True Resilience Comes From Mental Fitness

RESILIENCE has been tagged as a key skill for leaders since years, but never before has it gotten so much attention as when the pandemic started to affect businesses.

- Resilience: the ability to bounce back from misfortune or setbacks -

One way or another, most companies have tried to increase the resilience of their staff by offering resilience webinars, seminar and workshops. A few months after those trainings, most of those companies cannot find any evidence that the training had any tangible effect.
Participants listened and have understood, but in the sense of that people really have acquired a higher degree of resilience afterwards, that mostly didn't happen.

The problem is in the fact that attending a training or seminar focuses solely on providing us with insight. But as reality shows: that's not enough!

Lasting behaviour change requires building our mental muscle to be ABLE to put our insights into practice:


Some skills can be built though acquiring the necessary insights alone, because we do not meet the idea of putting those skills into practice with any resistance.

For example, we can learn how to put together a piece of IKEA furniture by looking at the instructions and then we just do it.
However with resilience (and many other skills of the mind) it is not so simple.

For most of us, our ability to bounce back from misfortune or setbacks depends on several dimensions. Just having those dimensions laid out to us is not going to do much. Without the "mental muscle" part, you will eventually fail. It only takes one stronger than usual challenge for people to have to give up and go back to their old ways.

This is 100% akin to being sent to the gym, and on your first day of training you're challenged to lift the same weights as Dwayne Johnson. Of course you cannot do that - yet!

BUT: You know you will be able to manage that weight ONCE you have gone to the gym often enough to have built the necessary muscle!
It's the same with your mental muscle! It needs training and exercise.

Classic seminars and trainings about resilience teach you this:


(Image from Robertson-Cooper. You can measure your own resilience for free here)

There is nothing wrong and everything right with this picture. Now, intellectually, you will understand these four dimensions and they will make complete sense to you. Then your seminar or book is over and everyone is left with the following key question:

"HOW can I acquire the skills and traits mentioned in this graphic?"

In particular, in this article, we want to have a closer look at those parts in the picture above, that talk about confidence, adaptability and the social support.

How do I train for confidence in the face of stressful situations?
How do I train for adaptability in order to cope well with change?

It seems quite obvious that these two questions are strongly linked to needing to have the necessary mental capabilities. After all, it's about stressful situations and unfortunate change.

The number one problem with being able to face difficult situation and unfortunate change, is to have built sufficient mental muscle in order to not let our brain default to "running us" based on negative emotions such as stress, fear, guilt, shame, anger, feeling unworthy, etc...

But let's also have a closer look at what the social support system is really doing for us. Our social support system (if we have one), helps us with the following:

  • Discovering different perspectives about the challenges or people
  • Receiving empathy
  • Reconnect us with our core values / ground us
  • Inspire confidence in ourselves
  • Help us not to obsess over the challenge or problem

However, we cannot TRAIN our social support system to do this for us, nor is it practical to "recruit" such a support system. We may be lucky to have people around us that do some of those things successfully for us, but what if we don't or they are not available?

The good news is, that we can learn to provide all the points above on our own and for ourselves. The key to that is once again, mental muscle. And we can build this mental muscle through mental fitness exercises.

Let's get to the bottom of it:

True and lasting resilience is ROOTED in our ABILITY to shift away from a fear-based mindset and response

Instead of being run by the fear-based survival part of our brain, we would engage those parts of the brain that activates:

👉 The pure Exploration of all the facts and angles, with great curiosity

👉 The ability for wise Navigation of choices at the most complex cross-roads in our work and life, but based on our values

👉 The Activate ability to spring into inspired action, unencumbered by any of the negative emotions

👉 Empathy for ourselves and others

👉 The ability to Innovate and create solutions for any problem, which asks “What’s a whole new way of doing this?”

👉 A mindset that believes it can turn any situation into a gift or opportunity, but can accept any outcome, even in case of failure

Notice that managers and their teams, who have done well during the pandemic WITHOUT driving themselves and others into a burn-out, were the ones who have been able to activate the skills mentioned above!

In truth, it’s all in developing sufficient self-command muscle to prevent us from being hi-jacked by a fear-based mindset and to activate and nurture our more generative mindset and skills. However: You cannot just READ about self-command muscle!

You have to make a commitment to daily practice for a sustained period of time (15 min for 6-8 weeks). Just like in a gym.

This is backed by research that indicates that it takes daily focused work for building and strengthening new neural pathways. Neuroplasticity (*) is the term that describes the ability of the brain to form and re-organize new neural pathways.

* see Livingston RB (1966). "Brain mechanisms in conditioning and learning" and Rakic P (January 2002). "Neurogenesis in adult primate neocortex: an evaluation of the evidence"

So what is to be done?

In conclusion, we strongly recommend to follow-up all your resilience seminars, workshops and training with an exercise period, that is exactly tailored to the dominant fear-based responses of each participating individual. Because remember: you want true resilience to take hold and increase in strength, and you know that only gaining insight about resilience factors will not suffice.

If you want to know more about mental fitness, have a look at this page