Warning signs about resilience and resilience-based HR practices


    1. "Resilience" is now "Uber Competency," HR systems (esp. hiring) are being redesigned for (around) it.
    2. In the context of a life-threatening global pandemic, compromised resilience isn't the exception, it's normal -- but norms don't move.
    3. Psychological "issues" (resilience being one), are notoriously prone to bias; extraordinary times belie ordinary norms. Both qualitative (interview) and psychometric (personality inventory) assessment practices are now likely to generate false positives (incorrect classification as "compromised resilience").
    4. As a socially stigmatized condition, low resilience is likely to be misinterpreted as a trait-based deficiency vs a more contextually dependent, state-based reaction. (see 2)
    5. This pandemic has disproportionately affected specific groups (i.e., people of color, aged), warning signs about resilience and HR practices are emerging.
    6. These groups are protected by law from discriminatory practices or impact.
    7. The stage is set for potential resilience-based adverse impact.


If your next book’s title doesn’t include this word, I recommend adding it. (Try, "The Resilience of Cooking"). If your hiring practices don’t include resilience, you're exceptional (and not in a good way). Resilience is THE thing of HR today.

Although I start with "tongue in cheek" language, I'm not at all flippant on this topic. Resilience is serious and I mean no disrespect. It's merely a matter of style. So, let me be clear:

This is NOT a repudiation of resilience.

Resilience is real. Great thinking has brought attention, understanding and sage counsel to the concept. I wholly support the construct for it's value to progressing organization theory and practice. Not by any fault of its origin or development, but for a number of reasons, I see warning signs about resilience risk and urge caution with use of resilience-based HR practices.

Specifically in the case of resilience, the risks of misunderstanding and misuse are greater than for previous super constructs ("Emotional Intelligence" comes to mind). The mere term, resilience, seems so relevant today that many have been, and others will be, drawn to its "solutions" like choosing a book by its cover. A book that has your name on it. Who doesn't want a resilient organization?

But these are the framing conditions that can rapidly lead to over dependence and over confidence with an apparently simple term that is more nuanced and potentially hazardous than it appears.

Ultimately, I urge you to consider what I see as early warning signs about resilience and its application in HR systems. You may disagree, and I may be wrong. But both the stakes and risks are high. And I'm comfortable to risk my reputation to raise awareness and stimulate deeper thought on this topic.

The perfect storm.

No doubt, resilience is alluring -- it's virtually the only thing floating in the mother of all storms. And people are climbing on board.

But mines also float. And there's a real problem I foresee in the specific case and use of resiliency-based practices in the World-of-Work (WoW).

{If you read nothing else, skip to the bottom of this article for what I see as warning signs about resilience and its use in HR programs.}

What jobs?

As change roils the WoW, attention has turned away from jobs and toward the worker. The inferred, and plausible, logic is that if we can’t define jobs (via job analyses and descriptions) in terms that remain valid for more than a day, then we should turn our focus to workers. Specifically, this shift implies resilient workers who can handle constant change (or anything?).

Resilience has become the “gotta have it” quality in workers who can (must) absorb the ambiguity created by abandoned job descriptions. This is lame. And it reeks of long outdated and greatly oversimplified "great man" theories of leadership. Essentially, this is the equivalent of relying on the draft to solve all of a team's problems.

Heck, when all else fails, draft an all-around quarterback. {Go Jaguars.}

{I argue strongly that jobs aren't done. Just because they grow and change rapidly that doesn't mean we should stop buying clothes. (Though, a bit of spandex and more frequent updates seam (sic) warranted). We need to reform, not abandon, our notion of jobs, their demands and their interrelationships in a broader, more integrated WoW network.}

Deep Impact.

Financial markets, governments, my favorite doughnut shop, have been shaken to their core in these uncertain times.

And families. Lots of families.

The common denominator of all that is, or was, psychologically ravaged by this pandemic is people. People don’t function well in times of extreme threat. Like the threat of losing a loved one and not even being there for them at their last.

