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What is resilience and where does it come from?

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Psychometric assessments, and psychometric, aptitude and psych tests let employers improve productivity by measuring the cultural fit and role suitability of job applicants based on the candidates' capabilities and tendencies.

One of the most common things that leaders say to me is that they want to create a more resilient workforce.  As a psychologist this raises some key questions:

  • What exactly do we mean by “resilience”? You may know that psychologists are obsessive about “constructs”.  Constructs are clear, repeatable definitions of psychological phenomena. Resilience is a classic example.  The position of science is that this idea becomes useful only when we all agree what we mean and we can measure it.
  • Is there a reliable and valid way of measuring it?
  • Can we predict it? If you can predict the thing you are interested in then you can potentially understand how to alter it.  If it is a good thing you could increase it.  If it is a bad thing then you could decrease it.

There is very well validated research on the topic of resilience.  The agreed research definition is that resilience is a protective factor.  You remain psychologically healthy and productive despite facing challenges in your life or work (e.g. Klohen, 1996).

A number of researchers have developed questionnaire instruments which allow resilience to be measured accurately.  This in turn has allowed us to measure the consequences of resilience as well as the causes.

Here are some of the benefits you get from having resilient employees. To avoid this looking like a research paper I won’t quote all the references. If you are interested, just email me. Resilient employees:

  • Are psychologically healthier
  • Have better problem solving and reasoning skills
  • Have higher intellectual motivation
  • Are better able to remain calm when the whips are cracking
  • Tend to find their own solutions to problems
  • Develop their own coping strategies for stress
  • Collaborate better with their colleagues.

So it is safe to conclude that it is a good thing.

More resilience means a better work force.

So, what causes it?  The answer is, like almost everything, a combination of nature and nurture. In this blog post I am going to concentrate on the nature bit – things which are largely genetically determined such as IQ and personality, but next week I am going to talk about techniques that can be shown to maximise resilience.

Cognitive ability.

The relationship between cognitive ability (aptitudes, IQ) and resilience is complicated.  Neihart, working with children in 1999 found that high IQ can increase resilience – better ability to find solutions, increased capacity to self-manage, but it could also reduce resilience.  It has been found that people with very high IQs can almost possess a genius for finding things to worry about.  They foresee potential risks that would not even occur to the average person. On balance, though, if someone is not smart enough to do their job they are going to be highly stressed and lack resilience.


See the diagram above.  These are the key personality contributors to resilience.

  • Are you emotionally stable or unstable?  This characteristic has been called emotionality or neuroticism for some years.  People who are emotionally unstable have the volume control in their head turned up high where emotions are concerned.  They feel emotions very deeply and this makes them less resilient (Campbell-Sills et al 2006).  They literally feel more distress from their own emotions.  Sadly they often focus on emotions rather than outcomes.  If you have a workplace where people are focussing on emotions it will be less physically healthy.  Good workplaces work out solutions rather than talk about how they feel.  Optimism is about potential solutions, not shared grief.  Unfortunately Sigmund Freud was not correct on this point – recent research has shown this consistently. You will see that in the diagram above I have put a ring around emotionality.  Low is better if you are hiring for resilience.
  • You should prioritise hiring people who are intrinsically motivated to focus on results and committed to doing a good job.  These characteristics have been shown to be excellent predictors of resilience (Fayombo 2010).  Committed, energised people are way more resilient than those who really don’t care about achieving goals.  When things get tough they tend to find the energy to keep trying or to come up with alternative solutions.  I have put a ring around conscientiousness – high is better for hiring purposes.
  • For decades now (most recently Campbell-Sills 2010) research has shown extraverts to be more resilient than introverts. What seems to be going on here is that extraverts tend on average to be more optimistic than introverts. It is optimism which matters.  Hire people who are intrinsically optimistic, and you are much likelier to have a resilient workforce, even if they are introverts.  You will see that I have put an asterisk against the personality characteristic of Liveliness.  People who are high on this tend to be chirpy, optimistic people and therefore more resilient.

Estimates of the genetic component of resilience vary between 50 and about 70 per cent, so your recruitment efforts will make a big difference to the resilience of your workforce.  We also know that there are a number of things which people can do at the individual and group levels to increase resilience, working with the non-genetic component. This component relates to skills, experience, or attitudes.  Next week I will tell you about some of the most effective methods of optimising resilience.  In the meantime, if you want to know how to psychologically assess your workforce to maximise resilience, check our Additional Measures services page.



Campbell-Sills, L. (2010). Relationship of resilience to personality, coping, and psychiatric symptoms in young adults. Behaviour Research and Therapy, (44), 585-599.

Campbell-Sills, L., Cohan, S.L., Stein, M.B. (2006). Relationship of resilience to personality, coping, and psychiatric symptoms in young adults. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(4), 585-599.

Fayombo, G. (2010). The Relationship between Personality Traits and Psychological Resilience among the Caribbean Adolescents. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 2(2), 105-116.

Klohen, E. (1996). ‘Conceptual analysis and measurement of the construct of ego resiliency’,  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 1067–79.

Niehart, M. (1999). The impact of giftedness on psycho logical well-being: What does the empirical literature say? Roeper Review, 22(1), 10-17.

Andrew Marty

Managing Director at SACS Consulting

Andrew is a qualified psychologist who has over 25 years of human resource management consulting experience, including extensive senior executive search and selection experience.

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