Book Review: How Resilience Works


Book Review: How Resilience Works

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Why do some people and companies buckle under pressure? And what makes others bend and ultimately bounce back? Resilience is one of the greatest puzzles of human nature. It’s a quality companies are looking for when hiring new people, because resilience will determine who will succeed and who will fail. What is this quality of resilience that carries people through life? When facing difficulties in business or private life, some people seem to cope easier than others. Is it genetic or can it be learned?  Find out more here.

How Resilience Works

In How Resilience Works, the author Diane L. Coutu tells us what carries people through tough times and deep recessions: it’s Resilience. The author explains the three building blocks of resilience with several clarifying examples. One of these examples is the empirical study on the survival of Holocaust victims in concentration camps. Researchers found out that these people had a “plastic shield”.

This was comprised of several factors: first a (black) sense of humor, providing a critical sense of reality. Second the ability to form attachment to others, which gives meaning to life. And third the ability to improvise, protecting them from intrusions of abusive others. These three characteristics hold true for resilient people in whatever situation they are in; but also for organizations. Their level of resilience will determine whether they will succeed or fail. They can only be truly resilient when they take on all three building blocks.

Facing Down Reality

The first building block of resilience is ‘Facing down reality’. People often believe resilience stems from an optimistic nature. That‘s only the case as long as optimism doesn’t distort your sense of reality. When something happens, people tend to slip into denial, but resilient people have very sober and down-to-earth views of those parts of reality that matter for survival. They seek the best out of unfortunate situations and benefit from the positive view with a hard-nosed realism. The author believes that when staring down at reality, we train and prepare ourselves to act in ways that will allow us to endure and survive.

The Search for Meaning

The second building block of resilience is ‘The search for meaning’. The author points out that we all know people who cry “How can this be happening to me?” when something happens to them. They see themselves as victims and have difficulties coping with problems they encounter. Resilient people however, devise constructs about their suffering to create some sort of meaning for themselves and others. They see opportunities (“Why not me?”) instead of problems, and build bridges towards a better constructed future. They create concrete goals for themselves with which they succeed in rising above the suffering of the moment. The good news is: resilience can be trained. We can learn how to construct meaning in everyday life. This is also applicable to organizations. Successful organizations have strong values that offer ways to interpret and shape events. They have a Credo that changes very little and which frames the most important decisions. This is neither good, nor bad, but it offers the framework to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.

Ritualized Ingenuity

Eventually, the third building block of resilience is the ability to improvise a solution to a problem; as the author explains it ‘without proper or obvious tools or materials’. She calls these people ‘bricoleurs’. Their characteristic is that they get through difficult situations, imagining possibilities where others are confounded. This is also true for organizations. Resilient organizations survive thanks to the improvisation and creativity of their people.


The author concludes that although resilience is an important characteristic, she noticed that resilient people often don’t describe themselves like that. That’s because resilience ‘is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world, which is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul.’ It’s becoming more and more important in these changing days, so learn how to be resilient by facing down reality, creating meaning for yourself and others, and being inventive and imagining possibilities others don’t see.

Info on Author:

Diane L. Coutu started her career as Communications Specialist. After that she became Senior Auditor for the Harvard Business Review in which she wrote different articles specializing in psychology and business.

Her work has been used as a reference for several other articles. She is now director of Client Communications.