Organizational resilience is not just about recovering from a crisis but adapting to it. It’s the ability to come out stronger and leverage learnings from the challenges faced to plan ahead for future disruptions. During tough times, resilient organizations and people can better weather any storm and quickly recover.
But how do you foster resilience—organizational resilience and individual resilience? This article will offer some answers, tips, and tools you can use to nurture organizational resilience and ensure your people are more equipped to handle whatever life throws their way.
What is organizational resilience?
Resilient organizations thrive before, during, and after adversity. They’re driven by people that plan ahead, keep an eye out for potential disruptions, and stay calm under pressure. They don't just respond positively to change. They embrace it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and increase their resilience.
Take the food service industry, for example. When the pandemic forced us all indoors, restaurants were left scrambling. Many shut their doors, but others were able to recover quickly. Why? Some restaurants already had takeout and delivery options. Others quickly adapted. And a few used the pandemic to transform their business model entirely—like the Canadian pizza restaurant General Assembly which launched a frozen pizza subscription service.
The pivot into e-commerce and wholesale helped General Assembly founder Ali Khan Lalani scale up his business 50-fold and rebound from the initial shock of the pandemic. As a result, Lalani went from laying off two-thirds of his employees (from 30 to just five) and closing his restaurant in March 2020 to having a team of 70 employees as of November 2021.
These restaurants’ ability to adapt to rapid change was the difference between survival (and thriving) and shutting their doors, which is why resilience is essential. COVID-19 brought fast-moving and unexpected impacts for which many organizations were unprepared. Two years since its onset, we're still feeling the effects and likely will for the foreseeable future.
Record inflation. Layoffs. The Great Resignation. The daily headlines can make your head spin, but resilient organizations filled with resilient individuals can better overcome hard times and outperform their competitors.
How companies create and sustain organizational resilience and employee resilience.
Ultimately, organizational resilience stems from employee resilience. While other factors can impact organizational resilience (e.g., finances, brand and reputation, operations, technology, strategy, etc.), your people are your organization's best asset during disruption.
Resilience, whether individual or organizational, is not a destination but an ongoing practice. It can be helpful to think of resilience as a muscle or physical exercise. Daily exercise strengthens you, prevents disease, and improves your overall health.
Emotional resilience works similarly. When you practice resilience, you strengthen your 'resilience muscle,' making it easier for you to handle difficult times, like coping with changes to your role or organization, without getting overwhelmed.
Here are some tips to help your employees build their resilience, which will support your organizational resilience.
Support your employees' wellbeing.
Studies show that happier people with a strong purpose in life or higher levels of self-efficacy (i.e., a person’s confidence in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal) seem to have an easier time recovering after a disaster or setback. These factors are the same for both work and life. When you're fulfilled at work, feel a sense of purpose, and have a high degree of competency and capability – you're more resilient to stressful times.
What does cultivating employee happiness and growth with resilience in mind look like in practice? Fortunately, Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer & EVP, Human Resources at Microsoft, created a simple framework that can apply to any organization: The 5Ps of Employee Fulfillment.
Like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, supporting employee wellbeing starts with fulfilling basic needs at the bottom and working up.
The most fulfilled (and therefore, resilient) employees:
- Are compensated well for their work (Pay)
- Have access to benefits that help them live well (Perks)
- Feel a sense of inclusion, belonging, and connection with their colleagues (People)
- Are proud of their organization and the work they do (Pride)
- Find deep meaning in their work (Purpose)
In short, the more Ps you can offer your people, the more resilient they will be.
Have a common purpose.
The final P in Hogan's hierarchy may be the most influential piece of all when building organizational resilience. Common purpose activates resilience because it influences how much people care about their work: beyond the pay, perks, or people. And when people are more invested in their work, they're more motivated to ride out the difficult times and develop creative solutions to support their organizations.
According to a Deloitte report on organizational resilience “a purpose-oriented workforce tends to be one that seeks out challenging opportunities, engages in connecting with others to learn faster, and [is] overwhelmingly confident in its ability to learn and adapt—something that's critical in times of uncertainty."
Take Patagonia, for example. Even though the company shut down stores and laid off employees at the onset of the pandemic, Patagonia’s business has since recovered from the shutdown, and annual sales are on track to exceed $1 billion. Thanks, in no small part, to its purpose-driven mission that existed before the pandemic to “save our home planet.”
The eco-conscious outdoor clothing retailer generated a record $10 million in sales during its November 2021 Black Friday event—five times more than they expected—and donated 100% of the proceeds to grassroots nonprofits dedicated to saving the planet.
