Resilience and vitality

Menno van Dijk 1
September 2nd, 2016
Article by: Menno van Dijk, Laurie Kemp
Resilience and vitality

This article is part of the THNK VIEWS series. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners.  This article builds on Exploring HRM Meta-Features that Foster Employees’ Innovative Work Behaviour in Times of Increasing Work-Life Conflict by Adriana Abstein and Patrick Spieth, and proposes a method of resilience and vitality when approaching stress at the workplace.


Stress has become the modern life enemy number one, but is this a fair accusation? What if we were to blame our sense of perception instead? The study by Adriana Abstein and Patrick Spieth finds that stress is negatively associated with innovation, and that work-related stress affects innovative behavior. The study also shows that human resource management can significantly diminish work-related stress and foster employee engagement and innovative behavior by focusing on four specific orientations:


  • Cater to the individual by focusing on personal strengths, and valuing differences between employees.
  • Secure discretion by balancing employer involvement and providing employee autonomy.
  • Manage expectations by providing consistency on firm mission and values and through individual feedback sessions and coaching.
  • Reward effort, not outcome, by tolerating failure and diversity of opinion.
resilience and vitality
Cater to your employees by focusing on their personal strengths and valuing differences between employees. Click To Tweet

Positive psychologist Kelly McGonigal wants to right a wrong. As a positive psychologist, she has spent the last decade trying to reduce stress in the workplace, after learning of its harmful effects on heart disease, blood pressure, etc. Stress is proven to be detrimental to both health and happiness if we believe this to be the case. Yet as soon as we change our perception, these previously observed health risks associated to stress begin to vanish. Happiness expert Nic Marks offers an explanation: “the absence of stress is death,” thus confirming that human beings are stressful organisms. “We respond to challenge. This can be stressful, but it will pull us forward —stress and time pressure are part of the challenge.” In the cavemen era, stress triggered a survival instinct that made us run and think faster, and see and hear more clearly. Stress helps us respond and grow. Hence McGonigal’s quest to change our perception of stress by using it to boost our resilience. But is resilience truly what we should be aiming for?

Not at all, says professor of risk-engineering Nassim Taleb. Looking into what it takes to thrive in today’s uncertain, chaotic and volatile world, Taleb argues that people and organizations should take future challenge as a given and an opportunity for growth. “It is no longer enough to bounce back from adversity and volatility [i.e., being resilient] – you have to bounce back stronger and better.” Taleb observes that the true opposite of resilience is anti-fragility. We call it fitness or vitality: using stress as a motivator to strengthen, improve your performance, and come to creative and innovative solutions […] Resilient systems, people, and societies are good at maintaining their current operations and returning to previous conditions if distressed.” How can we make it work? Taleb considers the myth of the phoenix, rising from its ashes unaffected and unaltered by what it endured. In contrast, the fit, anti-fragile individuals and organizations are similar to the ancient and multi-headed water monster Hydra: with every head that you cut off, it grows larger and stronger in size.

resilience and vitality
Human beings are stressful organisms. We respond to challenge. This can be stressful, but it will pull us forward — stress and time pressure are part of the challenge. Click To Tweet

The question then becomes whether to bounce back from challenge unchanged, so be resilient, or to use challenge and stress to thrive.

Building a vital enterprise is not about predicting the stresses your employees or firm might encounter, and building up defenses against these. Vitality is about anticipating that challenge and stress will occur and ensuring that when these happen it will make the leaders and their organization stronger.

This is not to say that stress is always a good thing, as too much of it is will cause people and organizations to collapse. Still, the role for human resource management is not just to find ways to deal with stress, but to help everyone involved grow stronger and thrive. The mentioned study provides us with a pathway through which work-related stress is managed, focusing on creating resilience. But when building vitality, the role of HRM becomes the following:

What does this imply for the way we currently approach stress in the workplace? How might employers and human resource departments secure proper stress management, and maintain employee and business health and vitality?

To discover how to maintain employee and business health and vitality, join the THNK Creative Leadership Program, a 6-month part-time learning journey to help you realize your fullest creative leadership potential and scale your world-changing enterprise.