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How to Build Resilience | Tips for Individuals and Organizations

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Amy Bergen

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Perhaps as a result of such a tumultuous 2020, more and more employers and professionals are joining the conversation around how to build resilience and what it means in the social-impact space.

Psychologists and social scientists alike agree that resilience isn’t a trait that a person is born with, but rather one that you can practice and strengthen as you grow and develop.  

What is resilience? 

Put simply, resilience is the ability to adapt and recover in the face of change, stress, and adversity. Since stressful events and change are all inevitable in the working world, resilience belongs in everyone’s toolbox. 

Author Diane Coutu gets more specific in her 2002 article (trust us, it’s an oldie but a goodie) “How Resilience Works,” where she describes the three defining characteristics of resilient people (and organizations): 

  1. They accept reality 
  2. They have a strong sense of meaning and purpose, even in hardship 
  3. They’re able to improvise when finding solutions 

In their resilience resources tailored to the nonprofit sector, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Fund breaks organizational resilience down into seven major traits (which can apply to individuals as well): 

  1. A strong sense of purpose and values 
  2. A clear view of challenges 
  3. Flexibility and agility in planning for the future 
  4. Openness in communication 
  5. Empowerment and shared leadership 
  6. Commitment to rest and renewal 
  7. Connection and community support 

So how can you work to deliberately build resilience? There are a few tried-and-true methods that will work for individuals and organizations.

How to build resilience

Find your purpose

If you believe your work is meaningful and important, even when it doesn’t seem that way, you’re building a strong foundation for resilience. 

Focusing on the purpose behind your career path—not just your job title or description, but the passion and interests that steered you toward the field in the first place—can keep you motivated when things go wrong at work. This focus may mean you’re taking small steps toward concrete goals, refreshing your resume after being laid off or rejected, or practicing self-care to avoid burnout

As far as organizations are concerned, the most resilient ones have a sturdy value system and unity of purpose (no surprise there). Think of a flock of geese—they may swerve and adjust to different weather conditions, but they stay together because their goal is the same. Frequent updates on organizational impact, a clear mission statement available to all employees, and other reminders of why you do the work you do can help your workplace keep its “eye on the prize.” 

Strengthen your support networks 

Almost every study on how to build resilience concludes that strong, supportive personal and professional relationships are a major contributor. Resilient people know when to lean on their network, and when to support others in turn. 

Of course after over a year of social distancing, a lot of us may feel isolated and lonely. But even small-scale interactions, like bonding over common interests with people online or getting to know new co-workers, can help create a sense of community. 

And you can strengthen your social bonds in small ways too! Consider offering to collaborate on a project if someone needs a hand, checking in with a colleague who’s going through a hard time, or asking for help if you’re the one who needs support. Similarly, organizations can expand their resources by building strong relationships with peer organizations and maintaining a robust volunteer program.

Get comfortable with change

Contrary to what many may think, resilient people don’t automatically “bounce back” from crises or unexpected change—feelings of stress and unease may take a long time to subside. But those who practice resilience tend to interpret problems and changes as invitations to try a new way of doing things. 

A crisis isn’t a disaster, but an opportunity to improvise, and it may lead to long-lasting, positive change. 

For example, imagine your organization had to pivot to an online fundraiser in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That change wasn’t anyone’s first choice, but together you navigated complex logistics to pull it off. The virtual event likely brought in several attendees who wouldn’t have been able to attend an in-person fundraiser, and you’d like to keep this positive change going. So, perhaps you will want to consider creative ways to include a remote option in next year’s event. 

Flexibility is an essential aspect to building resilience, since no matter how well you plan, things will change.

One tip for organizational resilience (and resilience in personal career planning, for that matter) is to “think long and short”—stick to your long-term vision, and keep this vision in mind as you create your short-term plans. If an external event changes your circumstances, you can alter the short-term plan to fit the new reality while staying focused on your ultimate goals. 

Aim for “optimistic realism” 

A positive outlook strengthens resilience, but it doesn’t require you to ignore the facts of a situation or push aside your feelings. Recognizing what you can and can’t change, as cliche as that may sound, is a key aspect of the “optimistic realism” that characterizes resilience. 

The first step in acknowledging reality is simply to honestly observe your situation. Perhaps you’ve entered a tough job market after graduating from college, your current project requires a lot more work than anticipated, or you don’t have the resources to pull off the initiative you planned this quarter. 

The next step may involve some “cognitive reframing,” a psychological technique that helps you change the way you view a situation by recontextualizing your thoughts.

  • What you see as a missed job opportunity, for instance, might be a chance to step back and think about what you really want in a position. 
  • A failed project may open doors for a new out-of-the-box idea that will ultimately have a better outcome.
  • If you don’t feel confident that you or your organization can manage the crisis, you might have to take reframing a step further: what challenges have you overcome in the past? How can that experience help you rise to the occasion now? 
  • If you’re facing a tragedy that doesn’t have a positive spin, like a personal illness or the death of someone close to you, resilience might mean accepting that there will be a period of grief and transition—you can’t go on with business as usual, and you’ll be adjusting to a “new normal.” 

Adapting to new realities we didn’t choose for ourselves is one of the hardest parts of building resilience. It’s ongoing work—more of like a marathon than a sprint. But organizations that last—and individuals who thrive in their careers—grow in resilience over time as they deal with difficulty. Eventually, you may find yourself handling a crisis you couldn’t have imagined going through a year ago, and coming out stronger on the other side. 

And after navigating the changes 2020 brought most of us, you might be more resilient than you think!


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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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