The ability to bounce back from failure can be learned—and taught.

When it comes to failure, the world is comprised of two different types of people: those who bounce back after a brief period of malaise, and those who are paralyzed by the experience. The key to being in the first category is resilience—and resilience, according to psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, can be taught.

More than just a theory, Seligman’s program for teaching resilience is being tested in a place where the skill is needed perhaps more than anywhere else: the U.S. Army, where pressure is high and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common. Working with both drill sergeants and soldiers, Seligman is showing how individuals who tend to collapse in the face of failure can be taught to grow instead. Resilience—and resilience, according to psychologist Martin E.P.  Seligman, can be taught.

These skills can also be applied to the workplace. Drill sergeants, after all, are just managers, while soldiers are just employees. All, writes Seligman, should learn resilience. By becoming resilient yourself, then showing people how to turn difficult experiences into catalysts for improved performance, your organization will prosper.

Meet Michael and David

Michael and David are two hypothetical employees. Both are well educated: They obtained master’s degrees in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania. Both are successful: They found good jobs on Wall Street. Both faced a recent professional challenge: They were laid off. And both, naturally, felt despair.

That’s where the similarities end, because how Michael and David reacted to this setback differed dramatically. For Michael, the despair was fleeting: After two weeks of wallowing in self-pity, he reminded himself that the problem was the economy, not his skills, and started looking for a new job. It wasn’t easy, and he faced many rejections along the way, but eventually Michael succeeded. For David, on the other hand, the despair never lifted. He believed he was laid off for his lack of skill, and convinced himself he wasn’t cut out to work in finance. He didn’t look for a new job, and ended up living with his parents.

Michael and David, as we’ve noted, aren’t real people; however, they are composites based on interviews Seligman has conducted. As a result, they illustrate two very real ends of the continuum of human reaction to failure. The Michaels of the world bounce back from setbacks, eventually growing from them; the Davids of the world spiral from sadness into depression, ultimately developing a paralyzing fear of the future.

The importance of this difference cannot be understated: It’s hard to be a David, because failure is inevitable in the workplace. In fact, according to Seligman, it’s one of life’s most common traumas (along with the dashed romance). As a result, the Davids of the world will inevitably find their careers stymied. Moreover, imagine companies comprised of Davids: They, too, are doomed in difficult times. To succeed, then, organizations must ensure that they are comprised of Michaels. But is there a way to determine who’s a Michael when recruiting employees? And what about existing employees: Is there a way to turn Davids into Michaels?

It may seem an impossible task. Aren’t the two extremes personality traits, inborn and impossible to bridge? According to Seligman, the answer is no. Resilience, he writes, can be measured and taught. The key to doing so, however, is understanding what makes a David a David.


According to Seligman, the difference between a Michael and a David is “learned helplessness,” a state he and other researchers identified in the late 1960s. “We found that [animals] that experienced mildly painful shock over which they had no control would eventually just accept it, with no attempt to escape,” Seligman writes in an April 2011 Harvard Business Review article. “It was next shown that human beings do the same thing.”

Specifically, Seligman and a colleague conducted a study in which participants were exposed to an annoying loud noise. Participants in group one could stop the noise by pushing a button; participants in group two could not, despite trying their hardest to do so. When called back the next day and faced with a similar experiment involving noise, participants in group one stopped the noise, while participants in group two did not even try. “To turn the noise off, all they have to do is move their hands about 12 inches,” writes Seligman of the participants. “But those in the second group typically do nothing. In phase one they failed, realized they had no control, and became passive. In phase two, expecting more failure, they don’t even try to escape. They have learned helplessness.”

Interestingly, Seligman noted that about a third of people don’t become helpless in such situations. “How human beings react to extreme adversity is normally distributed,” writes Seligman. “On one end are the people who fall apart into PTSD, depression, and even suicide. In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are … back where they were before the trauma. … On the other end are people who show post-traumatic growth… These are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” So what makes people fall into the middle of the spectrum or the growth category, Seligman asked? After 15 years of study, the answer became clear: optimism. “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable,” he writes. In other words: “It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”

“People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. In other words, “It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”

Overcoming learned helplessness

Seligman’s identification of learned helplessness helped him realize how people like David might be immunized against that state of mind (and the accompanying depression and tendency to surrender to failure): Teach them to think like optimists. That may sound easier said than done, but Seligman, who is often referred to as the father of positive psychology, got to work, creating a number of programs that teach resilience. One such program was the $145 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) initiative, operated by the U.S. Army, where trauma is more common and more severe than in any corporate setting. “Its members may struggle with depression and PTSD, but thousands of them also experience post-traumatic growth,” writes Seligman.


