Resilience coach Shonna Waters is smiling into the camera against a dark background.
Shonna Waters. Image: BetterUp

‘Resilience isn’t just something you’re born with, it’s a learned skill’

31 Aug 2020

How can you learn to be resilient? BetterUp’s Shonna Waters draws on her coaching knowledge and experience to explain the five steps you can take.

Shonna Waters is vice-president of behavioural science at professional coaching platform BetterUp. With more than 20 years of experience in the field, Waters has a PhD in industrial-organisational psychology and statistics and was certified as a leadership coach at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.

With our working lives disrupted drastically over the past few months, Waters sees resilience as the most important skill to cultivate. “It seems that everywhere you turn you hear an expert or organisation talking about the need to be resilient, and for good reason. In today’s turbulent, stressful and rapidly evolving world, resilient individuals are better equipped to cope, and actually thrive, in this season of constant change,” she tells me.

“Resilience helps employees manage the day-to-day challenges at work and in their personal lives. Resilient individuals don’t necessarily have fewer stressors at work, but they are better able to cope with the challenges that do come their way and know how to compartmentalise their stress so that it doesn’t impact other parts of their life. The good news is that resilience isn’t just something you’re born with, it’s a learned skill.”

Steps for building resilience

Building resilience requires “optimism, agile thinking and perseverance despite changing contexts”, Waters explains. Identifying potential challenges and activating effective coping strategies are two key elements.

She shares with me her five “essential ingredients” for successfully honing the skill, starting with cognitive agility: “When we are stuck in a mindset that isn’t serving us, cognitive agility can help us pivot. By recognising how shifting your thoughts can also shift your feelings, you can drive powerful changes that lead to transformative personal and professional outcomes.”

Second is emotional regulation, she says, which is our ability to take control of our emotions and stay calm and collected: “Picture your emotions as a layer that lives between your thoughts and actions. When you have negative emotions this layer constricts, narrowing the options that seem available to you.

“To help me regulate my own emotions, there are two techniques I use most frequently: putting myself in another’s shoes and then pausing to slow down and get curious about what’s really going on.”

Self-compassion and optimism come next, she explains: “Self-compassion is how compassionate we are with ourselves. It requires treating ourselves with empathy and kindness. Self-compassion allows us to respond to ourselves the way we would respond to a friend or loved one.

“We often judge and say things to ourselves that we would never think of saying to a loved one. Building self-compassion increases resilience because it helps us shift from shame and fear to a more positive state that allows us to move forward.

“Learned optimism is not thinking that everything will come up roses all the time nor only seeing the sunny side of life. Learned optimism is the idea that we can alter our mindsets and behaviours and learn to challenge our bias for negativity. If you find yourself thinking about the worst possible outcome, challenge yourself to think about the best possible outcome.”

Finally, self-efficacy is another “incredibly powerful” aspect of resilience, Waters says: “This is the extent to which we feel we have control or personal agency over our lives and events. This ‘can-do’ attitude can give you an energy boost to accomplish anything you set your mind to.”

Does your industry impact your resilience?

According to Waters, there are certain industries – such as transportation, banking, retail and law enforcement – that are more likely to expose employees to traumatic events, such as a accidents or violence.

“Resilience in these sectors is imperative,” she says. “Change and uncertainty require resilience too and in the current crisis, some industries have been hit harder than others. For example, while industries like semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and software are thriving, others such as insurance, utilities and energy have taken a huge hit.

“Any job with a high workload, role ambiguity, time pressure or limited autonomy will create job strain or work-related stress that requires resilience. This applies to many start-up environments as you can imagine. In addition, job or career insecurity and a lack of social support also contribute to work stress, often leading to burnout.

“Resilient leaders are better equipped to cope with challenging times, so industries, functions or roles that are more likely to experience change and challenge are less likely to attract individuals who struggle under those conditions.”

Social support as a buffer

Alongside the five mindsets employees should try to adopt, Waters says that one-to-one coaching and mentoring are “two of the most effective ways to build and support resilience”.

“You can’t always control your situation, but you can control how you perceive and respond to it,” she explains. “Although we have to be physically distanced right now, social connection is more important than ever.

“Social support plays an important role in buffering people from the negative outcomes of stress and uncertainty.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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