Posted on 19 September 2016 by Neil Bierbaum

If the US Army is training emotional resilience in order to improve individual and team performance, you can be sure we’ll all be doing it soon enough. 

Emotional resilience is a measure of our ability to quickly recover from setbacks,  it is something that can be improved and developed.  How true is that for people in the work context?  Someone in the team hears a bit of bad news – often it’s not even true, it’s just a rumour or perhaps something bad does actually happen. The market crashes. A project fails. Or worse, you fail. How do you respond?  Some people go into panic and self-recrimination.  They may begin to doubt themselves.  Their performance suffers. (They begin to “choke”.) They say things that affect the whole team. Others withdraw or go into their typical defensive pattern.

The problem is not that they do this – it’s natural – but how quickly and how well they recover.

Studies have shown that the response to extreme adversity is normally distributed.  The bottom five percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with symptoms of depression; some even attempt suicide.  The majority experience similar symptoms, then recover to their normal state within a year.  The top five percent demonstrate what Seligman, the father of positive psychology, calls post-traumatic growth: they actually learn and grow from the experience; they become psychologically better off. Seligman reckons that the entire population can be shifted upwards along this curve by “teaching psychological skills to stop the downward spiral that often follows failure”.

It’s probably not useful to point out to someone whose career just took a left turn that it’s not the end of the world, nobody died.  But what if somebody did die as a result of a team or leader failure?  Military commanders face those kinds of consequences.  How do they deal with it?

Teaching emotional resilience

In recognition of this, the US military sees the development of emotional resilience as one of its most important programs.  It engaged Seligman, who collaborated with other global experts, to produce the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.  The word “comprehensive” in the title implies psychological, as against physical, fitness and the program includes a psychological assessment, a series of self-improvement courses, and a resilience “train-the-trainer” program for drill sergeants.

The self-improvement courses focus on emotional fitness (how to emphasise positive emotion and recognise when negative ones are out of proportion to the reality of the threat being faced);  family fitness (personal relationship skills); social fitness (developing empathy to promote the acceptance of organizational diversity); and spiritual fitness (learning to serve something greater than the self).

The resilience “train-the-trainer” program for drill sergeants includes a segment called Building Mental Toughness. It teaches delegates Ellis’s ABCD model. Delegates learn to recognise that the emotional impact of adversity has more to do with one’s beliefs about the adversity than the facts of the adversity. Delegates also learn to identify thinking traps (overgeneralising or judging a person’s worth or ability on the basis of a single action).  They also find out how to recognise and minimise catastrophic thinking by considering worst-case, best-case and most likely scenarios.

This may sound like touchy-feely psychobabble, however the personnel who have completed the course have given it a phenomenal 4.9 out of 5.0 rating, and many say it’s the best course they have attended in the army.

The nature of emotional resilience

In the work context resilience operates at three levels: individual, team and organisation. Each has different characteristics and drivers. In all three it implies being able to bounce back and thrive in the face of tough challenges. In all three it can be improved and developed.

A team is a dynamic system that must constantly adapt to its environment. It must adapt its form in order to preserve its function. Too inflexible and non-adaptive, and it will fail.  A team that does this shows high resilience.  Team resilience is related to the ability to recognise the source of adversity quickly and adapt to it effectively.

This ability to adapt effectively develops over time through the interaction between the team, its members, and its environment.  Individual resilience can contribute to and benefit from team resilience.

The impact of emotional resilience

Research suggests that an individual’s lack of resilience can be overcome by committing to working constructively in a collective. Simultaneously, a team with committed individuals develops an ability to cope with adversity that is greater than the sum of the members’ individual abilities.

This also suggests that one of the significant roles that a team leader can adopt involves assisting members to resolve conflict, collaborate and willingly become committed to the group objectives and methods.

The research also suggests that teams showing high resilience go on to become a highly effective collective entity. Being part of such a team is likely to have long-term, lasting effects on the individual members’ belief in their own efficacy and leave them with greater resilience.

So we can expect healthier, more resilient American soldiers in the future, and no doubt the world can benefit. But what of the poor workers?