The Demand for Resilience training in South Africa: Why do we need it, and how do we get it?

By Njabulo Sithole

Njabulo Sithole is the founder and CEO of The Resilience Institute South Africa (RISA), as well as CEO of Omame Investments (Pty) Ltd. She holds an Executive Global Masters in Management from the London School of Economics’ Department of Management and a Masters in Ed. Psychology from University of KwaZulu Natal.

Resilience is the learned ability to demonstrate bounce, grow, connect and flow. The Resilience Institute’s mission is to optimise body, heart, mind and spirit in our clients and within our community. We seek to study, practice and teach the biology of resilience. Ultimately, it’s a gift that many people aspire to have; the ability to continue performing effectively, regardless of personal stresses; the strength to not allow the problems we experience in our personal lives to impact our work. But how to achieve resilience is often misunderstood.

Great business leaders who never show emotion can mistakenly be considered fantastically resilient by their peers and juniors. In reality, such behaviour may be an indication of repressed feelings which can manifest in problematic ways if not addressed. Resilience comes from first recognising which of your character traits and emotional inclinations make you thrive and which ones weaken your mind-set.

It’s not easy to dig around in your own psyche and bring your least favourite aspects of yourself to the surface; you might be impulsive, or ego-driven, or cynical. But in realising these emotional behaviours you can identify where they come from and what caused their development. From there it’s possible, with self-awareness and resilience practices, to minimise any negative effects they have on your performance, resulting in a highly resilient individual.

Wherever you live in the world, improving your resilience levels will improve your performance at work and in all of your pursuits. But I would advocate that South Africans are especially in need of it. We have high crime rates and high suicide rates in comparison to the global average. In 2017/18 there were 20,336 murders reported in South Africa which equates to 57 murders per day.  A total of 2.09 million crimes were committed along with 11.6 suicides per 100 thousand deaths. On the economic front, South Africa’s unemployment rate increased to 27.6% in the first quarter of 2019 and in 2018 the rand was the worst performing major currency against the dollar. On top of this, the World Bank reported that South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies in its assessment of poverty and inequality from 1994 to 2015. It’s a complex issue, but these staggeringly high statistics are the result a number of factors including slow economic growth, skills and education, lack of inclusive growth and marginalization. The effects are felt by our whole population.

Considering South Africans are faced with such challenging social and economic circumstances, many of us still thrive and display extraordinary determination to succeed. Even during an economic downturn, members of our population are still turning to entrepreneurship, and taking on challenging leadership roles within large organisations. But thriving inevitably demands advanced personal and interpersonal skills.   

Resilience has served me well on my own professional journey. As a young woman in the post-apartheid era I was always keen to prove myself in my career and seize on every opportunity. Like so many my age I wanted to diversify my skill set and make the most of the multitude of possibilities that opened up to me at that time. It was that open-minded attitude that led me from a psychology degree to becoming the CEO of Omame Investments, a multi-divisional investments company. Being in the first wave of black South African women to be fully incorporated in the economy came with its own challenges, and I began to realise that resilience was one of my professional strengths.

I ended up as Head of Investment, in a job role that took me a long way from my formal education in psychology. But rather than allow this to upset my development I chose to ‘fill in the gap’ that I felt existed between my theoretical knowledge and my current position. To do so, I enrolled on the Executive Global Masters in Management course at the London School of Economics, Department of Management in the UK which was where I developed a much deeper appreciation for how necessary resilience had been for my past success.

The course I studied focused in part on organisational behaviour; understanding why people behave as they do within organisations and how to get the best out of a workforce. Perhaps due to my background in psychology, these were the lectures that I found most engaging. The other participants were largely already successful professionals, taking a career break to upskill themselves. They came from all over the world, and from a whole variety of industries. Being in the cohort gave me the opportunity to consider how each of these people had overcome their own challenges in life to get to where they are, and how I could create something which could help others to do the same.

It was then that I came across The Resilience Institute, an international venture started in New Zealand, which offers strategic training to coach people into resilience, aimed at both public and private organisations who want to invest in employee well-being. Upon graduation from LSE Department of Management in 2016, I contacted the head of the organisation to explain why there is such a demand for this kind of training in South Africa and with his agreement, I became the founder and CEO of Resilience Institute South Africa (RISA).

The resilience journey starts with the resilience app which guides users along a journey of self-development. The app includes a diagnostic assessment tool which measures 11 categories and 60 factors of resilience. The app also includes a virtual goalkeeper which enables users to track key resilience goals using a simple interface that indicates whether goals are being met using positive or negative emojis. Professionals who join the programme get access to the app and are asked to answer a lengthy questionnaire of situational questions. From there, the app calculates a resilience score for the individual by identifying that person’s strengths and liabilities. Liabilities are those things that hold you back in your career, for example loss of interest, poor concentration, lack of sleep and poor nutrition. It’s essential that participants are honest with the app, and with themselves at this stage if they are serious about improving their resilience. Upon completion, participants receive a full report and accompanying tips to address their weaknesses, for example if mastering stress is identified as an issue, the app suggests exercises on being calm and  focused to help solve this problem. Once the app stage is done, we offer tailored programmes to suit individual, or organisational needs.

Many organisations choose a blended learning programme; face to face workshops supported by educational videos and goal tracking within the app. Resilience programmes can be tailored for teams of all sizes facing a range of challenges. We aim to drive successful change management projects, rejuvenate and energise teams, employee engagement, improve health and wellbeing, reduce distress and staff turnover.  

Research has suggested that millennials struggle most with resilience and are more inclined to quit and jump to greener pastures when faced with a challenge at work. In order to solve the problem we need to create a new culture, and I’m proud to be part of bringing that new culture to South Africa. Ultimately I believe that humans have a fantastic capacity for resilience, it just needs to be maximised through a continuous learning process.


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