Organisational Resilience: The Latest Fad Or An Essential Component?
It’s taking over as the latest buzzword in learning and development. But what do the trainers and gurus mean by the R-word—and do you need some for your team?
by Dan Brotzel
Posted on 02-24-2017
In an interview with Forbes magazine in December 2016, Rachelle Loyear, an expert in enterprise security risk management, said: “Organisational resilience is an increasingly hot topic in business publications and conferences because the nature of our business environments has, in the last decade, become increasingly volatile, changeable, and threatening to the long-term business planning model that executives used to be able to rely upon … Now, while businesses might be able to set general goals for five years, the idea that we can predict the marketplace for most things that far out is almost laughable.”
For Loyear, resilience is a core concept for businesses in learning to survive and thrive in such a climate. “The resilient organisation must be able to pivot quickly to either avoid the negative impact of risk or embrace and take advantage of the positive impacts of risk,” she said. “Executives in resilient enterprises know that this ability to adapt quickly relies mainly upon seeing those risks coming as far out as possible.”
But you don’t have to be an expert in enterprise risk management to feel the force of this. A Google search for the hoary phrase “today’s fast-moving world” yields over 56,000 hits on my PC, and this relentless pace of change brings with it huge challenges, from cyber-attacks and disruptive competitors at a corporate level, to rising stress levels and fears of obsolescence on a personal level. And that’s not to mention the economy or the geopolitical landscape …
It is in this sort of climate that the psychological concept of resilience is gaining ground today, and with it the promise of an attitude or skillset to navigate this very contemporary sense of the world’s overwhelming, protean complexity.
But then again, as with any newish idea, there’s always the worry that we are in the realm of buzzwords and bandwagons. The first time I heard about the R-word in a business context, for example, was when a professional contact described to me a management course they attended last year. One morning of the week was given over to Resilience, and a special trainer was brought in for the purpose. “It was a rather confusing session really,” my contact recalled. “It seemed to be a sort of ragbag of different things, like yogic breathing and time management tips. At the end, everybody had to draw up their own sort of stress management plan. I think most people came away not quite sure what the point of it all was.”
Where, then, does the idea come from? What do the courses and books mean by resilience? And are we looking at a development fad or is it a useful concept that can make a meaningful impact in a business context?
Towards A Definition
Resilience can be seen as our capacity “to mount and then sustain an adaptive response, and, in cases of optimum resilience, to grow from the stressful experience,” said John Reich, emeritus professor of psychology and co-editor of “The Handbook of Adult Resilience.” Or, put another way: “Resilience is about learning to survive and thrive in the face of hardship and adversity,” said Justin McCarron, a business resilience specialist who is currently designing a corporate resilience programme for training company Edison Red. “In that sense, it’s the art of living—it’s the essence of being alive.”
Many of the popular accounts of the concept similarly present this dual idea—that resilience is both the dealing with, and the learning from, the challenges we face. As Eric Greitens puts it in his book “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” it’s not so much about bouncing back as it is about learning to move through .
In his book, former Navy SEAL Greitens tells how he hears from a former comrade Zach Walker, who since leaving the armed forces has been suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and masking his pain with heavy drinking. As with many resilience thinkers, Greitens draws on learnings from those who have endured extreme experiences, not least his own, and also a wide range of thinkers ancient and modern, from Seneca to F Scott Fitzgerald. He prescribes a range of practices to build resilience, including finding a mentor, confronting your own inner hurt, developing a sense of vocation, and practising compassion. But all the advice is informed by hard-won experience.
And if people can show resilience in stressful situations, the thinking goes, why not help equip people with the skills and attitudes required to meet challenges resiliently before we’re actually put to the test? Why not help individuals—or organisations—develop an attitude of resilience? “As long as we’ve been alive, we’ve been learning how to survive and thrive—we’re built to withstand extreme hardship and adversity,” said McCarron. “One of the interesting things about studying resilience—and learning how to apply these learnings pre-emptively—is how often we’re seeing that the insights of ancient thinkers and traditional approaches to dealing with stress and survival are now being borne out by developments in science and psychology.”
Resilience work in businesses tends to be very bespoke in nature, says McCarron. “Typically, I might do a self-assessment exercise at the start of a session, to get a sense of where people are at and what their challenges are,” he said. “Then, as part of the work, I’ll suggest a range of tools and activities designed to help people in their situation. The most important skill to develop is the ability to focus our attention on what we can control in our lives, and to let go of what we can’t control or influence. To that extent, resilience is a learnable mindset.
“Ideally, the programme would take place over several sessions over an extended time frame, so we can set homework exercises and support people as they work to achieve the goals they have committed to. Real change takes support over time, both from within and without.”
What kind of homework? “It depends on what areas of resilience people are working on. There are a wide range of activities to choose from, all of which are supported by scientific evidence to show that they work. It might be getting someone to compile a gratitude list, or take up an activity that’s way outside of their comfort zone. It might be getting a manager to practise giving team members recognition and praise effectively. Or for someone who’s afraid of rejection in their work, it might be getting them to practise asking for things that they’re bound to get a ‘No’ to—for example, asking a shop to gift-wrap your groceries! In this way, you’re manufacturing a situation where something goes wrong, so you can get to practise how you deal with it before the real challenge comes up.”
The Evolution Of A Concept
The idea of resilience dates back to the 1980s, says Reich, to a time when psychology began to move away from a “medical model” of therapies as the cure for illness, to a more proactive model looking at ways to optimise personal wellbeing and development.
“In child and developmental psychology, researchers began studying risk factors in children’s growth, such as poverty, family disruptions, and psychiatric history of family members,” he said. Researchers also began longer-term studies of child development into teens and even adulthood—with surprising results. “Children exposed to these risk factors were not showing the expected signs of dysfunctional adaptation and stunted growth. Positive developmental trends over the lifespan were, in fact, appearing at a high rate, equalling ‘normal’ healthy patterns of development.” Faced with stressful triggers, in other words, these children found ways to withstand and grow from the experience, not be bowed down by it. They had somehow learnt resilience.
In later decades, the emerging concept has been applied more widely to adults, and to more and more areas of the social sciences. Inevitably, it has reached the world of business, personal development, and the bookshelves of popular psychology.
Helping staff to become better able to deal with the stresses of their jobs and withstand challenges sounds like a no-brainer. But as we’ve seen, resilience can also work at an organisational level. Here, too, planning and anticipation play a key role.
“If an organisation plans to apply a resilience approach to its operations,” said Reich, “it should assess its strengths and resources from two perspectives: (a) its ability to react to external stressors [risks or threats] in such a way as to strengthen and enhance its capabilities, and to ensure that it not only can react optimally, but also grow from the experience; and (b) its ability to scan its environment to search for potential stressors and to match resources accordingly. In applying a resilience model, planning resources can be as important as execution resources.”
One final point is that resilience training with individuals can also often be revealing of wider cultural issues. “The work is all about helping people to deal with the ups and downs of modern life,” said McCarron. “But, ultimately, if a business is putting unrealistic demands on people, no amount of workshops can fix that at the individual level.”
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