Resilience is not a programme

Imagine a sizable company, where about half the people are factory workers, much of the rest are professionals, and then of course, there are administration, support and “Management”. COVID19 struck and retrenchments are inevitable, but that’s not the end of it – most are losing leave, pay, and other benefits, just to stay in the game. It’s not hard to imagine that, is it – it may even be quite like your company.

What now? We know that this entire organisational community can be torn apart. Its resilience needs bolstering, so that it can survive and recover from this disaster.

We have been in the habit of prescribing “Resilience” for organisations facing disruptive, traumatic change – often a bunch of 1-day training engagements with the front-line to prepare them for the worst, or to patch them up for the next round of brutal hits. This is a bit like putting a patient on vitamins – the jury is out about that, and a “real” doctor would probably never do it. The philosophy is almost: just do something positive, so that you have some muscle when crisis strikes. (Also, it kind of eases the conscience of management: we have done something, at least.)

But imagine you are a factory worker, living a precarious life already, and some trainer from the city comes and tells you how to be more resilient – he even has some checklists and tools you can take away from the session. He listens to you and sometimes he even weeps with you. At the end, he tells you that it is in your hands. After the session he drives back to his nice house in the suburbs. What an insult. And I don’t deny that some of us trainers and facilitators are good people, filled with empathy, truly concerned with our audience’s capacity to take heavy blows from life. But really.

Forget about “Resilience” as a skill you can train, or a capacity you can develop in individuals through “resilience workshops”, immediately. It will make your CFO angry, and rightly so. It should make everyone angry. In this crisis, nobody has time or money for this kind of window-dressing.

Yet, resilience is necessary. It means the ability to bounce back, to recover after setback, and to endure hardship. (Fellow OD practitioner Sharon Shakung contests this definition of resilience, preferring to see resilience as a diverse, healthy inner world, and the capacity for tenacity and moving forward. See this great conversation with her here.) We need to develop it, in the same way that a biological organism needs a functioning immune system. It’s just not as simple as that, because we are more than biological organisms.

Resilience is not a programme. It is not even an outcome, because an outcome implies something predictable. We can say that is a property of a system, a capacity of a group, and a quality or characteristic of an individual, and it emerges through numerous actions and interactions, interventions, and organisational responses. When we consider developing organisational resilience, we need to pay attention to all three levels – too often, we only focus on the individual aspect (and much too often, only focused on the “front-line” as a kind of palliative) and hope that it will magically translate into systemic or group resilience.

What resilience is needed, and where is it needed most?

Resilience is not something we can just inject into the entire system, and voila!

If we are going to have to retrench people to survive, what will this do to the resilience of the organisation as a whole? Perhaps it will create systemic fragility in its aftermath – a lack of capacity, for instance, or the loss of core capability. The less obvious but potentially more deleterious impact, though, is likely to be on the organisational community. These are all the people identifying in some way with the organisation as something valuable: a source of work, security, pride, service. A huge risk is that people lose faith in the organisation: as viable, as trustworthy, etc. Ensuring survival while strengthening (cutting, changing) the organisational system, on the one hand, and protecting the organisational community, on the other hand, all of this with always too few resources (time, money, skills, etc.), is an astoundingly complex challenge.

I think it may be necessary to strategically focus on key areas of the business, and to deliberately foster resilience where it is needed most. Strengthen the core, first. You can’t reach the whole organisation, if not from this core. Some possible starting points:

  • Leaders (“Management”) in this time need to make astoundingly difficult trade-offs. They are working around the clock. They are heartbroken, or resolutely avoiding having any feelings at all (a recipe for a mental health crisis). They are brimming with fear. Everybody hates them. How resilient are the members of the executive team?
  • Who are leading crisis and recovery initiatives, including restructurings and retrenchments? How well equipped are they for the extraordinary demands of this time? How do they recover, and keep going, facing day after day not only their own fears and uncertainties, but those of the ones affected by their work?
  • Where are the sites of conflict? For instance, what is the involvement of, and relationship with, unions during this time? How resilient are these relationships – can they sustain themselves in the face of such pressures?
  • Who are cut loose, and who remains? Who need to take cuts of whatever kind to their own livelihoods, and still deliver exceptional service?
  • What about the middle managers (particularly vulnerable in our mostly somewhat bloated organisations), and the first-line managers, who face not only their own fears, but those they are supervising, and from whom they need to ensure not only uninterrupted, but improved productivity?

And so on. My point is: Resilience work can’t be wide and generic, it needs to be focused and specific. It can’t be everywhere at once – we need to start where the need is most severe, and work from there.


Who is responsible for resilience?

Who must engage with the factory workers? Not me, I am afraid. You, their leaders, need to do it. I know that you are so busy getting things up and running that you don’t have time for this too. That is not going to work. If you send me, or someone like me, in to “build employee resilience”, the result will probably be a more cynical workforce. You know their context, their challenges, and their fears. You also know what is needed, and why it is needed. You have the rationale for the pain you are bringing.

This can’t be outsourced. It does not mean that someone cannot support you. This is a better time than any for a leadership team to get together and develop some robustness (and robustness involves deep vulnerability, make no mistake); and because of our tendency to bullshit ourselves, it is a really good idea to get someone in who can call you on this bullshit and ask the uncomfortable questions that no one else in the organisation dares asking. This holds for leaders as individuals too. I know what you will say: we don’t have time, and we don’t have budget. This is one of those risky trade-offs you need to make. We are beyond the point where just working harder is going to make much of a difference.

Now, if leaders do not have a history of engaging in ways with employees that builds trust and fosters engagement, this is late in the game. But there is always hope, and if you don’t start now, what is certain is lasting, possibly irrecoverable damage. I think resilience is in part about being real about what you are facing, and then not giving up.

What about HR, OD, Organisational Effectiveness, etc.? Forget about your old job, and the way you did things in the past. Systemic, group and individual resilience requires dense engagement or interaction at multiple points in the organisation. Training is not going to cut it. Have some empathy for management – in fact, before you presume to support anyone else in the organisation, make sure that you are effectively supporting “Management”. Ask the hard questions, and speak the truth – don’t let senior leaders wriggle out of their responsibility for leading a resilient organisation.


What can be done?

It depends, as we like saying in organisation development. Context is supreme. No two organisations face the same situation and resilience does not mean the same everywhere. However, there may be similarities and themes running across most situations. For me, these may include:

  • Strengthen the ability of the executive to lead in the crisis. They need to be one team. They need to have robust decision-making practices. They need to confront each other, and resolve conflict in the interest of the organisation. They need to be visible. They need to communicate coherently.
  • Work specifically with leaders at risk of burnout, melt-down, etc. This is an extremely difficult time, and we all need to do things we have never done before. At worst, we will unconsciously revert to our worst habits. We will feel angry, guilty and fearful. Don’t let people struggle alone.
  • Facilitate the work towards a resolution where there is high impact and high conflict.
  • Support teams that are critical, and teams that are struggling.
  • Enable leaders at all levels to engage with their people in such a way that trust is built, not destroyed.
  • Look after yourself, and you own sanity and health. This won’t be over soon.

And whatever else that stands to good reason.

The paradox of the crisis is that our very response to it will build or destroy resilience. What does not kill you makes you strong, my grandmother used to say. As long as we remember that strong is not blind or obstinate, a brute force only, but also reflective, thoughtful, empathetic and ethical.

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