Resilience on the Job: Why it is Important

By: Daniel Russell

This is a two-part series that looks at resilience on the job—why it is important and five ways to improve it.

Today’s volatile, complex, and ambiguous business environment places extraordinary stress on employees. A United Kingdom study by MetLife found that 48% of employees believe that work is becoming more stressful (with 42% saying that it is the same, and only 10% saying it’s less stressful).

Andrea Ovans wrote in her Harvard Business Review article, “What Resilience Means, and Why It Matters,” that the greatest source of workplace stress is dealing with colleagues and office politics. Clearly, resilience is important for high-performing leaders to advance and thrive.

Leaders also carry the added responsibility for building resilience into their employees and organizations. Being resilient oneself is a precursor to inspiring and guiding others to continuously achieve ambitious goals.

We all face struggles in our personal and work lives. Why is it that people react so differently to these challenges? Some people get mad, some quit, some avoid the situation, some become deeply depressed or physically ill.

Cases of “C-suite-cides”

In recent years, we have observed a large number of high-profile C-suite suicides as a result of major business failures or discovery of their corruption.

For example, Martin Senn, former CEO of insurance giant Zurich Insurance, took his own life following the suicide of Zurich’s chief financial officer Pierre Wauthier. Wauthier left behind a note blaming former Zurich Insurance chairman Josef Ackermann for creating an unbearably stressful work environment.

In another case, Vladimir Pokhilko, the co-inventor of the popular 1990s computer game Tetris, is believed to have killed his wife and his son before committing suicide after facing financial pressures associated with a failing e-commerce business.

Finally, Olympus Corporation’s Tsutomu Omori hanged himself over the alleged shame associated with huge losses at the Indian unit of the company.

Leaders who fell and rose again

In contrast, there are many leaders who face difficulties with excitement and vigor. The most resilient leaders refuse to accept failure as the end of their story. Instead, they come back after multiple failures again and again, each time learning something new and returning stronger and smarter after each attempt.

Some of our most vaulted entrepreneurs have faced and overcome multiple failures. One of Bill Gates' first commercial opportunities called the “Traf-O-Data” (a system to help government agencies manage traffic information) didn’t work when he tried to demonstrate it the first time.

While most of us have heard of Virgin’s successes (airlines, mobile phone, music), we don’t remember Virgin Cola, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cars, Virgin Vie, Virgin Clothing, or Virgin Digital—all failures. Sir Richard Branson has what he calls a “failure principle” by which he takes risks and learns from them each time.

Even Steve Jobs faced a massive failure when his Lisa project caused Apple to lose a considerable amount of money. The Lisa fiasco led to Jobs’ being fired from the company he founded in 1995. Jobs said that he was devastated by the firing but he learned from his past mistakes and became a better leader.

With such drastic differences in how leaders face failure and demonstrate resilience, it leads us to ask why there are such stark differences? And how can we improve our own response to adversity? The second post in this series provides practical advice for increasing your resilience.

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