Organisational resilience – building capabilities to navigate in uncertain times15. December 2021 - By Joakim Eriksson, Senior Consultant, Mannaz Share
Uncertainty is one thing that everyone is struggling with as organisations figure out how best to work in a pandemic-affected world. While the term ‘VUCA world’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) has been around for a while, uncertainty seems to be reaching new levels.
The need to build resilience keeps coming up when we talk with leaders about their situations. There is an understanding that change and uncertainty won’t go away but that we have to build capabilities to handle them. Resilience could be seen as a kind of vaccine; rather than hoping for uncertainty and challenges to go away, we should prepare ourselves by building our organisational resilience.
How do we understand resilience?
Resilient, robust, agile… There are many ways to label and describe what makes persons, teams and organisations prepared to meet challenges. A Danish philosopher and professor at Copenhagen Business School, Ole Fogh Kirkeby, warns us against understanding robustness as armouring up – becoming tough and rigid.
In Asian traditions, the metaphors of oak trees and bamboo are often used when talking about resilience. Robust actually comes from the Latin word for oak tree – being well rooted, strong and sturdy.
Oak trees can withstand a lot of pressure, but the branches will eventually break when the outside forces become strong enough. Bamboo on the other hand is flexible, absorbing the outside forces and then springing back again.
In Mannaz, we believe in building resilience based on openness, flexibility, and adaptability rather than armouring up. In this article we will explore some of our experiences with building that kind of resilience into organisations.
Every sector and client is unique, but when synthesizing experiences, 4 themes emerge that we believe lie at the core of being resilient. We call them Inner Compass, Quality Connections, Emotional Regulation and Learning Spaces
4 themes to build resilience
Much has been written on building resilience and there are many potential ways to work with this topic. We would like to share our accumulated experiences of what works well for our clients, across different sectors and countries.
Every sector and client is unique, but when synthesizing experiences, 4 themes emerge that we believe lie at the core of being resilient. We call them Inner Compass, Quality Connections, Emotional Regulation and Learning Spaces.
Below we would like to briefly explain these 4 areas and share some tips for how to work with them in your organisation. As you will see, the themes can be applied for building personal resilience as well as for teams and an organisation as a whole.
A strong Inner Compass
Inner Compass relates to having a stable reference point you can trust when things become turbulent and uncertain. This can be well integrated values or a strong sense of purpose. Martin Seligman, the pioneering researcher in the field of positive psychology (research on thriving and well-being), often points to how people who have a deep sense of meaning in life seem to be more resilient, that is, experience less emotional stress when outer circumstances are uncertain. They handle setbacks better and can experience a deeper sense of joy and satisfaction, even during challenging situations.
Seligman’s research also indicates that this deeper sense of meaning is often connected to serving something greater than our own needs and having strong relationship with others. We will explore this further under Quality Connections.
On a team level, we know that groups of people who have a shared sense of purpose glue together better and are more likely to support each other through difficult situations. A shared purpose or goal acts as a compass for the group, as well as the individual team members, which in turn helps them act with more confidence even when reality deviates from the original plan.
The idea of using an Inner Compass for navigating in uncertainty also applies on an organisational level. When sudden disruptions and changes make a formally agreed strategy plan outdated, a well-anchored sense of organisational purpose or mission can act as a guiding star. When we find our action plan is no longer relevant, we can use our organisational purpose or mission as a reference point when we calibrate with reality and rethink what to do next.
How to work with it
A strong Inner Compass cannot be implemented quickly. It grows out of contemplation and reflection. This goes for individuals as well as for groups and organisations. However, just starting the process of reflecting and talking about what feels important to us, what values really guide our prioritisations and how we want to contribute, gets us in touch with that compass we all have.
As leaders, we can support this process by inviting these kinds of conversations with our employees in our one-to-one meetings. We can work actively with our teams to identify and relate to their shared purpose and we can take seriously the strategic conversation about our organisation’s values, purpose and mission.
Questions to reflect on
- Are your organisation’s purpose and values well anchored and acting as guiding stars for decision making?
- Does your team have a shared sense of purpose that glues team members together in times of trouble?
- To what degree do you and your team members find your work deeply meaningful?
Silo-oriented organisations struggle more to sense and cope well with changes in the market, while organisations where cross-functional collaboration is the norm more easily share information and resources in a way that supports an adaptive behaviour.
High Quality Connections
World-renowned systems thinker Margaret Wheatley often says; ‘No matter what the problem is, community is the answer.’ When we experience strong relationships with colleagues and friends we trust, we feel more confident to meet challenges.
On a team level, there is plenty of research showing how groups with high quality relations tackle challenges better. In her books “Teaming” and “The Fearless Organization”, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson points to the importance of psychological safety for people to bring out their best at work, be innovative and make each other better. Years of research at Google – called Project Aristoteles – to find the common denominators of high performing teams also found psychological safety in teams was most important element.
At an organisational level, high quality connections can be having a strong network outside your own unit. Silo-oriented organisations struggle more to sense and cope well with changes in the market, while organisations where cross-functional collaboration is the norm more easily share information and resources in a way that support an adaptive behaviour.
How to work with it
Building a strong network can be about both quality and quantity. Quantity is supported by making sure persons and teams are regularly exposed to, and get to work with, people from other units or even businesses.
Quality can be supported by facilitating more personal interactions, even in professional contexts. Edgar Schein, who studied leadership and organisational culture for decades, talks about the ‘intimacy line’ as a simple tool to diagnose on-the-job relationships.
