September 27, 2016

By Tim Bonansinga, J.D. SPHR

Do you deliberately hire people with hardy attitudes and resilient responses to change and stress? If not, you should. Building teams around such people is necessary for sustainable competitive advantage.

Research shows clearly that people on the best teams are not only resilient enough to survive constant change and stress but actually thrive under pressure and give themselves and you a winning edge. But what are those important factors you must identify and select for?

Research On Resiliency

One of the top U.S. experts on resiliency is Al Siebert, Phd., author of “The Resiliency Advantage” says:

Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in constant change. Most importantly, they expect to bounce back and feel confident they will. They have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck. People with resiliency skills have a significant advantage over those who feel helpless or react like victims. Employers with highly resilient employees on their teams have an advantage over their less resilient competitors. Resiliency is an essential skill in every job sector. (Siebert, 2005)

Perhaps the top academic researcher in the field of hardiness leading to resiliency is S.R. Maddi. His classic research followed Illinois Bell Telephone Company for twelve years following the terribly stressful and dramatic change caused by telephone industry deregulation.

I myself witnessed some of the results of deregulation and stress when I joined one of the competitor companies as General Counsel shortly after deregulation. I had a first-hand opportunity to view the survivors in United States telecommunications companies as well as in Eastern Europe after their version of deregulation. Additionally, I have studied Maddi’s research about how to become economically competitive in a post-regulation industry since the late 1980s.

In summary, Maddi reported nearly 50% of the employees at Illinois Bell Telephone were terminated in the downsizing required for economic survival conditions. The work roles of remaining employees were continually reorganized; confusion and chaos reigned. Telephone deregulation was one of the major business upheavals in history. Illinois Bell went from 26,000 employees in 1981 to 14,000 in 1982. The negative results of this stressful change were truly astounding. Following the deregulation, here is what Maddi’s analysis showed:

Two-thirds of the employees in the sample virtually fell apart, showing various breakdown symptoms.

Physically, there were heart attacks, strokes, kidney failures, cancers, and suicides.

Psychologically, there was depression, anxiety, excessive spending, divorces, and dependency on alcohol, drugs, and other addictive experiences. (Maddi, 2013).

It is almost unbelievable for two-thirds of the workforce to fall apart, yet, what was also amazing was that the other third of the sample of employees not only survived, but thrived. Here is what Maddi’s study showed about the thrivers:

If they stayed at IBT, they tended to rise to the top of the heap in the reorganization.

If they left IBT, they either used their experience to start their companies in the new competitive industry, or joined other startup companies and rose to the top of the heap there. (Maddi, 2013)

If anything, the thrivers showed more excitement, enthusiasm, motivation, and fulfillment than they had before the upheaval. They showed many signs that the upheaval and reorganization necessities led them to grow and develop. These findings clearly support the position that there are significant individual differences in the reaction of people to stressful circumstances. Whereas some people are undermined, others are enhanced in their performance and health. (Maddi, 2013)

Obviously, in my company, we were interested in identifying the thrivers to select and hire. There were a lot of opportunities to talk with both thrivers and victims among those who had left AT&T and Bell Companies to join us.

During deregulation, the roles were bureaucratic, technocratic and constrained. There was no need to compete for markets.Whenever the “system” people contronted a problem they were rquired to go to “the book”. It told them exactly what they must do. Deregulation destroyed the credibililty and reliability of the book. The thrivers I talked to were the ones who always looked forward to a daily challenge. Rather than stressed out they were turned on by the chance to problem solve looking for the hidden opportunity in change.

Today, The message remains clear as a bell (excuse the pun) that if a company wants to build a high performance competitive team in a constantly changing environment, we must identify the thrivers, those who have a history and pattern of behavior that mark them with attitudes of hardiness-resilience.

What Do We Do to Identify and Select the Thrivers?

As a practical matter, we must understand the essential functions of the jobs and document them based on our objective research.