The CSF consists of three components: testing soldiers for psychological fitness via a 20-minute questionnaire called the global assessment tool (GAT); giving soldiers online self-improvement courses; and teaching drill sergeants a program called master resilience training (MRT). Of most interest to managers is the MRT, which focuses on building mental toughness, building signature strengths, and building strong relationships, because Seligman describes it as a type of management training: in his words, “teaching leaders how to embrace resilience and then pass on the knowledge.”

“Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager. While many leadership development programs touch on these skills, the MRT brings them together in a systematic form to ensure that even in the face of massive failures, managers know how to help their employees flourish rather than suffer.”

Building mental toughness

In this segment of the MRT, Seligman shows that emotional consequences stem not from adversity but from one’s beliefs about adversity. Specifically, participants work through a series of difficult situations (such as falling out of a three-mile run), then learn to separate their beliefs about adversity (such as heat-of-the-moment thoughts about the situation, as in “I’m a failure”) from the emotions generated by those thoughts (such as feeling down for the rest of the day and thus performing poorly in the next exercise). They then learn how to dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.

One trick is to minimize catastrophic thinking by considering worst-case, best-case, and most-likely outcomes. As an example, Seligman points to a worker who receives a negative performance evaluation. The worst case: “I’ll be fired.” The best case: “The negative performance evaluation was a mistake.” The most likely case: “I will receive a corrective action plan and will follow it.” When analyzed in that manner, the adversity doesn’t seem so bad.


In this segment of the MRT, Seligman administers a test similar to the GAT: Values in Action (VIA), which ranks thetest-taker’s top 24 character strengths. In small groups, participants then discuss what they learned about themselves from the survey, including the strengths they’ve developed throughout their career and how those strengths contribute to their reaching their goals. Participants then form teams and use team members’ strengths to complete a mission. (See the sidebar, “What Are Your Strengths?”) The idea is to show participants they have skills they can utilize to overcome adversity.


In this segment of the MRT, Seligman teaches positive communication. For example, managers are taught to respond actively and constructively to employees who are sharing positive experiences. “When, for example, a sergeant mentions specifics (as opposed to saying something general like ‘good job’), his soldiers know that their leader was paying attention and that the praise is authentic,” writes Seligman, who also addresses language, tone, and body language in this segment.


“Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager,” writes Seligman, who adds that while many leadership development programs touch on these skills, the MRT brings them together in a systematic form to ensure that even in the face of massive failures, managers know how to help their employees flourish rather than suffer. “We believe that MRT will build a better army … and can make adults in a large organization more effective,” he writes.

Our take

Recent neuroscience findings indicate that our brains dynamically change and develop throughout our lives in a process called neuroplasticity. This is the lifelong ability of the brain to recognize neural pathways based on new experiences. It has huge implications when it comes to building resilience.

When we focus on building resilience, our efforts are rewarded with the carving of new neural pathways with stronger grooves. This allows for the quicker and more habitual travel of information. In other words, the more you practice resilience with positive thoughts, the more resilient you will become. Practicing cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), meditating, or using mindful meditation strategies will all produce powerful new connections that will build resilience over time. Two books also teach practical ways to increase resilience.

One is Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. It provides step-by-step instructions for implementing powerful resilience-building CBT strategies. The strategies are so effective that well-constructed research has provided empirical evidence showing that the emotional states of anxiety and depression are ameliorated as quickly and as effectively as with psychopharmacological drugs—but without the side effects or high relapse rate.

Another is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. Fredrickson’s research shows that individuals need a specific ratio of positive to negative thoughts in order to become resilient: three to one. However, 80 percent of individuals fall short of this positivity ratio.

Both books are excellent choices to help you begin building a more robust leadership self: one that will rebound quickly from adversity. In these economic times, who wouldn’t want a more resilient self that moves through work and life with less effort and more optimism?

For more details about Seligman’s approach, see the April 2011 Harvard Business Review (“Building Resilience“) or Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press, 2011).