Wellness? How About Comprehensive Employee Fitness

Within the military, attention in recent years has been shifting among senior military leaders toward a model of health for service members that included the idea of resilience. Notably, in 2011, a whole special issue of the high-visibility journal American Psychologist focused on the U.S. Army’s idea of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” or CSF. In the opening article, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Casey Jr. described it this way:

“… the Army is leveraging the science of psychology in order to improve our force’s resilience. More specifically, we are moving beyond a “treatment-centric” approach to one that focuses on prevention and on the enhancement of the psychological strengths already present in our soldiers. Rooted in recent work in positive psychology, CSF is a “strengths-based” resiliency program that shows promise for our workforce and its support network so our soldiers can “be” better before deploying to combat so they will not have to “get” better after they return.”[i]

Although I’m a Sailor (i.e., in the Navy; more specifically, the Navy Reserve) and not a Soldier, the notion of resilience has seeped across the branches of service. And while most of the personnel burden for the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen upon the Army, the Navy has also begun to appreciate the notion of resilience. That’s good, because resilient service members will be better equipped to handle the increasingly dynamic nature of their work, and, when they eventually leave military service, they’ll have yet another skill that transfers to the civilian workplace.

It’s also a concept that’s critical for leaders working in any industry that’s either beginning to experience—or is in the throes of—what’s becoming the turbulent, modern business environment. Work organizations that embraced a concept of “comprehensive employee fitness” would surely benefit through the more engaged, more motivated workforce that would result.

Potential Aspects of Comprehensive Employee Fitness

If we look at the psychological research behind the idea of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, we can get an idea of what it might mean across other contexts—including in civilian organizations.

The fundamental concepts are: grit, hardiness, adaptability, agility, and resilience. To be clear, researchers haven’t reached a total consensus on how all of these ideas are different or similar. But there’s consensus that all of them have positive outcomes. And for the sake of becoming a resilient person and developing into a person who thrives in the face of what’s becoming a world characterized by continual, rapid change, it’s important to become familiar with these ideas. So let’s take a quick look under the hood of each one.

Grit: Just Keep Swimming

Grit is about picking long-term goals and going after them with gusto, regardless of the obstacles. When I think of “grit,” I think of John Wayne. (Thanks, Hollywood.) Grit isn’t about one’s mental ability. It’s not about one’s intelligence quotient, or IQ. But what’s great about grit is that it captures that ever-important quality of stick-to-itiveness, something that I think we can all relate with as a key to success from our childhood, from school, from our careers.

That’s why, in part, that grit is starting to get more serious attention from researchers. For example, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying grit for a number of years. Her research confirms the value of grit as a predictor of success above and beyond that of IQ and one’s personality.[ii]

That’s not to say that talent is irrelevant. What it means is that if you’re going to be a high achiever, you’ve got to have not only some level of talent, but you’ve also got to have the perseverance and long-term orientation to set big goals and keep chasing them—doggedly, day after day after day.

It’s a lot like the fish Dory, the lovably absent-minded character from Disney’s Finding Nemo, who said, “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”[iii]

Hardiness: Always Find Meaning

Hardiness is a personal quality or characteristic that develops early in our lives, but likely becomes shaped or even strengthened by life events. Whereas grit has to do with tenaciously pursuing future goals, hardiness is about having purpose and meaning in life. Paul Bartone, a senior research fellow at National Defense University who has studied hardiness extensively, puts it this way, saying that hardiness “involves the creation of meaning in life, even life that is sometimes painful or absurd, and having the courage to live life fully despite its inherent pain and futility. It is a global perspective that affects how one views the self, others, work, and even the physical world.”[iv]

Any adult who has tried to do anything remotely difficult experiences failure at some point or another. Many of us fail over and over again. If we have grit, we keep going. If we are hardy, we find meaning in the journey.

Not surprisingly, hardiness is another characteristic that tends to predict high performance, specifically leader performance, above and beyond IQ.[v]

Adaptability: Accept External Changes

Adaptability describes the ability to change in order to fit with external demands. Elaine Pulakos, president of Personnel Decisions Research Institutes and a well-known researcher within the field of industrial/organizational psychology, has studied adaptability as it relates to job performance along with other researchers. Their findings include uncovering eight different dimensions of adaptability as it pertains to peoples’ behavior at work.

Namely, adaptability tends to involve one or more of the following dimensions: handling emergencies, handling work stress, solving problems creatively, dealing with uncertain situations, learning, interpersonal adaptability, cultural adaptability, and physically oriented adaptability.[vi]

As such, being adaptable involves being able to “fit” within numerous types of different circumstances. And with an ever-changing organizational landscape, having employees with these types of abilities will surely set organizations apart from those that do not.

Agility: Become Proactively Nimble

Agility allows people (and, and many argue, whole organizations) to create and implement strategies that allow one to deal with continuous change.[vii] It’s about having nimbleness and a proactive posture about oneself that supports continual effectiveness. Clearly, agility is a characteristic that’s important for all employees, leaders, teams, and organizations in a rapidly changing world.

