Resilience is critical when everything around us is falling apart. Where is it coming from? How can we cultivate it?
Last few weeks, we started “celebrating” some grim anniversaries, like the first lockdowns across the world one year ago. The previous twelve months have been tough for most of us. Some have lost loved ones, others have spent too much time alone and isolated, others have lost their jobs, and others have had to juggle jobs and home-schooling while being worried for the health and wellbeing of ailing parents. We all have had our own personal hell to live with, and many have fallen into depression, stress, and other mental illness cases.
It is not surprising then that one of the most used and celebrated words in the management literature in the last year has been resilience, or the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. It has always been an important trait, both personally and for an organisation, but last year’s difficulties have brought it even more to the forefront.
The sources of resilience
Last year the ADP Research Institute conducted three research studies on resilience and its sources. They identified the ten statements that best identify with resilience, and they grouped them into three groups: self, team manager, and senior leaders (see image below).
Their research indicates that resilience can be fostered by individual actions and attitudes, our direct manager and the senior leaders, or the overall corporate culture and policies. It makes sense.
Some people are more resilient than others by nature, but also by learning. I believe resilience, like most things in life, can be improved by practice and learning. Your genes and the way you were brought up will have an impact, but you can also decide to get more resilient by, for example, having a stoic approach to life and trying to have a positive outlook.
The primary learning of this research is that our direct managers and senior leaders have a considerable impact on the resilience of individuals and thus of the organisation.
We have seen this playing out the last few months. Some companies have been much more resilient than others because of the way they were managed and run by their leaders.
How to build resilient organisations
The HR thought leader Josh Bersin has extensively written about resilience and what organisations can do to cultivate it. In this article, he lists four things they should do.
Distributed control with centralized coordination
This is evident. Heavily centralised organisations are more fragile and less resilient.
In a constantly changing VUCA environment centralized and rigid organisations are lost. They don’t know where the punches are coming from or what is hitting them. You cannot control or know everything from a central point of command when many unforeseeable and complex phenomena are happening, often in different places at the same time. Organisations need to empower smaller teams closer to the ground, give them the right tools and resources, and trust them to make the right calls.
What you can and should do centrally is to define an overarching vision of where we are going and ensure the teams have everything they need to get there. This includes coordinating resources and socializing the learnings of one team to the rest of the organisation.
Flatter, simpler, and more decentralized organisations that look more like networks than pyramids will always be more resilient.
High quality, real-time data
This is another evident one. Without proper, timely quality data, it is near impossible to make the right decisions. Companies that invest in the right technology to capture and analyse meaningful data will have an edge and will be better positioned to respond to the challenges of the environment.
As Bersin tells us, “you don’t know what you can’t see,” and without knowledge, we become more vulnerable and therefore fragile to any external or internal circumstance or event. If your company hasn’t invested in the right people and market analytics tools and teams, what are you waiting for?
Leadership who care
In this blog, we often talk about leadership because it is vital in most areas affecting the good running of the company. Good leadership will have a positive impact on resilience too.
Bersin talks about leaders who care, and he focuses on empathy as a critical element of leadership to build resilience. I agree. The genuine caring leader, even a loving one, will understand what’s happening to their team and what they are feeling and going through. The team will respond accordingly. They will feel supported and will be less stressed and anxious about everything that is going on.
I would add that a leader with a purpose, with a WHY that goes beyond profits, will have a more cohesive and resilient team that will be able to respond successfully to all challenges they face.
Resilience thrives in a community, not only an organisation
As Bersin says, “the most resilient, adaptive, and high-performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.”
The organisations that create a sense of belonging and are more communities than corporations will be more resilient and successful when the going gets tough. Many popular management practices have pitted employees against each other and have created hyper-competitive environments within companies (forced ranking anyone?). This may work in certain situations and contexts, but it is a recipe for disaster in a challenging context like the one we have today.
You don’t create a community-like organization in a week or a month. It requires time and deliberate actions, like having an engaging purpose, treating people fairly, and incentivizing the right behaviours at work (e.g., collaboration, teamwork).
The organisations that take the time and effort to do this will bear the fruits of their work.
Bersin ends his article with the premise that human beings are resilient by nature, but many organisations don’t make the most of that individual resilience. With their practices, politics, and culture, they promote the wrong behaviours, and they cancel the individuals´ natural resilience.
Companies have to build the right Employee Experience to cover the five areas of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and thus enable the individual resilience of its employees.
Is your organisation allowing and tapping into the natural resilience of its people or hindering it?
Resilience or Antifragility?
In his article, Bersin says there are more and more Black Swans, and he cites several examples, from the Boeing 373 failures that caused a couple of plane crashes to the covid-19 pandemic itself. I am not sure Nassim Taleb, who is the one who coined the term, would agree with him on all those being Black Swans, as some of them were quite predictable if you looked at the data available before the events or didn’t have such a significant impact. A Black Swan is a large, improbable, and unpredictable event with a massive impact on society, economics, politics, or life in general.
Bersin argues organisations need to be resilient to bounce back from Black Swans and other events. On the other hand, Taleb believes it is better to be antifragile than resilient, and he dedicates a full book to this topic. Anti-fragile.
In this work, Taleb argues that there are three types of people, organisations, entities, and things: the fragile, the robust (or resilient), and the antifragile. The fragile is impacted enormously by changes, randomness, chaos, and Black Swan events. The moment there is a change, the fragile suffers.
The robust or the resilient, as we explained above, suffers a bit from changes and unplanned events, but it bounces back and recovers quickly. It is more neutral, but it isn’t a net positive either.
The antifragile, however, benefits from chaos, changes, randomness, and Black Swan events. It gains from them: the more changes, the better. The antifragile not only withstands difficulties, like the resilient but thrives on chaotic environments full of them.
As a concept, it is attractive, and the book is a good read. Unfortunately, Taleb dedicates more space to detect the fragile than to provide examples of the antifragile, so there is no clear recipe on how to achieve antifragility. He believes we are making systems and organisations too fragile by cocooning and protecting them too much. The antifragile is built by being exposed to risks and challenges and growing from them.
Taleb believes that smaller and more nimble organisations will be more antifragile than big and rigid ones, but, as explained above, that’s similar to what Bersin said about resilience.
In the current VUCA world, the more antifragile we become, the better, but it’s not clear how to get there.
Resilient organization, resilient individual
It seems clear that resilient (and even antifragile) organizations share some elements in common. They are nimble and agile, decentralized, and close to the ground. They are also learning organisations, that have the right approach to experimentation, risk-taking, using challenges to grow and learn, and disseminating the newly created knowledge across the organisation.
Resilient organisations have the right data and make decisions based on evidence, not whims. They have great leaders who understand all this and take care of their people. They have the right culture and values, and they are organisations that look more like communities of like-minded people than rigid and bureaucratic corporations.
That’s good about organisations, but what about the individuals? What about you, me and all the rest? Resilience, like many other things in life, is a mindset and an outlook on life.
Ancient Greek and Roman Stoics built their entire worldview and philosophy around resilience, so there is much we can learn from them. They accepted things as they came. For stoics, happiness was found by accepting the moment as it presented itself, losing control of the desires of the body, and the fear of pain.
There isn’t a better way to finish a post on resilience than by quoting two of the great minds of ancient Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, both Romans.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”Marcus Aurelius
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
This last one can be summarized as the more prosaic and popular “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” attributed to Nietzche. Don’t shy away from challenges. Face them and take them as what they really are: opportunities for learning and growth. That’s how you build resilience.