How to Build Resilience to Face Adversity

In a generation where social media pulls back the corporate veil for even the most admired companies, organizations and their leaders are under constant possibility of scrutiny that could be detrimental. Additionally, with warp speed technologies and temperamental environmental conditions have called for leaders to develop new skills above and beyond traditional strategic planning and performance management. Companies that stand the test of time can only do so if the organization’s structure and leaders are adept to handling adversity. As a result, modern leaders need to understand how to cultivate resilience within themselves, their teams, and the organization.

What is adversity?

Adversity is a state or an event that brings about continued difficulty of misfortune. For example, a personal event that may bring adversity may include losing your job or being or going through a divorce.  These events are unfortunate and can trigger a series of negative thoughts and feelings that amount. In business, adversity presents itself in events, which can be very obvious or very subtle.

How does adversity show up at work?

Adversity at work manifests itself when an employee is faced with an unexpected challenge. These challenges can be personal and impact only the employee. For example, an employee may be skipped over their peers for a much-anticipated promotion to a manager role. Alternatively, some challenges maybe more widespread and experienced by the whole company. Take the leaders at Airbnb. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and incinerated demand for travel, the leaders and the company are likely facing adversity as they figure out how to respond to the unprecedented event.

In either type of events, the individual’s response typically determines whether they will be successful in overcoming the event.

Reactions to adversity

Individuals typically react in two emotional ways to adversity. One emotional response is deflation. With this response, the individual engages in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts. Another emotional response is victimization. Here, the employee becomes defensive and expel blame upon others for their circumstance.

In both examples, the individual focuses on the event that triggered the emotional pain rather than on productive ways to move forward. This is detrimental for the individual as they become stuck in the cause frame of mind. If left unaddressed, such a state can dramatically impact an individuals’ performance.

The best way to combat adversity is with psychological resilience. Psychological resilience is the capacity to respond quickly and constructively to crisis. By helping individuals build the muscles for psychological resilience, they can quickly shift their frame of mind when facing adversity.

Best practice for building resilience against adversity

In a Harvard Business Review article on adversity, authors Joshua D. Margolis and Paul Stoltz suggests adopting a regimen for building the mental muscles for resilience. Their work centers around shifting the mental focus from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking. Additionally, they propose a framework with four lenses for analyzing adversity. The lenses help us understand an individual’s reaction and their perceived magnitude to an adverse event. These four lenses are control, impact, breadth, and duration.

Resilience Regiment for Adversity

Questions for reframing adversity

In addition to applying the framework, Margolis and Stoltz also provide three types of questions for reflecting. Managers can use these questions with teammates to help them reframe from cause-oriented to response-oriented.

Specifying questions – specifying questions are meant to help the individual focus their reflection on proactive outcomes. For example, a specifying question for control can be “what part of the situation can I actually influence to change the outcome of this adverse event?” This question is specific and will lead the

Visualizing questions – the visualizing question leverages hypotheticals to engage the individual’s imagination. For example, an impact visualizing question could be what effect do my efforts have on those around me.

Collaborating questions – these questions nudge the employee to seek positive help and advice from peers. By doing so, this encourages engagement in problem-solving. The peer can start the conversation with possible solutions, which will hopefully draw the individual’s focus away from the causes.


Psychological research suggests that an individual’s reaction to an adverse even is correlated with their perception of what they control with the event. The more perceived control, the more likely the individual will have a strong adverse reaction. Thus, when analyzing control of an adverse event, individuals will either ruminate on all the factors contributing to the event rather than areas of improvement.

Leaders will want to use questions to help the individual realistically evaluate their control. For example, a specifying question in this situation can be what levers did the individual actually have to pull to change the outcomes of the event?


This lens looks at how an individual reacts and reflects on their involvement with the event. For example, someone who is passed up on a promotion may reflect inwards on their own capabilities as to why they didn’t receive a promotion. Whereas other scenarios, such as the COVID pandemic and may spark individuals feeling as though nothing is within their control.

Questions that leaders can ask during this time should focus on what their actions can achieve. For example, in the midst of a natural disaster, individuals may ask what steps can they take to make the most out of the current situation.


The breadth lens is how the individual views the underlying cause and its reach. Individuals who believe that the cause can be addressed without further impact have better resilience than those who linger on the causes’ effects. Coming back to the example of a promotion, the individual may view their entire career as derailed due to the one set back.

A collaborating question that the individual can ask is who can I work with to create new opportunities. Such a question achieves two things in helping the individual reframe. First, it immediately moves the focus towards future opportunities rather than dwelling on how to recreate or recapture the existing one. This effectively stops the worrying of the cause. Next, it forces the individual to look for partners, which can be positive in balancing perspectives. If the partner has not experienced the adverse event, they maybe more optimistic about their next opportunity and will bring that to the partnership.


With the duration lens, we are analyzing how long an individual believes the effects and or repercussions of the event will last. For example, many times the market moves into recession territory, there is always speculation about the duration and its potential to become a depression. Unfortunately, this frame of focus is narrow and assumes that the individual will not adapt, or things will not change.

Visualizing questions can help an individual to bring acceptance of the situation. A typical question for this maybe what do individuals want for their career to look like after the setback? Are there other opportunities that are now open as a result?

Key takeaways

  • The best way to face and deal with adversity is to exercise a resilience regimen.
  • Resilience regimen centers on shifting thinking from cause-oriented to response oriented.
  • Leaders can help their team members deal with adversity by asking questions to help the individual reflect on control, impact, breadth, and duration.

Related Readings

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:

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