Teaching Resilience at Work — the Army Way

In these post-recessionary times (or should I say post-apocalyptic) we need resilience. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from tough times, is a key factor in whether your workforce is built for the long haul with its inevitable ups and downs.  For a long time it was thought that resilience was a trait with which  people were born. Now we know people can learn to be resilient, and since it can be learned, it can be taught — like the U.S. Army does.

In business we love military metaphors. We are constantly “doing battle” with our competitors or “donning armor” for a tough meeting. Hyperbolic rhetoric aside, there are parallels between life in the trenches of modern business and military service. Mind you, in no way am I comparing the sacrifices and dangers of actual military service against the inter-cubicle scuffling of the typical modern office, but stress and conflict is an integral component of most jobs, and our bodies react to stressors in similar ways.

What does this have to do with the Army? In response to increased incidents of mental and emotional distress among troops facing repeated deployments overseas, the Army designed a program in 2009  with psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania to teach resilience skills to all its soldiers. The program is based upon the research and work of influential psychologists such as Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman. The research examines people who experience a traumatic event in their lives, and what happens to them afterwards. It shows that following a traumatic episode, humans fall roughly into one of three buckets:

1. Some fall apart and never recover.

2. Some emerge unchanged.

3. Some are strengthened by it.

Follow-up research showed that the trauma need not be catastrophic to trigger this pattern. It can be as quotidian as a job loss or a transfer far from home. Researchers also discovered there are teachable skills that can help people wind up in the two latter buckets, or “insulate them from depression,” in the words of Seligman. These skills are the core of the Army program.

Seligman, one of the driving forces behind the Army training, suggests in  The Harvard Business Review that resilience training can be as effective for those in business as those in military service (I have written about these before in legal publications, and have been trained as a master facilitator in the program). Why? Because the key principles of resilience are transferable to any domain.

What does the program train its participants to do?

• Build self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-motivation. To lead others, one must be able to lead oneself. Much of the program is focused on self-awareness and motivation.

• Develop awareness of personal strengths. An element of self-awareness is to know your strengths. The Army performs personality testing on participants and teaches soldiers how to align their personality strengths with their tasks, which helps enhance performance.

• Manage emotions. Unbalanced emotions help no one and improve no situation. Additionally, they cause physical and emotional rot in an individual if allowed to run unchecked. The program trains soldiers to recognize and balance emotions in themselves and those around them to “smooth out” relationships and avoid conflict (I know this sounds non-intuitive when thinking about the Army, but the vast majority of the 1.1 million soldiers do not engage in combat. The training helps them manage everyday life at work and home).

• Fight overly pessimistic thinking. “Worst-case scenario” planning is useful at times, especially at times of risk, but applying it in every situation is harmful. It limits our imagination and ability to seek out alternatives to a problem. Also, constant pessimism can lead to depression, so learning the difference between prudent decision making and chronic negativity is an important skill.

I encourage you to explore resilience training for your employees, or if you are interested in learning more about resilience on your own I recommend  The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte. Learn how to be strong.

“Army Strong.”