What the workplace and the military have in common.
Resilience has permeated the beginning of the 21st century. It has infused into our lives and our organisations.
The concept took off after 9/11, moving into the military and becoming a major feature of national security strategies and preparation for attack. It then moved into the field of economics especially following the global financial collapse when the need for systemic global financial resilience became critical.
From there it streamed into the language of organisations and ultimately into the language of individuals. But have we gone too far?
We all need resilience at points in our lives. But it is important to note that these points in our lives are context dependent and time-limited. Indeed COVID has taught us how important it is to have gaps in time when we can relax our level of vigilance and resilience and return to normal.
Yet in organisations and as individuals it has become pervasive. Rather than being a context dependent and time limited set of skills on which we draw when needed, now we simply “need to be resilient”. Organisations specifically assess for resilience at the recruitment stage, according it singular importance — but on what assumption? Are most organisations really likely to face more continuous threats than they have recently, for which constant vigilance and resilience is required? Are those threats likely to continuously meet the level of shock, crisis, or trauma that require resilience even when change is more common in our times?
Resilience presupposes that there are threats to which we need to respond, but unlike its use in the military where scanning the environment for and responding to threat is integral to its role, it is not intended that the rest of us should be similarly disposed. Indeed, a focus on such organisational and individual behaviour is counterproductive, particularly to the other organisational resonance of the 21st century — that of positivity. An ongoing assumption of threat places us consciously or subconsciously into a state of fight and flight with its associated negative emotions which, as research has consistently shown, reduces our capacity to problem-solve, to be innovative and productive.
In an era in which we are simply meant to be resilient, what responsibilities fall on our organisations? Are individuals expected to continually weather the storm? In 2014, two consultants, Bond and Shapiro, surveyed where employees’ reserves of resilience came from. Ninety percent said from themselves, a little over 50% said from their relationships and barely 10% said from their organisation. The flourishing of psychological assessments for resilience confirm this focus on individual responsibility. But to what degree does this let organisations off the hook? I am well aware of situations where organisations have indeed let themselves off the hook by telling individuals that they weren’t resilient enough when they struggled with a situation, rather than considering organisational factors. With resilience so highly prized, at what point does it make us over-tolerant of adversity when we might be better off changing jobs? Does it mean we persevere with impossible goals rather than do something more effective inside an organisation?
What the research does tell us is that resilience does not just reside in the individual but is a state that is responsive to good management practices. These tend to be the practices that good organisations manifest more generally — such as an environment that fosters learning and thereby engenders adaptivity, that provides a supportive community and fosters strong relationships, that offers meaning and purpose in its work and focuses positively on what works. An organisation that focuses on these attributes provides a more effective climate that at the same time prepares it for difficult circumstances while bypassing the grip of threat and its adverse consequences.
Carey Glass is an expert in change with ease. Her work is based on the simple reality that change happens all the time and is not new to organisations or their employees. She works with individuals, teams and organisations to harness their own capacity for change rather than impose change upon them. Her coaching has been cited by Harvard University’s Institute of Coaching and is particularly effective in limiting the number of sessions required. She is co-editor of the international journal InterAction, The Journal of Solutions Focus in Organisations, which demonstrates how to bring the benefits of the practice of Solutions Focus to individual, team and organisational change in complex environments (sfio.org).