Tips on Building Organizational Resilience

By Steve Axelrod
Featured on American Psychological Association's "Good Company E-Newsletter"

The challenges of the “Great Recession” have again put the concept of organizational resilience in the spotlight. This downturn has reminded us how organizational life is characterized by periods of adversity, and that the psychological health of organizations (like that of individuals) hinges on the capacity to bounce back or recover from a significant setback. Organizational resilience links psychological health with adaptability, sustainability and long-term profitability.Over the past 10 years I have worked with managers on how to build organizational resilience, first in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and then in relation to the ensuing economic recession. In the face of life-threatening events, layoffs and restructurings, I have seen a growing recognition that managers need to help their employees handle the stressful effects of these occurrences. Going the next step to actively optimize organizational resilience is becoming a managerial core competency.

As a manager, leader, HR adviser or psychological consultant, you can help your organization respond more effectively to current adversity and build resilience and increased adaptability for the future by following these basic guidelines.

Anticipate and acknowledge reality. If your business is declining and austerity measures will be required, be informed. Know the plans for change, the timeline and the extent of impact so you can develop a clear communication strategy. Acknowledge the realities of fear and stress.

Stay involved and keep it personal. Employees respond in highly personal and individual ways to stressful conditions. Become knowledgeable about the stressful effects of organizational change and who will be most vulnerable. The personal touch is important now more than ever, and is part of the foundation of a sustainable, resilient culture.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!!! Explain the context and rationale for changes in the organization. Monitor the emotional tone of your communications – neither “doom and gloom” nor blind optimism. Take the time to listen – good communication is two-way communication.

Draw on your own and others’ narratives of resilience. Self-awareness is one of your most powerful tools. Think about how you have faced setbacks and adversity in the past and listen for similar stories from your colleagues. Using your personal narrative helps give you credibility which is essential to fostering organizational resilience.

Reassert your organization’s moral purpose and help employees continue to find meaning in their work. Organizations that weave a sense of moral purpose into the fabric of their cultures cope best with trauma and change. That sense of purpose grows out of core values that enable the organization to thrive and achieve a special, lasting place in the wider world.

Remember the Three C’s – Control, Commitment and Challenge. Good managers actively separate what can be controlled from what can’t, are honest about the distinction and focus on what is within their sphere of control. They ask for help and continue to communicate high standards of employee initiative, accountability and commitment. Good managers use the language of challenge, understanding that organizational growth and resilience happen only if employees are supported in taking on and meeting challenges.

Encourage and reward innovation and creative problem solving. Linear thinking, conventional problem-solving and group think are the enemies of organizational resilience. Now is the time to encourage out-of-the box thinking and to make sure that a diversity of opinions and perspectives is expressed. Adversity often gives rise to innovation, with many successful ventures gaining a foothold during a downturn.

Maintain an external focus. In a time of anxiety, fear and stress employees may turn inward, losing valuable opportunities to respond to changing market conditions. During times of adversity it is especially important to reach out and strengthen relationships with clients and customers.

If you follow these guidelines you can do more than help your organization manage the stresses of the current crisis. You can actively combat the denial, withdrawal, and concrete thinking that characterize fragile and brittle organizations. By managing to optimize resilience you can improve your organization’s psychological health, enabling it to respond more effectively to future challenges.