Is Resilience Overrated?

Not since the invention of the Three-Letter Acronym has the business world been as excited about something as it is right now about resilience. With good reason, we often think of unflappable employees, leaders, and teams as the antidote to wobbly markets, unstable regulatory environments, and global chaos.

But what if resilience isn’t all its cracked up to be?

recent study published in Child Development found that some people are genetically predisposed to bounce back from everything from unstable home environments to outright child abuse. A valuable trait, no doubt.  So what could be wrong with that?

The researchers also found that the same Steady Eddies who were immune to adversity also failed to benefit from potentially positive changes. It seems that no matter what happened to these resilient kids—good, bad, or ugly—they remained unchanged.  The problem is that sometimes bouncing back to our original form is not the optimal response to change.

In this strange way, resilience can be the enemy of personal growth and organizational transformation. 

In practice, there are two kinds of resilience: Chameleon resilience and caterpillar resilience.  Chameleon resilience fits the dictionary definition for resilience: The power of a body to return to its original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stressed. It’s about making just enough skin-deep changes to blend in or slide by until some temporary threat has passed.

Caterpillar Resilience is the other kind. As you probably guessed by the name, this form of adjusting to change is about letting yourself get swallowed by a cocoon before popping out a while later as something new and different.  Caterpillar Resilience is not necessarily better than Chameleon Resilience. It’s just a different strategy for a different time.

Sometimes the chaotic reorg, the financial dip, or the new city are just temporary threats which call for a chameleon response.  But I think there are other times when the change happening around us is an invitation to change something inside us. These changes invite us to do more than put new curtains on the window. They ask us take a sledgehammer to the wall between the kitchen and the family room, pull up the flooring, yank out the toilet, and create an entirely new living space.

It’s hard to say for sure whether you or your team or your family is in a chameleon situation or a caterpillar situation right now. But if you find yourself bumping up against the same upsetting change and hiding from the same threat over and over again, it might be time to give the caterpillar a closer look.