Assessing resilience

At the dinner before the Forward Partners board meeting in February we were talking about the characteristics we look for in entrepreneurs. I was going through my usual list – drive, discipline, charisma, intelligence, resilience etc. etc when one of our investors interrupted to ask how we assess resilience.

He caught me out. We form our view on whether to back entrepreneurs by spending time with them, discussing their business idea, what they’ve done in the past and with a workshop to see how we work together. In that process we consciously test and probe and have a pretty good track record of backing people who have gone on to be successful, but we don’t do anything to directly test resilience. We like backing entrepreneurs who have a failure in their past and have a point to prove, and the fact that they’ve picked themselves up to go again shows resilience, but that’s all.

I’ve been thinking about it since though, and happened on an article today about learning resilience which looks at research in this area and points to simple tools for assessing and improving resilience in people. This is important to people making investment decisions, but it’s also important for anyone hiring people to work at startups. Startup life is like a rollercoaster and it takes resilience to get to the end with a smile on your face.

The biggest determinant of resilience turns out to be how we react to traumatic events. People who construe them positively, perhaps seeing them as a challenge to be learned from, are much more resilient, whilst those of us who make negative construals, perhaps blaming fate or feeling out of control, tend not to bounce back so easily.

The test for resilience, therefore, is to ask about traumatic events people have suffered and look for positive construal. More resilient people will talk about what they learned and how they overcame the setback. Less resilient people will talk more about bad luck and be more inclined to re-live the pain.

Finally, the good news is that positive construal can be taught. Techniques include encouraging people to change their explanatory style (“bad events aren’t my fault”), to place the event in perspective (it’s just one small part of life), and to believe they can fix the situation.

With hindsight it’s not surprising that resilience correlates with positivity. But then hindsight is a wonderful thing 🙂