My colleague Nick Horney, who co-founded the consulting firm Agility Consulting and Training in 2001, puts it this way with regard to leaders:

“Leadership agility is the capability of a leader to dynamically sense and respond to changes in the business environment with actions that are focused, fast and flexible. It is about a leader’s ability to prepare all employees … to shift their mindsets and supporting skills from ‘I know change is coming, but I can’t really see the potential changes that might impact our organization’ to ‘I see change coming and am prepared and already doing something about it.’[viii]

Resilience: Thrive Amidst Adversity

Finally, there’s resilience. Whereas agility reflects a certain perspective toward change and volatility, resilience is more about how we deal with and react to adversity.[ix] Given this difference, it’s no wonder that the U.S. Army is partnering with researchers to uncover how to build resilience among its people. And while preparing for and enduring the year-long deployment I spent in Afghanistan, it became clear to me that resilience is a fundamental concept and aspect of personal, inner strength that’s necessary for thriving in adverse circumstances.

One part of resilience is about your attitude. That is, we always have the ability to choose how we react to a situation. That’s true, and it’s important to remember because that concept will get you through many a tough circumstance.

But it’s also important to remember that adversity also really can affect us—deeply, personally, suddenly, unexpectedly. We don’t simply experience stressful circumstances, make a choice to not let it bother us, and move on. We can own our attitude, but we need resilience to make it for the long haul.  

A fascinating, related concept regarding how people react to adversity is that of “posttraumatic growth.”[x] Such an approach is rather different from the notion of posttraumatic stress, which is most commonly referred to in the context of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Stories of PTSD among returning veterans continue to surface, and it’s certainly an issue with which the military and its supporting organizations (e.g., the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) need to deal. But it’s not the whole story.

Posttraumatic growth has to do with the fact that people who encounter highly stressful situations are by no means guaranteed to develop PTSD; rather, some people can grow as a result of their trauma and become more resilient over time. As such, experiencing adversity may boost resilience among some people, and those changes may be more dramatic among those who were less resilient beforehand.[xi] This idea is one that I think has great merit and should receive continued attention by both researchers and those on the frontlines of dealing with adversity or helping those who do.

The takeaway for the rest of us?

Adversity can make us stronger.

Below, I outline more key details that highlight the similarities and differences among grit, hardiness, adaptability, agility, and resilience. As you already likely understand, the concepts are certainly related. One way I like to think about is as follows: Having grit, hardiness, and adaptability will make you more agile and resilient. And being agile and resilient will allow you to succeed in times of turbulence and adversity, respectively.

  1. Grit helps you set long-term goals and drive persistently toward them when you encounter obstacles and want to quit. 
  2. Hardiness helps you find meaning and live with a purpose when the world around you seems cruel, unfair, or meaningless. 
  3. Adaptability helps you bend, change, or otherwise adjust when external demands change or require different behavior. 
  4. Agility helps you proactively create novel pathways toward effectiveness when change becomes increasingly rapid and unpredictable. 
  5. Resilience helps you cope, press through, recover, and become stronger when adversity strikes through truly disruptive change, tragedy, or unexpected turmoil. 

So how might an organization go about increasing its comprehensive employee fitness?

Is it about selecting the right people? Developing and training the people you currently have?

Yes and yes.

A full roadmap for such a program is beyond the scope of this post, as my hope is simply to introduce the idea and concepts.

Yet a central take-away point is that it’s not about avoiding hardship or adversity. It’s about coping with them proactively—and even more, it’s about using those experiences as a source for lessons about what works, what doesn’t, and about how we are often much stronger than we ever imagine.

About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.

Ben is also the author of the e-book, The Navy’s 11: Reflections and tips for leaders everywhere based upon the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. It’s full of ...

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References and Further Reading

[i] George W. Casey, “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: A Vision for Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Army.,” American Psychologist 66, no. 1 (2011): 1–3, doi:10.1037/a0021930.

[ii] Angela L. Duckworth et al., “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 6 (2007): 1087–1101, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087.

[iii] “The Best Dory Quotes,” Disney Blogs, accessed June 3, 2014, http://blogs.disney.com/oh-my-disney/2013/06/26/the-best-dory-quotes/.

[iv] Paul T. Bartone, “Resilience under Military Operational Stress: Can Leaders Influence Hardiness?,” Military Psychology 18, no. S (2006): S131.

[v] Paul T. Bartone et al., “Big Five Personality Factors, Hardiness, and Social Judgment as Predictors of Leader Performance,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 30, no. 6 (2009): 498–521.

[vi] Elaine D. Pulakos et al., “Adaptability in the Workplace: Development of a Taxonomy of Adaptive Performance.,” Journal of Applied Psychology 85, no. 4 (2000): 612–24, doi:10.1037//0021-9010.85.4.612.

[vii] Cynthia A. Lengnick-Hall, Tammy E. Beck, and Mark L. Lengnick-Hall, “Developing a Capacity for Organizational Resilience through Strategic Human Resource Management,” Human Resource Management Review 21, no. 3 (September 2011): 243–55, doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2010.07.001; Joseph McCann, “Organizational Effectiveness: Changing Concepts for Changing Environments.,” Human Resource Planning 27, no. 1 (January 2004): 42–50.

[viii] Nick Horney, Bill Pasmore, and Tom O’Shea, “Leadership Agility: A Business Imperative for a VUCA World,” Human Resource Planning 33, no. 4 (2010): 34.

[ix] Anthony D. Ong et al., “Psychological Resilience, Positive Emotions, and Successful Adaptation to Stress in Later Life.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 4 (2006): 730–49, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.91.4.730.

[x] Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995).

[xi] Richard G. Tedeschi and Richard J. McNally, “Can We Facilitate Posttraumatic Growth in Combat Veterans?,” American Psychologist 66, no. 1 (2011): 19–24, doi:10.1037/a0021896.