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Can't we just recruit resilient people?
October 7, 2014
I have done a lot of work in recent years on psychological resilience in a business and organisational context. I have also worked in the assessment for selection area on and off over the years. One question I have heard frequently that connects these two areas is “can’t we just recruit resilient people?” I can be very clear and definitive with my answer – maybe, but we need to be careful!
There are clearly characteristics and experiences that influence a person’s general resilience. I’m defining resilience as the capacity to maintain positive work performance and wellbeing facing adversity, and the ability to recover well from set-backs. There are some personality characteristics such as neuroticism, or trait anxiety, that seem clearly linked with resilience (Furnham et al. 2008). In fact high neuroticism is quite likely to have a negative impact on a candidate’s chances in a selection process, particularly if a numerical reasoning test is part of the process (Dobson, 2000)! High neuroticism also seems to be related to negative behaviours at work such as deliberately withholding effort or harassing co-workers, although other personality traits, such as high conscientiousness, can reduce this risk (Bowling et al., 2011).
There is nothing new in this, just read the description below of a typical highly neurotic person from nearly forty years ago by one of the pioneering personality psychologists, Hans Eysenck (the default use of the male gender is probably largely symptomatic of the quote’s age, although Eysenck was not without his biases!)
“An anxious, worrying individual, moody and frequently depressed. He is likely to sleep badly, and to suffer from various psychosomatic disorders. He is overly emotional, reacting too strongly to all sorts of stimuli, and finds it difficult to get back on an even keel after each emotionally arousing experience. His strong emotional reactions interfere with his proper adjustment, making him react in irrational, sometimes rigid ways. If the highly neurotic individual has to be described in one word, one might say he was a worrier; his main characteristic is a constant preoccupation with things that might go wrong, and a strong emotional reaction of anxiety to these thoughts.” (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1975).
Life experience can clearly have an impact on resilience. Facing major adversity there is some evidence that factors such as age, income level and religious belief can affect resilience (Min et al., 2012). Disruptive life events where we are thrown off-course but learn to adapt can build resilience (Henning, 2011).
So taking account of research findings like those above can we just devise a general equation for resilience (e.g. low neuroticism + evidence of adapting well to disruptive life experience + religious belief!), and use it recruit for all roles and levels? It probably won’t surprise you to know that I wouldn’t advocate that! First of all it is likely that such an approach would introduce direct or indirect discrimination into a selection process (e.g. women tend to score higher than men on most aspects of neuroticism, Weisberg, 2011). However, the strongest rationale for not crudely adopting this strategy is that the variation in roles and organisations is likely to demand different kinds of resilience.
Consider the psychological demands of a call centre job that requires you to make a certain number of sales calls within a set time period and hit a sales target, compared to a nurse working in a busy A&E department. I think most people would agree that both of these jobs require resilience. The call centre worker needs the resilience to withstand rejection, work at a consistently high pace and focus on results. Any similarities in this for the A&E nurse role? Some, but I’d put more emphasis on being able to deal with emotionally charged situations and making decisions under pressure. There are probably some general resilience qualities that cut across both of these roles but they also have their own pressure footprint which needs to be considered.
Is there a middle ground here? There almost certainly is and we can learn from other aspects of best practice in selection to find it. For a long time we have talked about the idea of ‘G’ (General Intelligence) and how it has a strong predictive power on job success across roles and organisations. Perhaps there is a Resilience G (GRes!), but I’m not sure we have it tied down in the same way as we do general intelligence. Even if we could establish and accurately measure GRes, it is very unlikely to be the perfect predictor of success in high pressure roles (just as G isn’t the perfect predictor of job success). We would still need to capture the specific pressure profile for the target role.
The use of broader resilience assessment should also be applied when considering organisational fit. It is usually the right focus to concentrate mainly on recruiting for the demands of the target role. But in many cases you will also be interested in recruiting for longer term potential and changing roles in the organisation. Does working for the NHS demand a different form of resilience than working for a large bank or a global pharmaceutical company? There will be some differences but also many similarities at this level. This is where focusing on broad resilience dimensions like Adaptability and Purposefulness (see the Robertson Cooper i-resilience approach) should prove useful.
You can recruit more resilient people but only by balancing general predictors of resilience with the specific demands of the target role. None of us is indestructible and it’s important that we don’t think that if we recruit for resilience that we no longer need to worry about any of the pressures the person will then be exposed to. People and situations change and supporting employee wellbeing and developing resilience to meet the challenges that ensue should be a regularly people management and leadership priority.
Bowling, N.A., Burns, G.N., Stewart, S.M. and Gruys, M.L. (2011). Conscientiousness and Agreeableness as Moderators of the Relationship between Neuroticism and Counterproductive Work Behaviours: A constructive replication. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 19(3), 229-330.
Dobson, P. (2000). An Investigation into the Relationship between Neuroticism, Extraversion and Cognitive Test Performance in Selection. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 8(3), 93-182.
Eysenck, H.J. and Eysenck, S.B.G. (1975). Manual of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. London, Hodder and Stoughton.
Furnham, A., Jensen, T. and Crump, J. (2008). Personality, Intelligence and Assessment Centre Expert Ratings. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 16(4), 356-365.
Henning, P.B. (2011). Disequilibrium, Development and Resilience through Adult Life. Systems Research & Behavioural Science, 28(5) 443-458.
Min, L, Jiuping, X and Zhibin,W. (2012) The Analysis of the Resilience of Adults one year after the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. Journal of Community Psychology, 40(7), 769-890.