We must build our sourcing and recruitment projects on the basis of documented essential functions. “Highly resilient person” is too abstract standing alone. Hardiness and resilience are descriptions of patterns of actions, feelings, and thoughts that can be observed and verified. (Snyder and Lopez, 2002)

Furthermore, hardiness and resilience are psychological terms but also attitude and personality factors. The fact is employee selection today is inundated with a spaghetti-like maze of regulation and legislation. So, an important question is what we must do to document that we have legally screened a prospect out of consideration? The first thing they will want to see is your “job analysis.”

Since resiliency and hardiness are personality/attitude attributes we must first document that the hardiness/resiliency attitude or personality is an essential function or requirement of the job. As the hiring process progresses, we do our critical due diligence with the essential functions in mind. We check real references. Multiple structured behavioral interview questions should be used based on the job analysis and candidates answers to specific question compared against the job analysis.

Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in constant change. Most importantly, they expect to bounce back and feel confident they will. They have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck.

For example, here is one of many possible questions related to patterns of past behavior in handling workplace adversity:

“Tell me about a time in (previous role) where you were faced with a highly stressful change. What exactly did you do?”

What Are The Three Powerful Hardiness-Resiliency Factors for Selection Programs?

Though the words, definitions and categories may vary, the research I’ve tracked over the years from the most respected researchers say hardiness attitudes which lead to resilience in action are:

  • Commitment
  • Control
  • Challenge

In other words, the kind of people we want on our teams show no matter how bad things get, challenge helps them realize that life is naturally stressful, commitment helps them stay involved with what is going on around them, and control helps them try to turn it to their advantage. Out task in planning for sourcing, selection and hiring is to interview, test, evaluate and hire on the basis of those documented factors.

The experience is described by S.R. Maddi, as an “existential courage” which helps you engage in the hardy strategies:

  • Problem-solving coping,
  • Socially-supportive interactions
  • Beneficial self-care.

Maddi reiterates that:

All three Cs of hardy attitudes need to be strong, to provide the “existential courage” and motivation to do the hard work of turning stress and disruptive change to advantage. That hard work involves hardy coping, hardy social interaction, and hardy self-care.

Coping that is hardy involves clear identification of stressful circumstances, analysis of what can be done to resolve them by turning them to growth advantage, and carrying out the steps that result from this identification and analysis.

The opposite of Hardy, problem-solving coping is denial and avoidance, by trying not to give attention to stressful circumstances, and distracting oneself. Hardy social interaction involves giving and getting social support from the significant others in one’s life. The opposite of Hardy social interaction is feeling victimized and acting on this to punish the supposed victimizers, and overprotect ones supposed allies. Hardy self-care involves protecting ones bodily functioning by engaging in relaxation procedures, eating in a balance and moderate way, and keeping a moderate level of physical activity. Hardiness has been put forward as the pathway to resilience under stress.

Resilience should be considered the phenomenon of maintaining your performance and health, despite the occurrence of stressful circumstances. Resilience should also be considered to involve not only this survival but thriving as well, in the sense that stressful circumstance can also enhance performance and health, through what you learn and then use. The combination of strong hardiness attitudes and strategies will result in the best possible work/living in our turbulent times (Maddi, 2013).

Also, according to the research of psychologist Susan Kobas, three elements appear to be essential for an effective stress-hardy mindset to exist, the following factors must coexist within the person:

Challenge. Stress-hardy people view stress as a challenge that they can potentially overcome if only they can understand it properly. Their habit of looking at stress as a challenge to be overcome motivates them to address the causes of their stress in positive ways. This active approach to stress may be contrasted with the more traditional approach, where stress is viewed as an unfortunate, overwhelming or even paralyzing force that overwhelms rather than motivates.

Personal Control. As a group, emotionally hardy people tend to accept challenges and to work to overcome and master them. Even when true mastery of a challenge is not possible (e.g., when a situation is not possible to control), hardy people work to find what possibilites do exist for mastery and pursue them. When faced with the loss of employment, a hardy person would seize upon opportunities for exploring new employment options rather than become depressed and demoralized. They make a goal directed job hunt their full time job.

