Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

Here is the Executive Summary of the Report I introduced yesterday: Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations (plus some photos from Cambodia, just because). The research report is available for purchase from the People In Aid website.


Background, and purpose of the research

In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the level of stress, trauma, or violence experienced by humanitarian workers, but relatively little focus on the other side of the coin – qualities that promote resilience and thriving in these challenging environments. People In Aid, through this report, undertakes an initial exploration of the personal skills and strengths, and organizational structures and practices, which can promote resilience in managers working for international humanitarian organizations.


What we did

During October and November 2010, interviews were carried out with fifteen individuals humanitarian workers, staff support specialists, and psychologists who well placed to comment on these issues in relation to middle managers with humanitarian organizations. These discussions, author experience, and published research, informed the content of this thought/research paper and allowed us to:

  • Suggest a useful working definition of resilience;
  • Identify some key indicators of resilience for managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Identify some key points of influence – organizational structures and practices that can strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Offer some practical suggestions for ways that humanitarian organizations can help increase the resilience of their middle managers.

Summary of the discussion topics

There is no universally accepted definition of resilience. The definition we propose here is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.

Key personal skills and strengths of resilient humanitarian workers include:

1. Adaptability. Adaptability is the result of a number of skills and abilities working in tandem to help us deal well with challenge, change, and setbacks. Two related themes particularly pertinent to humanitarian workers are pragmatic idealism and the ability to cope with ambiguity.

2. Problem solving ability. Humanitarian workers who are naturally challenge-oriented, employ problem-focused coping, are able to accept imperfect solutions and partial victories, and independently learn as they go, fare better. 

3. Sense of meaning and purpose. A sense that what they are doing is meaningful and purposeful is very important to most international humanitarian workers – and those with strong values and a clear belief system rooted outside themselves fare better. However, the ability to be flexible in adapting these beliefs over time is also very important. 

4. Good relationships/social support. There is no single factor that will make you resilient, but good relationships may be about as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Supportive relationships that extend well beyond mere acquaintance are vital, yet can be challenging for international humanitarian workers to maintain over time. 

5. Optimism and the regular experience of positive emotions. Having a generally positive outlook (realistic optimism) and a sense of humour/fun are common attributes of resilient humanitarian workers.

6. Emotional regulation. The ability to regulate and manage intense and negative emotions when appropriate is an important part of resilience. Humanitarian workers who are able to strategically use strategies related to attention control, cognitive reappraisal, and emotional expression, are more resilient. 

7. Self-awareness. Resilient humanitarian workers know themselves well – their strengths and relative weaknesses, their limits, and their needs. This self-awareness underlies their awareness of their limits.

8. Balance, and the ability to pace oneself and disconnect. Many resilient humanitarian workers appear to live by the matra, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” They find ways to pace themselves and disconnect from their work both in the short-term and the long term.

9. Physical health. The basic building blocks of physical health – eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising – are often neglected by humanitarian workers, but without some basic level of physical health to draw upon, resilient actions and reactions become less likely.

Some of the most challenging demands that managers in humanitarian organizations face were identified as:

  • Managing others: Frequently mentioned issues included a lack of management experience to do the job required and having a lot of responsibility without the commensurate authority.
  • Being managed by others: The stress caused by constant organizational change topped this list, followed by mismatches between headquarter-office expectations and field capabilities and having a poor direct manager.
  • Workload: Too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
  • The structure of their role: Many humanitarian workers seem to relish the variety inherent in their jobs but also find it stressful to have to be wear many different hats and be adept in so many different ways.
  • Personal coping and self-care: Environmental hardships are not unexpected although still stressful, and the “place” and “pace” of the work makes it challenging to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

Some key points of influence in organizational structures and practices that can help strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations can be found in the following areas:

  1. Management practices: Frequently mentioned during interviews was the need for this topic to be a strategic priority for upper management, part of the organizational conversation in the context of a culture of affirmation, and basic good-management practices such as regular professional supervision meetings. 
  2. Role structure: More commonly than not, in this field, the scope of the role and the position expectations are such that the job is literally impossible for one person to accomplish. Realistic and clearly defined expectations, and more assistance identifying strategic priorities when needed, could go a long way to increasing the resilience of humanitarian managers. 
  3. Training and skill building: Most humanitarian workers are hungry for training and skill building opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and career planning. Of particular importance is the need to assist people who are promoted to management positions with little or no background in management learn how to better manage others.
  4. Support services: Making psychological support services available – particularly by providers outside the organization or completely removed from a person’s line manager – was repeatedly identified as helpful.   
  5. Policies and benefits: Adequate vacation and R&R leave, and the provision of amenities in situations of shared accommodation, were identified as particularly crucial to helping humanitarian workers maintain resilience.
  6. The recruitment and handover periods: It is hard to over-estimate the importance of good recruitment and information transfer to an organization. An organization that manages to consistently identify and hire people who are already naturally resilient are going to be way ahead of the curve. In addition, good information transfer during an adequate handover period provides new staff with a critical running start in their position.

Critical questions for further discussion

A PhD (or several) could be written about each of the major topics addressed in this report. As such, the paper raises many questions that could benefit from further research and thought. The following a few of the key questions that we hope will catalyze further discussion and exploration:

  1. Is there a difference between the qualities that help make humanitarian workers resilient in the short term versus the long term?
  2. Do humanitarian workers who are highly resilient actually perform better in their role or are they mostly, rather, less stressed and/or damaged by the demands of their work?
  3. To what extent can organizational structures and practices really help build individual resilience? To what extent is it the organization’s responsibility to attempt to do so?

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6 responses to “Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

  1. This is interesting! Thanks for sharing. One question: what does pragmatic idealism look like to you?

    • Great question, Heidi, and not one that’s easy to answer. Humanitarian workers who want to last longer than a year or two cannot afford to completely martyr themselves in the service of idealism. They must find some way to adjust their expectations and ideals and, in the process, learn to cope with the ambiguities inherent in most humanitarian contexts. I guess, for me, it means trying to find that balance where I still am idealistic (I still believe in a higher purpose, I still feel passionate about whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish) but I can also take a relatively clear-eyed view of those goals and know, in advance, that things are likely to move more slowly than I want, I’m going to run into roadblocks, I’m unlikely to single handedly change the world in a massive way, and some of my efforts are going to fail. That balance isn’t always easy to find without falling off one side of another.

      • Thanks – that answer makes sense, and I can see how it would be a difficult balance to find. And perhaps something that changes between individuals.

        (I realized after I asked that question it wasn’t exactly a simple question, and there could probably be books written on the subject. So thanks! 🙂 )

  2. Pingback: Resilience Research Report – The Introduction | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

  3. Hi Lisa, Congratulations on finishing what looks like a very interesting piece of work. I’ve shared this summary with several managers in the hope they will read further. I like that you started with the personal skills and some strength based thinking. Pleased to see relative optimism, sense of humor and fun made it on the list… balancing out the other important things there. Gai xx

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