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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