Ask The Expert | Resilience-building for HR leaders

Building True Resilience Mainstream tips for quick resilience fixes overlook the proven science that demonstrates how lasting change happens. Resilience is about working with our brains, not against them.

We’re thrilled to present Johanna Hooper, as our latest industry expert. Join us as we unravel the mysteries of resilience-building and discover how you can cultivate your own emotional strength.

Building True Resilience doesn’t mean becoming Ironman (or Ironwoman!). Resilience is a hot topic these days. Everyone from CEOs to mindfulness gurus peddle what they call the secrets of resilience designed to help us to navigate ever-increasing uncertainty and change. But, in my opinion, a lot of this mainstream advice misses the mark. Somebody else’s top 10 tips might temporarily toughen you up, but they only scratch the surface.

Authentic Resilience

Real resilience doesn’t come from following hackneyed lists found on Instagram or LinkedIn. Just because Janine from Accounts swears by yoga/mindfulness/meditation etc, doesn’t mean it will work for you! It’s definitely not about having nerves of steel, either. Contrary to the toxic “superhero leader” myth, you won’t find meaningful resilience by trying to muscle through every challenge alone or by pretending setbacks don’t sting. True resilience acknowledges that we all have off days – even the strongest leaders have times when they need to regroup and recover. The key is how we pull ourselves back up. It’s how we transform obstacles into opportunities for growth. The ability to “bounce forward” after setbacks is what some researchers call “post-traumatic growth.” Resilient people still feel the full sting of challenges but have learned productive ways to process and harness them. Before exploring methods to build resilience, we need to understand our own unique stress sources and responses.

Attempting change without self-insight risks losing our way and hitting pitfalls that reflect the patterns we aim to overcome. Or doing stuff that helps others, but doesn’t land with us. So we get temporary benefits, at best. Customised diagnostics highlight where we struggle, our thought tendencies under stress, and what really recharges us. These insights help to create resilience plans that address our individual needs and wiring. I coach leaders on building such personalised resilience. One-size-fits-all advice falls flat because our pain points differ based on our biological and neural patterns. We are all made differently. Rather than steeling through with sheer grit, tailored plans shaped around our unique stress responses create lasting resilience.

The Human Response

Our Triggers and Stress Responses When our sympathetic nervous system detects threats, whether they are real or perceived, our amygdala hijacks our executive functioning centres like the prefrontal cortex, impairing higher-order thinking and decision-making. We default to our primitive survival mode rather than conscious choice. Put simply, our fear response overrides rational thought, making it harder for us to respond thoughtfully. Extensive studies on the neuroscience of leadership by renowned research psychiatrist Dr Srini Pillay reveal that when the brain feels unsafe, threatened or anxious, it triples the likelihood of poor choices by narrowing focus and overlooking consequences. Understanding your own triggers or threat responses is the first step for responding thoughtfully rather than reacting instinctively. What situations tend to activate your threat response? Is it public criticism, last-minute demands, financial uncertainty or interpersonal conflict?

Pressure is not the problem – it’s whether we have the tools to process it. By identifying situations that trigger unhelpful stress responses and being curious about what those uncontrolled reactions do to our decision-making capability, we give ourselves the power to respond and act with resilience. Managing Change Popular self-help books, or the top 10 tips that I mentioned at the start of this article, may encourage rapid, radical behaviour change to build resilience. They imply that willpower alone can override our neural circuitry and habits. However, not only is there no scientific evidence supporting these claims, but such approaches often backfire and are counterproductive. Attempting too much too quickly is not heroic, it’s reckless.

It inevitably activates the brain’s heightened threat response, leading to a quick slide back into old habits. This works against building resilience, which requires emotional safety and self-compassion. The most effective leaders stay grounded, consciously layering one or two behaviour shifts at a time before moving on. (This is called the Rule of Two and emerged from studies in the 60s by Doctors Holmes and Rahi) This focus on just one or two changes at a time builds the new neural pathways necessary to make change stick long-term. It counters rather than crushes the brain’s hardwiring. Instead of challenging resilience, this approach can support and build it. Rather than extreme, sudden fitness boot camps, the way to achieve genuine, sustainable resilience looks more like training for a marathon – slowly developing emotional stamina with consistent behaviours and self-care. Small wins combine as our new neural pathways develop resilient roots. Durable change is created one milestone at a time, not overnight.

By respecting the brain’s change process, we can nurture durable resilience that will support us in facing life’s challenges over the long haul. To do too much in one go actually creates stress, rather than lessens it. Owning Your Inner Author During times of stress or uncertainty, emotion-regulation areas like the amygdala often “speak” much louder than wisdom areas like the prefrontal cortex. Our thoughts and inner voice can distort our perspective. Our fears, doubts or anger take centre stage and can cause our actions to be reactive rather than aligned with our values. Studies on emotional agility including those by psychologist Susan David found that not experiencing emotion is not the answer here. Attempting to suppress feelings actually shrinks important grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. Instead, we need to get curious about those unhelpful internal voices. Ask ourselves “Is my judgment being impaired at the moment?”.

What facts am I overlooking to soothe my emotions?” This emotional agility is key for resilience. Creating even small gaps between impulse and response can create enough space to consciously rewrite your inner storyline. By exercising this “resilience muscle” of self-authorship with more balanced and realistic perspectives, we can respond wisely despite stress. Just like when we learn any new skill, it will take time to master this, and the “muscles” used will need to be strengthened over time. They will also need ongoing flexing to maintain but will strengthen exponentially over time, and the results will be well worth the effort.

The High Costs of Low Resilience.

Resilience supports us to effectively navigate stress, change and uncertainty.

Yet continuous effort is required to build this capacity. The costs of insufficient resilience skills are considerable for both individuals and organisations. For individuals, poor resilience negatively impacts overall well-being — mentally, physically and at work. People become more prone to burnout, anxiety, fatigue and poor work-life balance. Likewise, for organisations, low employee resilience creates issues with retention, innovation, customer service and leadership capability. As new challenges inevitably emerge, a lack of resilience can cause companies to struggle in uncertainly rather than adapt to it. Unmanaged stress reduces cognitive performance, strains relationships, and increases health risks like heart disease. The 2023 HSE report “Work-related stress, depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain” highlights that the top causes of work stress are high workloads and low managerial support and the number of those affected are eye-watering! Organisational factors like changes at work and role uncertainty also contribute. And, guess who’s responsible for that? We are! Leaders play a central role in influencing workplace culture and modelling healthy responses to stress. When leaders lack adequate resilience capabilities, they often struggle to handle challenges and support their stressed employees.

Building resilience skills in leaders allows for better management of pressure, assisting others, and leading teams through uncertainty. For me, there’s a moral imperative for us leaders to be as resilient as we can be. When we aren’t doing well, then neither are our teams. If you take your responsibilities as a leader in, or of, your business seriously, then so should building YOUR resilience be considered with the same importance.

Building True Resilience Mainstream tips for quick resilience fixes overlook the proven science that demonstrates how lasting change happens. Resilience is about working with our brains, not against them. It acknowledges our shared humanity – that even the strongest leaders have off days and need time to regroup and recover. This self-care is essential to build lifelong resilience and is not a weakness. By developing self-understanding and patience and diagnosing our unique needs, we can build resilience capacity. We must first emotionally self-assess – identifying our stress triggers and unhelpful thought patterns. With these personal insights, meaningful progress can happen. Resilience is a lifelong practice, not a superhero destination. By having patience and creating customised plans that are aligned with our uniqueness, we can face adversity with agility. Our challenges may mould us but they needn’t break us.