Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming?


In December 2015, literary critic and New York Times editor Parul Sehgal questioned the growing chorus of calls for greater resilience and grit on the part of younger folks. In a piece for the Times Sunday magazine, she wrote:

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting.

. . . But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.

Sehgal examines these calls for resilience in the context of younger folks on college campuses, especially when used to counter students’ concerns about racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion. Many critics of these advocacy efforts are suggesting that today’s students are too soft and take offense too easily. Sehgal, however, suggests that “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”

This debate is likely to become more intense. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her popular book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), identifies resilience and other qualities she associates with grit as being keys to success. In an interview in the Times’ Education Life supplement, she summons her research to argue that grit is the most significant factor in determining someone’s likelihood of success:

My lab has found that [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.

Duckworth says that once someone identifies an interest or passion, they should then pursue it with determination:

So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.

Relationship to workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility

I’m especially interested in this topic because it is very pertinent to how we treat workers. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying and mobbing is that many of the targets are softies or weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse work abuse with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect, which may further paint targets of bullying or mobbing as lacking in requisite resilience to deal with everyday work hassles.

My sense of this?

First, genuine workplace bullying and mobbing are forms of interpersonal abuse, not bad manners or even heated arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that work abuse is not about a bad day at the office, “rough around the edges” co-workers, or generally lousy management.

Second, treating others abusively is wrong, and that includes workplace settings. It doesn’t matter if the intended target of that abuse is perceived as being “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.

Third, abusers aren’t “off the hook” because they happen to bully or mob folks who are more vulnerable. In fact, if they abuse someone because they detect a targeted individual’s vulnerability, that speaks disturbing volumes about their ethics, morality, and psychological make up.

Fourth, most of us stand to benefit by being resilient. For all but the rarely blessed, life will deliver its share of setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes hard body blows. The better we can process and deal with these ups and downs, the better our overall lives will be.

Finally, having a greater reserve of resilience and grit can help us to cope with the really bad stuff at work, including bullying, mobbing, and harassment. This reserve is not bottomless, however, as many resilient and gritty individuals have experienced. Just about everyone has a breaking point, and there are countless instances of work abuse that have taken people past it.

Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s accord everyone basic dignity, while taking more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.


This post was revised in September 2019 and January 2022.

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10 responses

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for strategizing this philosophy to workplace bullying. In my experience of an unhealthy work environment, was the mobbing and bullying as a form of harassment in order to make the victim leave or resign. Self-dignity is also an important factor in resilience. If it were not for your organization the knowledge to breakdown this type of environment. It could not have been explained or articulated. In order to rationalize such a hostile group of women, the breaking point was the character assassination and a reasoning within myself that you cannot argue with crazy or reality. Thank you again for important information to stay healthy while moving forward.

  2. Here are some shocking statistics on new nurse attrition. 1st year 30%, second year up to 57%. What other industries could survive this rate? Note no discussion of workplace bullying other than a mention of dissatisfying relationships with peers, managers, etc. As in your article, emphasis is placed on solving the problem with behavior based screening, while strong training programs for the hired seem to help the new nurse get through the 1st year with a decreased attrition rate of 12%. Success beyond the 1st year is not cited.

  3. David,
    Your resilience post enabled me to go back and read the New York Times article, The Profound Emptiness of resilience. I was struck by the mantra of the student protestors. So many times throughout history the opressed have only been able to say, we are here, we are human beings, we won’t go away and we love ourselves and even more amazingly they express love and forgiveness to the oppressors.
    With the four domains of resilience being the mind, body, spirit and social, I believe where bullying is concerned individual resilience is healed, nurtured and preserved through the collective work of survivors and those who join with them in solidarity. That is why your work is so critical.
    The work of Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement in this country and The dismantling of Apartide in South Africa are all testaments to individual and collective resilience. South Africa took it a step further through their, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can only imagine being able to have bullies acknowledge publically their misdeeds and being given to prescription for being reconciled to their community.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.


  4. If the workplace and it’s ‘assessment’ of those within it was objective then I do see an important place for resiliency. However, when subjectivity and bias and even discrimination enter into the mix I feel workers are being asked to support their own abuse. A confident person would walk away and seek a more healthy or suitable environment. So does the resilient worker sit in the mess hoping for what?
    Does this also mean that resilience is now more coveted than, confidence, self preservation, emotional and physical? If the car needs a tune up or a major overhaul does resilience teach that the answer is to turn up the volume on the radio? In the end a business person with any foresight can see this doesn’t benefit anyone. Unless they have insured the loss and it’s part of the long term plan…..

  5. Personally, I can’t support the idea of wasting any resilience in a situation where one is being bullied. Save it for the inevitable ups and downs that life brings! Bullying is preventable, though the target can’t prevent it. It’s like sleeping on a bed of nails- why would a sensible person do it if there were a regular mattress or a cold floor available? Targets don’t make the bed, and shouldn’t have to lie in it.

    • I often alternate male and female pronouns but didn’t this time.

      That said, scientific survey data by the Workplace Bullying Institute consistently indicates that males are the most frequent perpetrators by a significant margin. For example, WBI’s 2014 national survey conducted in conjunction with Zogby pollsters reported that 69 percent of aggressors were male.

  6. I am inspired to read such thoughtful and thought-provoking replies- not to mention the reflection as well, as always, David. First, Ducksworth’s findings support the claim that we are living in a bully culture. “Grit” (as opposed to passion) implies tools to get ahead at any cost. Actions such as mobbing, gaslighting, shaming, sham investigations, are all found in the bully’s toolbox. Second, bullying is emotional violence. Violence is illegal.

  7. Grit is having the balls to intercede when bullying occurs. If people should have more “grit,” maybe it’s time for management to grow a couple.

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