THE BLOG
09/08/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

4 Ways Businesses, Like People, Can Be More Resilient

Co-written by David B. Feldman, PhD

Nobody wants to fail. Sometimes people are lucky enough to succeed brilliantly from the start, of course. Nonetheless, suffering through at least some setbacks and failures is an unavoidable reality for many, if not most people wishing to build businesses. Decades of research in the field of psychology shows us what helps individuals to be resilience in the face of adversity and trauma. The vast majority of people do indeed bounce back from personal setbacks and crises. Luckily, it turns out that businesses, like people, are resilient. In fact, there's a paradoxical relationship between suffering and success in the context of growing thriving businesses and even in building strong organizational leadership.

That is, leaders and managers are building organizations that actually can benefit from adversity. Here are four lessons that businesses can learn from the research on how people bounce back and even "bounce forward" from adversity:

1: Failure and adversity can fuel growth and innovation

It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing highly successful people as having a special something endowed to them, something that makes it so that they can't lose and never have to face the pain of failure. Writing in the Journal of Management, UCLA professor Maia Young and her co-authors called this "magical thinking." "Much as audiences attribute magical power to a magician when they cannot see the mechanical means through which effects are achieved," they write, "audiences who observe a manager succeed without seeing any of the mundane causes of success (such as diligent work) are more likely to attribute mystical talents."

When people accomplish extraordinary things, the natural human tendency is to assume they're somehow special. Even before Steve Jobs died in 2011, media pundits began asking, "Can Apple survive without Jobs?" Upon the announcement of his death, Apple stock prices fell even as people flocked to Apple stores across the globe to leave flowers. It's a phenomenon the BBC News Magazine called "The Cult of Steve Jobs".

The truth is, Jobs had no magical powers and he suffered many failures.

"It's a great disservice to everyone, especially young people, that the stories that we often hear about the most accomplished entrepreneurs sound so effortless," writes Peter Sims for the Harvard Business Review. "Like any creative process, any entrepreneur who wants to invent, innovate, or create must be willing to be imperfect and make mistakes in order to learn what works and what does not."

Sims goes on to recount Jobs' biggest mistakes, including launching numerous product failures; believing that Pixar, in which Jobs was the majority shareholder until its sale in 2006 to Disney, would never make money on animated films; and recruiting John Sculley to be CEO of Apple in 1983 only to have Sculley fire him from his own company a few years later.

Though Jobs was a hero to many, heroes confront challenges. The roads to their successes are often paved with various forms of adversity and suffering.

Even in the darkest times, in fact, adversity can fuel both growth and innovation. In 2007, a young entrepreneur in Phoenix, Arizona named Amanda Wigal was riding an inner tube attached to a motorboat when an oncoming vessel veered into her lane. Her head slammed into that vessel, and she slipped into a coma.

When she awoke weeks later, her memory was damaged, as was her ability to walk, talk, and think clearly. It was months into her rehabilitation when she re-learned that she was the owner of a small promotional products business called Brandibles. Unfortunately, her boating accident coincided with the start of the US economic downturn. Her business, like so many in the Greater Phoenix area, was now on the verge of bankruptcy.

This isn't the beginning of what most of us would recognize as a success story. But, that's exactly what it turned into. Wigal realized that she had faced something far worse than a failing business--she had confronted and survived potential death. She felt strangely empowered, less frightened of failure than before, and more willing to make the bold moves necessary to rehabilitate her business. Two years later, the once-tiny Brandibles was a million-dollar venture.

2: Giving up can be good

At Concordia University, psychologist Carsten Wrosch has spent more than a decade investigating the finer points of giving up. "The notion that persistence is essential for success is deeply embedded within American culture," he writes with coauthor Gregory Miller in the journal Psychological Science. But there are times, they argue, when doggedly pursuing a goal may hurt more than it helps. "Specifically, when people find themselves in situations in which they are unlikely to realize a goal, the most adaptive response may be to disengage from it. By withdrawing from a goal that is unattainable, a person can avoid repeated failure experiences and their consequences for mind and body."

Consider Alan Lock, who dreamed of a career in the British Royal Navy. By the time he was in his twenties, he had achieved this dream and looked forward to many more years as an officer. But then, at the age of 24, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration and lost his vision. He tried to take the advice of many of his friends to "never give up" and, for a while, he continued doggedly pursuing his goal of being a Navy officer. Unfortunately, his physical limitations interfered with his ability to carry out his duties. The more he fought to pursue his career goal, the more depressed he became as the reality of his situation sank in.

