Build Resilience to Bounce Back from Adversity

In the TV show Mad Men, lead character Don Draper observes, “Change is neither good nor bad. It simply is.” Although he was commenting on the 1960s demolition of New York Penn Station, he could easily have been talking about our current events.

The pandemic has accelerated change. “We are hit every day with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — what the U.S. Army refers to as ‘VUCA.’ We’re in a VUCA environment on steroids,” says Mark Polson, principal and founder of Polson and Associates, an innovation consultancy. According to Polson, this flux forces us all to learn to adapt the ways in which we live and work in real time.

Building our resilience can help us to adapt more easily to a VUCA environment. “The biggest drivers of resiliency are emotion regulation, self-compassion, and cognitive agility. According to our research, highly resilient individuals score in the top quartile in these three areas and fare better in times of distress,” says Allison Yost, regional vice president of behavioral science for BetterUp, a leadership development platform. BetterUp found highly resilient individuals are 31% more productive at their jobs and report 35% higher wellbeing than their less-resilient colleagues.

In commenting on change, Draper also remarked that it can be greeted with terror or joy. Choose joy — or at least equanimity — and employ these tactics to become more resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks.

Adopt an agile mindset

Mental agility starts with openness and curiosity. “When you are curious, you ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ questions. The answers can help you begin to see things from different perspectives and come up with solutions you may not have envisioned before. Innovation expert Rita McGrath refers to this as seeing around corners,” says Polson.

Make space for your emotions

If your vacation or other family plans were canceled because of COVID-19, you may be feeling angry and disappointed. When you face a setback, it is okay to let yourself feel a range of emotions. Yost advises reminding yourself that emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are.

Reframe the situation

When you face an adverse situation, ask yourself: Is there a better way to look at this? What thoughts am I having? What evidence do I have for these thoughts? What would a friend say to me about this? These questions can help you think through a situation more rationally.

Take care of yourself

It can be hard to bounce back when you are anxious, tired, or feeling rundown. Take a break from the often anxiety-inducing 24/7 news cycle by checking the news at most once or twice a day. In addition, get adequate sleep and exercise and keep a healthy diet to bolster your resilience. “Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself with compassion, as you would treat a friend,” says Yost.

Maintain social connections

The pandemic has all but wiped out face-to-face time with friends, colleagues, and extended family. Make a conscious effort to connect with others each day, whether via Zoom or during a walk outdoors. Other ways to connect include gathering family or friends together for a virtual movie night, hosting your book club online, or writing a letter to a friend.

Make conscious decisions

What were simple activities in the past — attending a meeting in person, shopping for groceries, working out at the gym — are now fraught with risk. Think about your comfort level and the risk associated with participating in such activities. “It’s important to make the best decision you can at the time, given what you wanted and needed and were capable of. Then just move on,” says Lauren Hammer, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and founder of Hammer Leadership and Executive Coaching.

Build new routines

Many of us did not leave the house during lockdown and, consequently, the days tended to blend together. “As we learn to live alongside the pandemic, we need to create our own structure to differentiate each day,” says Hammer. For instance, get dressed for work each day, even if you are working from your kitchen counter. End each workday with a walk outdoors to mimic your commute home. These simple activities add structure without being overwhelming.

Have an attitude of gratitude

“In the midst of these horrible months, there’s been so much good,” says Hammer. “It was awful to be stuck at home, but I’m so grateful I had time with my kids. My daughter will soon be off to college and we’re never going to be together like this again.”

Keep a personal journal

Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to process events and use this crisis to grow as an individual. As a prompt for your writing, Yost suggests answering: “What am I going to walk out of this very difficult year with?”

This article originally appeared in the Career Connection column of the December 2020 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at