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The important difference between resilience and resourcefulness in the workplace

Resilience was a word widely used during the pandemic. In 2020 Forbes named it as the word of the year, its description being ‘the ability of a substance, person or object to spring back into shape’.

In an entirely different context, I was reprimanded recently for suggesting individuals should show more resilience. It would seem that I was judging their capacity to absorb negative conditions, not to complain or ask questions. Instead, I was to replace resilience for resourcefulness.

It stopped me in my tracks. I had mistaken resilience as those who thrived, were problem solvers and were motivated. As we as communicators try to figure out how to connect with, inspire, and manage the remodelled workforces for the future perhaps the nuance of language is a game changer. We already know the demands for fair pay, inclusive policies, and transparency but perhaps some consideration for our language is also a thing.

I researched the true meaning of the word and realised very quickly I had been mistakenly using it – I had been asking myself and those around me to summon the inner strength to deal with what life throws our way. I was asking them and me to tough it out.

I stumbled upon the Qualtrics 2020 Global Workforce Resilience Study, a piece of work that looked at more than 17,000 employed individuals, at all levels within an organisation. The study showed that indicators suggesting employee resiliency judged them on performance in the face of obstacles and constraints, without inviting them to be problem-solvers.

And obstacles we have. Our teams are juggling clients, internal audiences, multiple projects and long hours. There is often high stress at work, notwithstanding the trials and tribulations of their personal lives that might span the cost of living to relationship or family problems, fertility, or the menopause.

Resourcefulness – rather than resilience - instead invites us to find alternative approaches, formulating an effective course of action rather than sucking it up. Our role is to identify and develop the resources that will help our teams to be resourceful — the ability to adapt to life’s challenges is inherent in us all and it is on us therefore to uncover resourcefulness within ourselves and our teams, to structure cultures, policies, and behaviours to help everyone thrive when adversity comes.

Sharing one of the best pieces of advice I have been given in my career by the esteemed Jonathan Bowman Perks comes in the form of the concept of Monkey Management, which was presented in a classic 1974 Harvard Business Review article.

Jonathan explained to me that when working with teams I walk away from every encounter saying these four words - ‘leave it with me.’ I may have listened well but in doing so I have taken the action away from the colleague, and indeed the opportunity for them to be resourceful. When you encourage employees to handle their own ‘monkeys’, they acquire new skills - and you liberate time to do your own role.

My mistake wasn’t about the listening, it was the way in which I tried to solve, perhaps an ego trip for me in being the fixer. It was in fact hindering my colleagues’ ability to be resourceful and deal with problems autonomously.

So rather than defining success on an individual’s capacity to cope and even thrive when faced with stress, let's reframe and make fairer judgements based on the change and methods we can provide to our colleagues.

My final advice. Try switching the word resilience for resourcefulness and read up on the Monkey theory.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Laura Leggetter, Co-Head of Communications, SEC Newgate.

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