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Resilience – is the system at fault?

Recently, I authored an article, which considered the concept of improving resilience by developing mental toughness. . In summary I explained that increasing mental toughness (by consideration of one’s commitment, control, challenge and confidence towards their goals (Clough et al, 2002)), can assist with increasing resilience and well-being.

A key issue, which remains to be considered, is the impact of the system in which we find ourselves operating. In the corporate context, the system includes (yet is not limited to), the organisation in which we work. As a system, corporate organisations can be complex. The impact of this on our mental toughness can be considerable.

Systemic thinking provides us with the ability to gain increased insights beyond the here and now. By opening our minds, and increasing our awareness of the system, we gain the potential to expand our cognitive boundaries and broaden our insights. We can generate additional and valuable perspectives regarding the connections between things, and the influence that they have. This provides us with further information, which we can utilise to facilitate behavioural choices, to move closer to our desired outcomes.

So what does this have to do with resilience? We often focus on our own behaviours when examining our lack of, or increasing resilience. We can reflect upon our own levels of commitment, control, challenge and confidence towards our goals, and identify which levers we need to adjust, to positively influence our well-being and mental toughness.

This however will only take us so far.

Systems impact

Within a corporate setting, if we are to truly improve our resilience and well-being, we need to operate with a systems mindset where we address the externalities, which are influencing our cognitions and behaviours, and challenging our mental toughness. We may have all good intent to better our approach towards our goals by adjusting our thinking and behaviours, yet this may be futile where the system does not support our desired change.

Corporate externalities, which may challenge our mental toughness include:

Deadlines & meetings

Access to staff and resources

Regulatory constraints

Commercial constraints

Time zones

Key performance indicators (KPI’s)

Company culture

Professional (or unprofessional) relationships

Strategic direction

Workplace environment (e.g. open-plan seatings v’s offices)

Paperless documentation and knowledge management

HR policies and procedures

Team configurations and responsibilities

Psychological safety within the workplace environment

Virtual and remote workplaces

Technical training, coaching and mentoring

Leaders within corporates can demonstrate serious support of the resilience of their employees, by reflecting on the impact of such externalities on their workforce. Strategies can be deployed which upkeep the development of employees’ mental toughness. The absence of such reflection leaves employees with the considerable task of trying to manage their own resilience within a system which might not allow for positive change.

How might the system better support resilience?

Leaders can draw their attention to the four constructs of mental toughness and notice how the system influences each.

Commitment – Leaders within an organisation can support their employees’ commitment towards their goals by articulating a shared purpose and understanding. Recognising where both the organisation and the employee are directionally headed provides for alignment and commitment towards associated goals, increasing employees’ engagement and motivation.

The shared purpose can correspondingly support performance metrics, which are allocated to team members. Many organisations utilise employee key performance indicators (kpi’s) to drive their strategy and associated behaviours. These kpi’s may or may not be determined though thorough consultation with those employees tasked with attaining them. This may challenge an employee’s commitment towards the associated goals, as their motivation is externally created.

Investing in quality dialogue with the affected employee may aid them in building their commitment towards these externally created goals. Once an employee gains an understanding of the purpose of the goals, and how their strengths and available resources might be utilised to achieve such kpi’s, they may shift their level of goal commitment. Dialogue which enables a mindset shift from the position that ‘they must’ achieve the goal, towards more of a value-based mindset where “they should”, or even that they would “like to”, will advance their commitment. The shift is also likely to align with their own values and purpose, which will increase motivation and engagement, resilience and well-being.

Controllife control, considers the extent to which an employee determines how and when their goals are achieved and advanced, and can be influenced by leaders.

Flexible working arrangements can provide agile and flexible working environments where, within acceptable guidelines, employees can adjust their working hours/days. This empowers an employee to choose to work during those times where they are in their peak performance state. Where an employee, through such empowerment, has sufficient autonomy to perform at their best, they will better their wellbeing and resilience.

In supporting such practices, leaders can consider the need for, and timing of, face-to-face meetings, make use of supporting technology, and agree to deadlines with team members. Where virtual teams are in place, leaders can ensure that technology is accessible to support the engagement of team members, enabling them to advance their goals. Consideration of appropriate time zones for meetings and teleconferences will provide all affected team members with greater opportunity to participate (and have control). Such simple actions can provide support to those impacted, increasing their ability to fulfil their goals.

Open plan offices have become the new norm creating a positive working environment for some, and lesser so for others. In some cases, this increases collaboration and creativity, and in other cases, it becomes distracting and disruptive. When coupled with quiet rooms, this can cater for those employees who perform at their best in differing working conditions, and can provide employees with greater control over accessing their most effective work environment.

