Posted On October 22, 2015 By Stephen De Kalb

Resilience is a strategic capability that’s worth its weight in gold to leaders, employees and organisations everywhere. How do you get it, and what does it look like?

Resilience: [re-zil-ee-ehns] noun, at work the ability to remain task-focused and productive while experiencing tough times.

Leaders need resilience so they can effectively maintain a steady course when facing disruptive events. What’s more, truly resilient leaders are able to transform misfortune, even chaos, into opportunity. As one saying goes, “Leaders become great not in spite of their setbacks, but because of them.” It’s also been said that resilient leaders are more likely to recognise harbingers of disaster and, as a result of either their experience or intuition, to keep a watchful eye for signs of flagging resilience within their organisations.

By virtue of their position, leaders are catalysts for a whole range of characteristics that can grow and flow throughout an organisation. But at the end of the day, leaders are employees too, and every worker needs resilience simply to cope with the increasing stresses and strains found in today’s workplace: challenging (and not always satisfying) change, increasing uncertainty, and what’s been termed the intensification of work driven by technology and communications that places added pressure on the time available to get things done.

Away from the workplace, CEOs and mail-room clerks alike often find precious little respite because they’re tethered to work by technology—and buffeted by the complexity and pace of 21st century life, unable to clock off.

The strength to cope with high levels of stress, face difficulties head on and overcome hardship are not traits found only in a select few. A great deal of science supports the notion that resilience is not only very common but also that both senior leaders and employees can learn the skills they may not possess and become more resilient. Social scientists say the emotional and behavioural characteristics of the resilient person—and that can be learned and developed—include:

  • Resilient people have a clear view of stressful situations they face, including their own emotional response and the reactions and behaviours of those around them. This awareness enables them to detach and remove emotion so they remain “in control” and able to think rationally through possible solutions
  • Another characteristic is the understanding that setbacks and disappointments are unavoidable, perhaps even necessary parts of life and while we cannot always avoid them, we can remain flexible and open to change
  • A resilient individual not only sees the glass as half full, not half empty, they understand the difference between difficulties that are outside of their control such as earthquakes and cyclones, and those they can control. They see themselves as survivors, not victims, and believe their actions can positively affect the outcome of even the most challenging events
  • Problem-solving skills. Combined with acceptance and optimism, resilient people are more likely to look at stressful situations in a thoughtful way (i.e. they refrain from making hurried decisions) and study the problem from many perspectives, and not fall prey to tunnel vision
  • Social safety nets. A strong social support system is important when dealing with problems, and resilient people rarely go it alone. Generally speaking they rely on family, friends and colleagues to ask for help, gain perspective or simply vent their emotions.

An interesting sidebar to all this is that science is regularly shedding new light on what it takes to be resilient. The latest neurobiology research suggests that traits associated with resilience (and the lack of it) can be “tweaked” at the molecular level to accommodate an individual’s genetic makeup. These discoveries show promise of help in the future for everyone experiencing anxious times and, importantly, new ways of treating chronic depression. If you’d like more information on these exciting developments, check out the Dana Foundation’s 2014 briefing paper The Neurobiology of Resilience”.

For now, however, every quality listed above can be developed by people at every level of your organisation, and a great place to start is TP3’s two-day Growing Resilience course or its short, snappy three-hour workshop, Building Resilience.

Organisational resilience starts at the top

For an organisation to be truly resilient and able to operate effectively in circumstances that bring competitors to their knees, it needs the all-important catalyst of a resilient leader.

Then it needs resilient employees, or at least a significant proportion of them across the workforce and in key areas, and policies, internal structures and indeed a culture that foster open communication, work/life balance and high levels of engagement.

When we combine the emotional and behavioural characteristics of the resilient leader and individual employee with those of that define a resilient organisation, the synergies become obvious. Generally speaking, those characteristics are reflected in eight key indicators you should look for when assessing the resilience of an organisation:

  • It bears repeating that in tough times organisations need strong, cool-headed management and smart decision making. In other times, however, it also needs leaders at all levels who are focused on strategies that mitigate organisational stress, promote agility and that will increase capacity in a crisis if required
  • Team engagement. Another characteristic of a resilient organisation is this: a large percentage of its workforce genuinely understand and appreciate their work’s impact on organisational performance, and they are actively engaged in making positive contributions
  • Decision making. Not all decisions are made in the C suite. In a resilient organisation decision-making authority for work-related issues is clearly delegated and employees are empowered to wield that authority
  • Shared knowledge. Key information, from orientation materials to crisis-management procedures, is available to every employee who needs it, when they need it, and in a form that can be easily understood and used
  • Innovation and Creativity. Along with shared knowledge, a key marker of organisational resilience is a culture that encourages and rewards workers for finding new ways to solve problems and develop solutions
  • Lack of silos. Barriers of all types—social, cultural, behavioural and most importantly communication—are identified and, as far as possible, removed to promote connected ways of working together
  • Situation awareness. Look for policies and programs that encourage employees to be vigilant about potential problems, and for leaders who pay attention to early warning signals, then respond
  • One direction. Closely aligned to leadership and team engagement is an understanding everywhere of what the organisation’s key priorities are before, during and following a crisis.

A healthy eco-system

No organisation is immune from setbacks but how well they’re prepared, the manner in which they respond and how they bounce back is the difference between the resilient, successful organisation and the rest. And no organisation, like no individual, is an island. Organisational resilience is greatly influenced and tested by external factors from customers, suppliers and even competitors to regulations, the vagaries of international trade and the like.

However, “resilience” is much more than simply how individuals cope with adversity. Organisations and teams are, after all, made up of individuals and led by individuals, and for that reason resilience manifests itself at the individual, team* and organisational levels in ways that are remarkably similar. Just as individuals can learn to develop personal traits of resilience, so too can organisations, with the right leadership, develop a culture of resilience.

And they need to. To make this point I’ll turn to author Jim Collins and his best-selling book Good to Great in which he wrote: “The good to great companies faced as much adversity as the comparison companies but responded to that adversity differently. They hit the realities of their situation head-on and as result emerged from adversity even stronger.”

* That said, the study of group dynamics shows that teams of humans often respond to stress and adversity quite differently from how its individual members may respond, but that’s a topic for another time.

Other Resources

Three-hour workshop: Building Resilience

Two-day workshop: Growing Resilience

Article: Building your Resilience