The Black Friday initiative attracted not only loyal customers but also “thousands who have never purchased anything from Patagonia before,” explained Rose Marcario, former president and chief executive of Patagonia, in a statement.
Shake up your routines.
Every organization has routines and processes. But what happens when your workflows break down? Do you have a backup plan? It's impossible to predict every kind of crisis your organization might face, but there are two approaches you can take to respond more effectively to highly changeable environments:
- Simple rules to encourage self-initiated discovery. These rules of thumb help you make decisions and prioritize tasks during a work disruption. For example, a potential rule for a marketing team could be, "at least two team members must review any public communications before publishing." Rather than identifying specific people, this rule allows for flexibility if a key team member is away.
- Improvisation. Sometimes, you might have to address a problem or opportunity on the spot. Help your people hone their improvisation skills with brainstorming exercises. For example, you can ask your team how they would react to different challenging scenarios. If planning a virtual event, what would you do if Zoom went down or an important speaker canceled at the last minute? Discussing how you would handle these ‘what-if?’ scenarios could help your team stay ahead of any curve balls and troubleshoot better in the moment.
How to support your people through times of uncertainty.
According to Deloitte research, businesses that can bounce back from unexpected challenges typically have the following five characteristics:
1. They are prepared.
The most resilient leaders plan for the short- and long-term. More than 85% of chief experience officers (CXOs) who had balanced priorities felt they had pivoted very effectively to adapt to the events of 2020. In contrast, fewer than half of organizations without that balance felt the same.
What you can do now: Identify and clarify organizational priorities. During a crisis, routines and rules can go out the window, and you will need to come up with solutions quickly. In these situations, align and focus on the north star metrics and contingencies that will help the organization survive and make this information transparent. Doing so will help everyone tackle the most pressing problems and concentrate on essential activities.
2. They are adaptable.
Organizations hiring with a specialist mentality can lead to information siloes and hinder individual and team growth. Instead, aim to strike a healthy balance between enabling your employees to work in their zone of genius and ensuring they have a working knowledge of other business activities. That way, during a crisis, they can support other areas of the business if needed.
What you can do now: Cross-train your employees on critical activities—and educate them on why this matters. Having a more profound knowledge of how other areas function will make your team more resilient because the larger group's work won't be impacted as much by a disruption.
3. They are collaborative.
During difficult times, the most resilient organizations leverage collective talents to achieve the common goal of moving the organization forward. However, if an organization doesn’t regularly provide opportunities to combine different skills and ideas across teams to work together towards shared goals, employees may not be as cooperative or prioritize their individual or team goals over the organization.
What you can do now: Create opportunities for employees to get to know one another and work beyond their direct teams. For example, siloes can form based on seniority, work schedule, location, and department. Encouraging team members to work with people outside their usual group will promote collaboration and understanding.
4. They are trustworthy.
Your workforce will look to leadership to guide them through a crisis. If your employees feel like they can trust you to make the right calls, they will be more motivated to stick with your organization and help to navigate the turbulent times—instead of jumping ship.
What you can do now: Prioritize communication and transparency. It's okay not to have all the answers. Share what you know and keep an open dialogue between leadership and the rest of the workforce. Ask for feedback and ensure you have an accessible mechanism for gathering feedback that allows employees to share their thoughts publicly or privately.
5. They are responsible.
Organizations have a responsibility beyond the business bottom line. While it's easy to lose focus during a crisis, the most resilient organizations consider and balance all their stakeholders' needs—from investors and customers to suppliers and employees.
What you can do now: Create a psychologically safe work environment. Encourage your people to share ideas, experiment, take risks and make mistakes without fear or judgment. That way, they'll feel more empowered to problem solve and make fast decisions when the time comes.
How a culture of appreciation, recognition, and reward fosters organizational resilience.
Positive reinforcement through meaningful recognition and rewards is one of the best tools to build resilience. Recognizing and rewarding your team for their positive contributions and above-and-beyond efforts can help boost morale, productivity, and performance—which make all the difference during a crisis.
Reinforce and bring awareness to resilience-building behaviors.
What traits, practices, or behaviors drive individual and company-wide success? And what company values should your organization adopt to drive that success? These questions will help you identify resilience-building behaviors that your organization can reinforce through meaningful recognition.
For example, a healthy work-life balance is key to employee resilience. People need the space and time to relax and unwind to bounce back from stressful situations. Knowing this, you could reward and recognize employees who exhibit behaviors that promote healthy work-life balance, like setting clear boundaries, establishing a minimum time off policy, or prioritizing self-care.