Resilience,’ then What?
Resilience is a response to physical, emotional, or cognitive trauma. And to embrace resiliency as a core competency in humanity is to miss the entire point of life. If we’re demonstrating empathy and kindness, we head off the need for all those people to be so “resilient.”
Instead of praising individuals or our workforce for their resilience, the natural step is to ask: Why did they have to be resilient in the first place? What role do I play in ensuring that the trauma stops here and now?
If you work in human resources, that means assuming responsibility for preventing catastrophic failures in the first place. Don’t ask your workforce to be “resilient.” Please give them the gift of being able to perform their jobs without trauma. Hire enough workers so overtime isn’t status quo. Create family leave policies that make sure people can eat and care for their sick parents. Pay people so they don’t have to choose between housing and high-quality food.
Don’t know where to start? You can do a premortem for employee-based scenarios and ask questions like, “What will go wrong?”
Then fix whatever can go wrong. If the workforce is forced to be resilient, let it be for new mistakes and not the same old reasons like budget, internal politics, or miscommunication.
And stop praising hardworking folks for being resilient — it’s like praising someone for being hit by a bus. Sure, it’s terrific they survived the experience. But how could the accident have been prevented? And how do we make sure others aren’t killed in the future?
On an individual level, the quest for resilience can take a toxic turn. Yes, we are all self-leaders and individually responsible for how we show up in the world. Of course, adulthood is challenging. But the work comes internally by exploring the source of trauma, absolving yourself for the failure of others who let you down, and addressing the wound by being of service to others.
You can’t train for resilience. You can’t buy it. And the more you seek it, the more it will elude you. That’s the paradox of resiliency.
Congratulations. You’re Already Resilient.
If you survived a difficult period of your life — childhood, an abusive relationship, COVID-19 — you’re resilient. You don’t need an organizational psychologist, workplace guru, or leadership consultant to validate your experience. If you live and breathe, you’re a badass survivor who is ready to tackle another day. Congratulations.
Resilience is one of those buzzwords, like “pivot” and “unprecedented,” that can’t die off soon enough. Let’s honor our inner strength from 2020 and pay homage to our past selves by ensuring others don’t endure the same past heartaches and difficulties that got us here in the first place. In that way, the era of resiliency is over.