M/C Media & Culture
In this essay we challenge whether current conceptions of optimism, hope, and resilience are complete enough to account for the complexity and nuance of developing and maintaining these in practice. For example, a quick perusal of popular outlets (e.g., Forbes, Harvard Business Review) reveals advice to managers urging them to “be optimistic,” or “be happy” so that these types of emotions or feelings can spread to the workplace. One even finds simple advice and steps to follow on how to foster these types of things in the workplace (McKee; Tjan). We argue that this common perspective focuses narrowly on individuals and does not account for the complexity of resilience. Consequently, it denies the role of context, culture, and interactions as ways people develop shared meaning and reality.
To fill this gap in our understanding, we take a social constructionist perspective to understand resilience. In other words, we foreground communication as the primary building block to sharing meaning and creating our worlds. In so doing, we veer away from the traditional focus on the individual and instead emphasise the social and cultural elements that shape how meaning is shared by peoples in various contexts (Fairhurst, Considering Context). Drawing on a communication, discourse-centered perspective we explore hope and optimism as concepts commonly associated with resilience in a work context. At work, leaders play a vital role in communicating ways that foster resilience in the face of organisational issues and events (e.g., environmental crises, downsizing). Following this lead, discursive leadership offers a framework that positions leadership as co-created and as the management of meaning through framing (Fairhurst, Power of Framing). Thus, we propose that a discursive leadership orientation can contribute to the communicative construction of resilience that moves away from individual perspectives to an emphasis on the social.
From a discursive perspective, leadership is defined as a process of meaning management; attribution given by followers or observers; process-focused rather than leader-focused; and as shifting and distributed among several organizational members (Fairhurst Power of Framing). By switching from the individual focus and concentrating on social and cultural systems, discursive leadership is able to study concepts related to subjectivity, cultures, and identities as it relates to meaning.
Our aim is to offer leaders an alternative perspective on resilience at the individual and group level by explaining how a discursive orientation to leadership can contribute to the communicative construction of resilience. We argue that a social constructionist approach provides a perspective that can unravel the multiple layers that make up hope, optimism, and resilience. We begin with a peek into the social scientific perspective that is so commonplace in media and popular portrayals of these constructs. Then, we explain the social constructionist perspective that grounds our framework, drawing on discursive leadership. Next, we present an alternative model of resilience, one that takes resilience as communicatively constructed and socially created. We believe this more robust perspective can help individuals, groups, and cultures be more resilient in the face of challenges.