Leaders can influence access to suitable resources. Provision of appropriate teams, recruitment strategies, resource allocations, and training programs, can support an employee with finding appropriately skilled team-members to contribute towards their goals. Leaders’ consideration of workloads and deadlines, and an openness to related discussions enabling effective outcomes, can further support the control an employee seeks in fulfilling their goals. A working environment that encourages effective dialogue supports an employee’s ability to influence their control over the how and when they work to fulfil their goals.

Emotional control refers to an employee’s ability to influence their emotive state whilst pursuing their goals. Leaders can create a working environment inclusive of psychological safety where employees feel safe and encouraged to participate without fear of negative consequences such as humiliation or embarrassment. Leaders can influence the culture of the organisation, building the conditions that foster effective interaction and conversations, to enhance trust and team collaboration. Building trust by enabling dialogue and a strong working alliance provides employees with a stable setting in which to operate and influence their emotional control.

Access to wellness programs, coaching and mentoring, employee assistance programs and other supportive HR policies and practices, creates a system, which draws attention to, and normalises the emotional states which employees may be enduring. Leaders who pay attention to the impact on employees of workloads and deadlines, and substantial changes to business operations and structures, can positively influence the emotional states of employees.

Noticing significant changes in employees’ behaviour, whether it be absenteeism, elevated emotional states, exhaustion, unpredictable outbursts, or a high degree of complacency, and simply asking an employee whether they are OK, supports employees with responding to their emotional state and wellbeing. The more this is normalised within a workplace, the more likely an employee will use attentional control and self-regulation to influence their emotional state, or seek additional support and resources to better their state. This can be achieved whilst striving for their goals, rather than allowing themselves to become depleted and burnt-out.

Challenge – refers to the extent to which the employee views the goal as stretching them, building their capacity to act and grow. Leaders can contribute to an employee’s professional growth by engaging them in appropriately challenging goals. Allowing employees to put their knowledge to use and develop pathways and solutions towards goal fulfilment, increases mental toughness and resilience. Importantly, leaders should encourage employees to contribute, learn and develop in their roles.

Stretch goals can entertain and stimulate an employee, utilise their strengths, and build their capability and mental stimulation. Providing environments, which allow for safe-to-fail experimentation and creativity, develops an atmosphere of learning and development. This is fostered by encouraging collaboration, learning and adaptability, enhancing creativity and innovation. Such conditions can increase the well-being of an employee, enriching their experience, and increasing their engagement and motivation. This adds to their resilience.

Confidence- Leaders can support the self-belief and confidence of their employees regarding their capacity to respond to their goals, by referencing self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2011). In such circumstances, they can consciously support the employee’s sense of belonging, autonomy and competency. Building professional relationships with team members, and providing an inclusive workplace and culture, will support their feelings of relatedness and belonging. Encouraging collaborative behaviours with collective goals and associated behaviours supports an individual with building their networks and relationships. Encouraging, delegating and empowering employees, rather than micro managing them will build their sense of autonomy. Developing their technical capability through training, development and experiential learning will build their competency. All of this will increase the employee’s self-belief and self-efficacy, leading to greater self-confidence and mental toughness.

Providing regular constructive feedback and coaching which provides direction for growth and development will also build the confidence of an employee. Too often we shirk away from providing useful feedback, yet maintain high expectations of success. Enabling team members with feedback, coaching, mentoring and sponsorship, can better their ability to improve and take on additional challenges and opportunities, supporting their mental toughness and resilience.

And finally, leaders should reward and celebrate the success of team members. This supports the recognition of their performance accomplishments and can increase confidence, optimism and engagement, building mental toughness, resilience and well-being.

Way forward

Much can be undertaken within an organisation to support an employee’s mental toughness. Systemic thinking will increase our perspectives and discovery of the connections between the many parts of the organisation and their influence on employees’ mental toughness and resilience.

By recognising the externalities which exist within the organisational system, leaders can mindfully support employees who are adjusting their commitment, control, challenge and confidence towards the accomplishment of their goals. Much of it relies upon an open mindedness of leaders and team members, to engage in quality conversations to discover what is possible and necessary when striving towards goals.


Clough, P. J., Earle, J., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. In Solutions in Sporting Psychology. Cockerill (Ed). pp.32-43., Thompson, London.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2011). Self-determination theory. Handbook of Theories and Social Psychology, 1. 416-433.


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