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Can – and should – we be recruiting people on the basis of their resilience, asks business psychologist Gordon Tinline.

I’ve done a lot of work in recent years on psychological resilience in a business context. This is the capacity to maintain positive work performance and wellbeing whilst facing adversity, and the ability to recover well from setbacks. I’ve also run a lot of resilience training sessions, which tend to focus on areas such as controlling negative thinking, understanding and playing to your strengths, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

While it’s possible to develop psychological resilience, it’s not always easy to do so. Clearly an important influence is personality and some traits will have a long term impact on resilience. For example, high levels of neuroticism are clearly linked with low levels of psychological wellbeing and resilience. Therefore, if you are a frequent worrier and easily get anxious, you need to learn techniques (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy) to control this to maintain your resilience. However, being very low on neuroticism can carry some risks. It can lead to over-confidence. Someone who is generally very confident with high self-esteem, who seems unflappable, may appear to be very resilient. But, if they meet something that really challenges them and they lose confidence they often have little else to draw on. This can lead to a strong crash and burn reaction which it can take a long time to recover from.

‘Why can’t we just…?’

One question I hear frequently is, ‘why can’t we just recruit more resilient people?’ My response to this is that, while you might be able to do so, we need to tread carefully here. As I’ve already mentioned, there are personality characteristics that influence a person’s resilience. Life experience also has an impact on resilience. When faced with major adversity, there is some evidence that factors such as age, income level and religious belief can affect resilience. Disruptive life events that throw us off-course for a while can also build resilience through learning to adapt.

So taking account of research findings like those above, can we just devise a general equation for resilience (e.g. low neuroticism, evidence of adapting well to disruptive life experience and religious belief), and use it to recruit for all roles and levels? It probably won’t surprise you to know that I wouldn’t advocate that. First of all, such an approach would introduce direct discrimination into a selection process (e.g. women tend to score higher than men on most aspects of neuroticism). However, the strongest rationale for not crudely adopting this strategy is that the variation in roles and organisations is likely to demand different kinds of resilience.

Different strokes, different folks

Consider the psychological demands of a call centre job that requires an employee to make a certain number of calls within a set time period, and hit a target which they get constant feedback on. Compare this to a senior financial risk analyst role where the consequences of getting it wrong can be catastrophic. I think most people would agree that both of these jobs require resilience. The call centre worker needs the resilience to withstand rejection, work at a consistently high pace and focus on results. The risk role needs the mental toughness and objectivity to focus on evidence and facts without being constantly over-anxious about the consequences of making a mistake. There are probably some general resilience qualities that cut across both of these roles, but they also have their own unique pressures which need to be considered.

Is there a middle ground here? There almost certainly is and we can learn from other aspects of best practice in recruitment selection to find it. For a long time, psychologists have talked about ‘G’ (general intelligence) and how it has a strong predictive power on job success across roles and organisations. Perhaps there is a resilience ‘G’, but I don’t think we can measure it as accurately as we can with general intelligence. Even if we could, we would still need to capture the specific pressure profile for the target role. This can be done by being clear and honest about the pressures that come with the role and being careful not to overplay the positive aspects in selling the role to a candidate.

You should also apply a broader resilience assessment when considering organisational fit. It is usually the right focus to concentrate mainly on recruiting for the immediate demands of the target role. But in many cases you will also be interested in recruiting for longer-term potential and changing roles within your business. This is where focusing on broad resilience dimensions like adaptability and purposefulness should prove useful (see the Robertson Cooper i-resilience approach). For example, in a potential new hire, do they seem to have clear goals for what they want to achieve in life, and know what is most important to them? And does this fit with the organisation’s ethos (purposefulness)? If you are selecting internally for promotion, does the employee seem to have the ability and personality to adapt to a new range of challenges and next level pressures (adaptability)?

You can recruit more resilient people, but only by balancing general predictors of resilience with the specific demands of the target role. It’s important that we don’t think that if we recruit for resilience that we no longer need to worry about any of the pressures the person will then be exposed to.

None of us is indestructible, after all.