Can times be any more unnerving than they are now?

Although definitions of resilience differ, resilience has become THE word. With its significant connotations, people inject elements of their own thinking into this construct. This results in an individual-specific, and -driven drift away from the evidence-backed, scientific definition. Naturally, this is problematic as the correlation between length of drift and confidence tends to rise. Anytime confidence exceeds competence, mistakes are likely. Think skiing.

In case I haven’t set the stage…

Today’s global scene has put extraordinary pressure on us all. We’re living in the midst of a freaking global pandemic. I’m actually concerned more about people who report no concerns than those who admit, even exhibit, the signs of stress in these times. In some times, stress and "compromised resilience" are the normal behavior. This is one of them.

The role of psychometrics.

Good psychometric instruments are based on theory and norms. It's the comparison of individual scores to a much larger population, or "norm group," that gives scores relative meaning. This makes them comparable to others similarly assessed against the same norm group. Theories of personality justify the use of relatively stable norms and well designed instruments can't, and generally shouldn't, be changed overnight. This typically isn't an issue, people's behavioral styles don't change with every change of scene.

These times are different. The pandemic has been unrelenting and harsh with dire impact for an extended time. Things aren't normal. This is a challenge for typical norm-based psychometric instruments.

In long-lasting, deeply affecting environments, an assessment normed against populations in more enduring, typical times will overestimate the prevalence of "problems" on the more mood-based attitudes, like resilience. A well trained psychologist can offset environmentally influenced scores by including more data regarding the individual's, or perhaps more comprehensive, scene. (This isn't frequently justified and must be done with caution).

The difference between a trait and a state.

Traits are relatively enduring patterns of behavior over time and across different situations. By contrast, states are transient behaviors brought about by significant changes in one’s environment (either in degree or duration). People recover from state-related behavior to their more enduring self when the environment changes. This is not the case with traits.

Psychology tells us that when it comes to evaluating others, (specifically in the case of unstructured interviews conducted by under trained interviewers) state-based behavior is significantly over identified as an enduring trait – a classic false positive. This is even more pronounced and is the case with "psychological" variables, again, like resilience. The social stigma associated with psychological issues is a direct reflection of this fact.

By obsessing on the narrow definition of resilience in terms of being “mentally fragile,” judgment is compromised. We know that people are much more inclined to avoid loss (problems) than to pursue gains (positives) even if the gains are more likely (see the work of Kahneman and Tversky). To many, resilience, or rather, lack thereof, is threatening -- almost  as if it were lethal and contagious. To dismiss 10 for the certainty of eliminating only one with truly debilitating stress is good odds. {That's nine (9) cast aside who could thrive in the job for the one that probably couldn't.}

Life isn't fair.

And neither is this pandemic. Despite the fact that the pandemic has impacted everyone with their head above sand in the last year, its toll has disproportionately affected people of color and the aged – not to mention those of less socioeconomic status and resource. This is well known to scientists, has been widely published in credible news sources, and directly experienced by these people who've seen more than their share of tragic death. But it's less salient to those not in these groups.

What if people more susceptible to a deadly virus legitimately do experience more stress?

My word of caution:

“Resilience,” and the way it’s handled by organizations, has many of the signs that can lead to unlawful discrimination.

Regardless of the fact that the connection between decision (i.e., hiring) and protected class (race, age) is masked by resilience, disparate impact is the litmus test of discrimination. It’s very hard to defend.

And so in sum, here we have,

    1. An ill-defined construct, “resilience,”
    2. Carrying the stigma of “psychological weakness,”
    3. Prioritized in likely biased, faulty hiring practices (or promotion),
    4. In the context of a life-threatening pandemic,
    5. That disproportionately affects the protected groups of race and age.

It doesn’t take a calculator.

Thank you for your time to sort through this to see if my warning signs about resilience and resilience-based HR practices offer any insight.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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