At one end of the line is the purely professional relationship, where you only speak about work-related issues and pay no interest to the person themselves.
At the other end of the line, we have private relationships where colleagues also are close friends.
Schein found that relationships in well-functioning organisational cultures often struck a balance between these extremes, what he calls personal relationships. This doesn’t mean being friends but knowing something about each other beyond the formal work role. By showing some interest in our colleagues’ personal interests and life-experiences, we can better understand each other and lay the ground for trusting relationships.
Questions to reflect on
- How much do you know about your colleagues and stakeholders beyond your professional relationships?
- Do you feel that you can show up at work without wearing a role?
- How well do you know and understand the aspirations and struggles of other units in your organisation?
- Do you know how you can support others in your organisation to help them reach their goals?
To be able to navigate well in uncertainty, we need to practise what in psychology is called negative capability. This means having the ability to be with uncomfortable feelings without becoming reactive or getting tunnel vision.
Learning Emotional Regulation
As human beings we are hardwired to avoid uncertainty. From an evolutionary perspective, uncertainty wasn’t good for survival and we therefore have a built-in preference for predictability. In times of change and uncertainty, this subconscious programming can play out as holding onto old habits, clinging to our own assumptions or wanting fast and absolute answer to complex questions.
For most of us, uncertainty creates a sense of discomfort which in turn actives self-protection. When feeling anxious about the future, we are more likely to grasp for what feels safe rather than be open to new possibilities. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what is needed to cope well with emerging changes.
To be able to navigate well in uncertainty, we need to practice what in psychology is called negative capability. This means having the ability to be with uncomfortable feelings without becoming reactive or getting tunnel vision. To surf the waves of change, we need to be able to pause our habitual thinking and emotional autopilots long enough to be open to what is emerging.
How to work with it
On a personal level, this means getting to know ourselves better, including our emotional trigger points and our biases. By understanding our mental patterns more deeply, we are less likely to be surprised and hijacked by them when we find ourselves in difficult situations.
Working seriously with personality profiling and feedback tools in combination with coaching can be a way to increase self-awareness. Different kinds of mindfulness practices have also been shown to have positive effects on emotional regulation and the ability to cope with stressful situations.
On a team level, uncertainty can play out as conflict and polarisation. Emotional regulation in this context is a group’s ability to talk openly about tensions, get conflicts out in the open and handle them skilfully.
To support teams towards greater resilience, it can be very helpful to give them support and training in what leadership researcher Brené Brown calls ‘rumbling tools’. It is not the absence of conflict that signifies a resilient team but the confidence that the team members can handle tensions well when they show up.
Questions to reflect on
- When uncertainty increases, do you and your team members show more openness and vulnerability, or do you close up and protect yourself and your areas of responsibility?
- Do team members expect management to provide clear guidelines for complex situations, or do they take on a shared responsibility for exploring new answers and solutions?
- When things are uncertain, does the organisation increase efforts using the same methods as before, or are people able to consider new and innovative ways of working?
The key purpose of a Learning Space is to allow for everyone’s experience, perspectives, and ideas to surface and be seen and heard.
Creating Learning Spaces
Going through change and uncertainty will mean that the organisation and its members must learn and adapt to new ways of working. Though many ideas will circulate in the organisation, they are not necessarily synthesized into comprehensive new plans and procedures.
For an organisation to be truly learning and adaptive, space must be made for reflection, learning and synthesizing of new ideas. These learning spaces can happen spontaneously but more often they need to be set up and facilitated.
A learning space typically has these key characteristics:
- It allows people with different perspectives and experience to meet, share and sensemake together.
- It is a psychologically safe environment where people are invited to be open and share positive and negative experiences
- There is joint exploration focused on learning rather than finding faults or placing guilt
- Conversations are held in an atmosphere of co-creation, where everyone has a shared responsibility for contributing to new and better solutions.
The key purpose of a Learning Space is to allow for everyone’s experience, perspectives, and ideas to surface and be seen and heard. This builds on the principles of collective intelligence, whereby all team members catch bits of data from what is going on and, when their inputs are brought together, a more complete understanding of the current and potential situation becomes visible.
How to work with it
Learning Spaces can be created in many shapes and forms. It can be setting aside time in the weekly team meeting to share experiences from client interaction, arranging monthly cross-department reflection and brainstorming sessions, or full day off-sites where team members can step out of their operational mindsets and sensemake together about what is happening in the industry and their organisation.
Creating good learning spaces requires skilful facilitation as well as finding time. There are plenty of methods and tools to choose from to facilitate a learning conversation and, as a leader, you can choose to use an experienced facilitator who is not ordinarily a member of your team. This can be helpful, especially when you have to explore more difficult topics. When, as a leader, you take on the role of facilitator yourself, remember to hold you own opinions lightly and make sure to honour everyone’s experiences and perspectives.
Creating space for learning is just as important on a personal level. Many of us are so focused on acting swiftly and producing results that we seldom pause to zoom out and reflect on the effectiveness of what we are busy doing, the long-term consequences of our actions, or if there might be better ways of working.
When facilitating leadership development programmes, we always recommend participants set aside time regularly for individual reflection. This can be revisiting your personal goals once a month, reserving 10 minutes a week for writing in a journal or spending a few minutes at the end of a workday reflecting on what went well. New perspectives and real learning often appear in the gaps between actions.
Questions to reflect on
- When and how does your organisation provide a dedicated space for reflection and learning in, and between, teams?
- Do team members feel that diverse opinions and challenging perspectives are welcome?
- How often do you set aside time to reflect on how you are working and on your own personal development?