Commitment. Part of the reason hardy people can stay in the game and persist in their coping efforts is that as a group they are committed to an active, engaged stance towards life. They feel that their life has a purpose (whatever shape that may be), and that purpose motivates them to attempt actively to influence their surroundings and to persevere even when their attempts to influence their surroundings don’t appear to be working out. A person who has no purpose in life – no motivation and no commitment – will not be able to lead a resilient life. On the other hand, resilient people find meaning in their activities even when faced with significant adversity precisely because they are committed to finding that meaning: towards taking an active problem-solving approach to life.


These various studies I’ve mentioned are the blueprint for the measurements and metrics we ourselves at “Inter-connect Employment Services” bring to bear in identifying those candidates for employment. We form our sourcing plans and evaluation devices around the “job analysis” and probe for those components and strategies for responding to challenges in each role and on high performance teams.

There are many problems with stress and change in our world of building high performance teams. The pace of change is unlikely to slow. Building teams of those with the competence and strength to go beyond survival but also to thrive under highly stressful, often adverse conditions. This challenge raises the question for us of truly understanding why some employees can thrive and continue to find satisfaction with their careers despite the current challenges and problems, while others are not able to bear or sustain under the pressure.

People with resiliency skills have a significant advantage over those who feel helpless or react like victims under what is becoming common in competition. It is clear to us that highly resilient employees have an advantage over their less resilient competitors. Today resiliency is an essential skill in every job sector. It is important to understand that when you are hit with life-disrupting events at work or home or both, you may never be the same again. You either cope or you crumble; you become better or bitter; you emerge stronger or weaker.(Siebert 2005)

No matter how bad things get, challenge helps you realize that life is naturally stressful, commitment helps you stay involved with what is going on around you, and control helps you try to turn it to your advantage. This is “existential courage” which Maddi says helps you engage in the hardy strategies of problem-solving coping, socially-supportive interactions, and beneficial self-care.

His 12 year-year longitudinal study at Illinois Bell Telephone showed that the higher were managers in personality hardiness; the better was their performance and health after the disruptive deregulation of the telephone industry they experienced. (Maddi, 2013)

Bottom line, there are individual differences in people’s reactions to stressful circumstances that should be used in all screening and selection programs. Hardiness emerges as a pattern of attitudes and strategies that together facilitate turning stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities. If all 3 Cs are present and strongly expressed, Maddi states that people will tend to do the following:

  • See life as a continually changing phenomenon that provokes them to learn and change (challenge),
  • Think that through this developmental process, they can work on the changes in a fashion that turns them into fulfilling experiences (control), and
  • Share this effort and learning in a supportive way with the significant others and institutions in their lives (commitment). (Maddi, 2013)

Resilience involves not only the aspect of survival but thriving as well. Resilience on teams can add immeasurable value to what is learned and then used. Thus, to build this strength in their teams and also add to the store of learned wisdom through adversity, I expect that the most successful employers add the combination of strong hardiness attitudes and strategies in their best possible selection programs.

Maddi, S.R. (2013). Hardiness: Turning Stressful Circumstances into Growth. New York, NY: Springer.

Siebert, Al (2005). The Resiliency Advantage. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler.

Snyder, C.R. , Lopez, Shane J. (2002). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


About Me: My name is Tim Bonansinga, J.D., SPHR. I’m a specialist in employment selection law and practices. I am co-owner of “Inter-connect Employment Services”, a recruitment and staffing provider located in the heart of the country with nation-wide reach and access to sophisticated hiring managers. Our company is composed of a core staff of life-long learners in the complex set of interactions necessary for building high reliability teams. We specialize in matching pivotal people to the right roles for mutual satisfaction. We adopted the multi-sided matchmaking process years ago. There is never a fee to candidates.

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