The Resilience Paradox: Why Building Toughness Might Be Missing the Point


Corporates are real quick to latch onto new buzzwords in the HR sphere and start using them as the gospel, especially when it comes to how they present themselves and their ‘ethos’ to the world.

‘Engagement’, ‘Empathy’, ‘Integrity’, ‘Diversity’, and so on. Great words and great ingredients to any workplace, don’t get me wrong. But only when they are used correctly and when their meaning is truly unpacked and infused into companies from the top down.


Resilience: Corporate’s new ‘word of the day’

‘Resilience’ is a new buzzword I’m hearing frequently. “We want our employees to be resilient; to be able to tackle challenges head on and remain unfazed by obstacles and setbacks!”

And it’s a great narrative, don’t get me wrong. It makes me want to buy into it. And I can imagine tons of development initiatives and consultancies rushing to offer generic training on the topic, arising purely from that single word. I mean, it’s great for industry, right? It happened over a decade ago and it’s happening again.

But, I’m a skeptical fool. I get to thinking about what might be lurking behind corporates’ grand statements about the need for resilience, hardiness, and the ability to endure and suffer through tough times. Because, let’s be honest, it’s not really about the personal development of their business professionals, is it?

Sounds more like a great cover-up narrative to use, in order to mask corporates’ deeper need for systemic change in the workplaces they cultivate. What if ‘resilience’ is just another word for not fixing the root problems in companies’ day-to-day operations and corporate culture?

What is resilience?

If you get hit by an obstacle, you get back up again, brush yourself off, and bounce back. This is a kind of mental toughness that is all about recovering quickly from adversity. It shares some close characteristics with ‘hardiness’ which is more like an unwavering commitment to what you’re doing, a sense of strong will and control, and the drive to challenge and persevere through harsh storms. Steadfastness. Together, resilience and hardiness form a kind of bullet-proof psychological armor, equipping individuals with the tools not just to survive and weather the storms but to actively thrive in the face of life’s inevitable strains, by viewing hardship as a challenge.

The resilient professional: Straight out of a movie

The steadfast hero. The underdog who keeps getting beaten down, but still rises to their feet to plow on. I mean, it’s romantic stuff! And there are people out there who are like that, don’t get me wrong; resilience and hardiness are not restricted to movies and novels and great historical figures.

Check out our article “The Essence of Workplace Coaching: Helping People Navigate Everyday Challenges” (read article here), that discusses some of the ways you or anyone can help particular personalities navigate their way to the edge of their comfort zones in a baby-step approach.

Today’s corporates are enthralled by this notion of resilience, because they tell the modern professional that it’s a key to not just surviving but thriving in today’s volatile business landscape. In other words, resilience is your ticket to progression, to climbing the corporate ladder. “With enough resilience, any challenge can be overcome, any stressor can be endured”, says everyone in corporate HR.

The Facade of Individual Resilience

But, is this true? Is it real?

As we delve deeper into what resilience means and requires, we must pause and ask ourselves: Are we just bandaging deeper systemic issues in our workplaces by shifting the focus on individual resilience and ignoring the need for fundamental changes in the work environment?

Sounds more like the emphasis on resilience is a convenient distraction from more uncomfortable truths.

And, hang on a second, why do we need to ‘endure’? Why should ‘suffering through things’ be such a highly praised value/trait, that it should propel us along the path of reward by reaching for the carrot of success (progression, promotion, whatever you want to call it)?

Lots of daily stress and corporate inefficiencies to be masked

Consider the typical high-pressure corporate setting. Lots of daily stress, meetings that seem to never end, bouts of boredom in working on repetitive tasks (but they have to be done), obstacles to plough through (cunningly reframed by leadership as challenges to overcome), tight deadlines that are looming, lack of knowing what is what and lack of knowledge-sharing (created by naturally-formed silos spread throughout the company), trying to get some stuff done correctly (but being given the incorrect tools for the job), encouragement to make decisions independently (which then get overruled by your micromanaging manager), expectations to give ‘constructive’ feedback to your people (when all you receive is either generic blah or harsh condemnation of your performance), empowerment to work as you see fit (while being given nonsensical deadlines which you can’t negotitate), sage advice about “no pain, no gain” (while you’re trudging through mud in endless pain), trust in your passion to work autonomously (while being expected to report in for constant progress checks)…I could name a few more stressors but I think you get the point.

Our questions to you, dear reader

With this picture in mind, we must question: are we cultivating resilience or are we just enabling toxic cultures to persist unchallenged?

Are we just unloading the burden onto the individual business professional by turning the focus to individual resilience as opposed to any form of meaningful corporate change?

And, lastly, what’s the consequence of doing this? Could it be that it stifles innovation and true adaptation? Maybe it forces business professionals to learn to cope in silence?


Deano Symeonides

I’m CHRO of Talent Hacks, L&D creator, and Chief Happiness Hacker (CHH). I thrive on coaching the uncoachable (unless it’s really out there). I’m a business psychologist who loves to make the tough get going. As a content creator and L&D expert (!!!), my blend of depth and drama transforms learning into an adventure. 🙂