So Lock did something counterintuitive: he gave up. But giving up on his goal of being a Navy officer allowed him to notice new opportunities that he had previously overlooked, some of which he embraced. Having surrendered one dream, Lock set a course for a new venture, and became the first registered blind person ever to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean, setting a world record.

The science reflects Lock's experience: Sometimes giving up can be good. In the 1970s, as a doctoral student studying organizational behavior at UCLA, leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith noticed that certain characteristics and behavior patterns were common among extremely successful people, including the mega-successful CEO's he interviewed in his research. Early on, he observed that these people often take risks and often fail, as we mentioned before. But, his work shows that they rarely get stuck in these failing ventures. They seem to give up at just the right time. "When things don't work, they move on until an idea does work," Goldsmith says. "Great entrepreneurs have this in common."

3: People reach the greatest level of success when doing something personally meaningful

People tend to succeed at goals that are intrinsically and personally meaningful to them. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there's something about these goals that are motivating, that fuel a passion that tends to yield the best outcomes. Researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Rochester asked people to list the goals in their lives and rate how personally meaningful or "self-concordant" each one of them was. Months later, participants had achieved the more personally meaningful goals at a higher rate than less personally-meaningful ones.

Asha Mevlana's life story illustrates this point clearly. She had been a successful marketing executive in New York when she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of breast cancer. Though she thought she was going to die, ultimately treatment was successful, placing her cancer into remission.

But, emerging from this crisis, she realized something important about her life: The career she had invested so much time and energy into building had never been all that personally meaningful to her. She had just done what seemed to be the conventionally "right" thing to do. Although her career earned her a good living, Mevlana began to wonder whether she should quit that job and do something different.

In the midst of her cancer treatment, Mevlana began taking improvisational violin lessons. She hadn't picked up the instrument since middle school, when the thought of making a living in music had never occurred to her. But now, after working hard for many months, she ended up playing electric violin for a few amateur rock bands. Something about this new life clicked. Perhaps it was the unscripted nature that, much like the music itself, was creative and freeing.

A couple months later, when a friend invited her to visit Los Angeles for a weekend, she met a number of local musicians who convinced her she could get paying gigs in California.
Within a year, she had scored a recording contract with Universal Records and was playing alongside Ceelo Green, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The American Idol Band. She has never looked back.

The point is that often people achieve greater success--are more creative and find themselves feeling more satisfied with their accomplishments--when they're pursuing goals that are personally meaningful to them. Mevlana had been a successful marketing executive, but she is an even more successful rock violinist.

4: Re-define success

Success isn't something that can necessarily be measured by external trappings, such as wealth or status. Ultimately, it's something we have to assess for ourselves. In the 1990s, businessman Paul Watkins made a small fortune with a company he founded, Boudreaux's Foods. A young man in his twenties, he calculated his first year's revenue at half-a-million dollars. And earnings only went up from there. In the coming years, Watkins went from producing just three products to producing 47--everything from mayonnaise and salad dressings, to bread, sports drinks, and pastas. He was rich and successful. He had everything that, externally at least, should have made him happy.

On September 11, 2001, like the rest of the world, Watkins watched the terrorist attacks unfold in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. His thoughts immediately went to his close friend, David Charlebois, who was a pilot. After a devastating phone call, Watkins learned that his friend was the first officer on American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the western side of the Pentagon. The loss sent Watkins reeling, and he found himself re-evaluating his own life.

Was his prosperous company really as important to him as he once believed? He concluded that, perhaps, it wasn't. If life is potentially so short, shouldn't he be doing something that truly made him feel successful? Was success really about material wealth and status, or was it about something else? Watkins searched his heart furiously for a more authentic path.

In answer to these questions, he sold his company to his investors at a significant loss and gave away his fortune, to the tune of several million dollars. He moved out of his upscale apartment to live in the community at St. Anthony of Padua Priory on Canal Street in New Orleans, joining the Dominican Order of priests. In 2005, he became the parochial vicar of St. Dominic Parish in New Orleans, and played an important role in rebuilding that city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Though this may not be most people's vision of success, Watkins knows he's successful, regardless. And like New Orleans itself, facing enormous setbacks after the hurricane, businessman Watkins went through a transformative process of redefinition and found his more authentic vocation.

---- Lee Daniel Kravetz and David B. Feldman are the authors of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success (HarperCollins/HarperWave), which tells more of Clemantine Wamariya's story, as well as many other stories of survival. Available wherever books are sold. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/SupersurvivorsTheBook or www.supersurvivors.com