Resilience from a Psychological Perspective

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Resilience developed to one of the dominating concepts in supply chain risk management and this review takes a different look on corporate resilience by viewing it from a psychological perspective.

Why do some people and some companies buckle under pressure? And what makes others bend and ultimately bounce back?

Today I review “How Resilience works” by Diane Coutu, a summary of which can be found here.

Resilient people

There is also some research on the topic of the resilience of the individual. HR departments of high-profile consulting firms for example take resilience as a virtue in a potential candidate really seriously. But also from a non-corporate view, one can ask the question, why do some people cope better with hardship than others?

One branch of research did investigations together with survivors of the concentration camps after the second World War. One finding there is that these people had something like a “plastic shield” build by components like humor, social attachment to others and a inner psychological space for protections.

Together with other studies Coutu summarizes that the following three characteristics play a major role in the individual resilience:

  • “a staunch acceptance of reality;
  • a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and
  • an uncanny ability to improvise.”

The author then expresses her hypothesis that: These characteristics are also necessary for truly resilient organizations.

Resilient organizations

The first step to a resilient organization is to face reality. This may be especially hard when times are bad, since then “most people slip into denial as a coping mechanism”. As an example Coutu used the case of Morgan Stanley which realized after the 1993 attics on the World Trade Center that offices in iconic buildings face additional risks by terrorist assault. So already prior to the September 11 attacks MS took their emergency drills very seriously and also had not one but three emergency backup sites to continue business afterwards.

The second step is to search for the meaning in grim situations. The author includes here the defined value system of a company. Of course not everybody (at least outside of the company) has to agree to these values so she also adds:

In this context, it is worth noting that resilience is neither ethically good nor bad. It is merely the skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.

The last step is about ingenuity. It refers to the ability of an organization to search and find ways to profit also in times of pressure. And one major factor in finding new solutions to new problems can be to improvise:

Indeed, companies that survive regard improvisation as a core skill. Consider UPS, which empowers its drivers to do whatever it takes to deliver packages on time.

But this also works into the other direction not only creativity can help through disruptions but also a sense of precision of routine which can be employed during stressful times.

The rules and regulations that make some companies appear less creative may actually make them more resilient in times of real turbulence.


I thinks Coutu presents a nice article which connects the concepts of corporate and personal resilience. Since this is not a article published in a scientific journal I overlook the fact that there is very little discussion and sometimes also foundation to the supporting examples. For example the article started by stating that companies are keen to employ resilient individuals, but there is another quote where she talks about the disadvantage of a resilient person who might rather sacrifice the company than him- or herself in times of trouble.


Coutu, D.L. (2002). How Resilience works Harvard Business Review, 46-55

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