By Anna Margrethe Wegeberg Nebel, Licensed MSc in Psychology, Chief Consultant at Mannaz
Keywords: Organisational competencies, Relations, Leadership, Employees
In this article, I’ll start by asking what we want our employees, leaders, and organisations to be resilient to. The short answer is that we need to be resistant to pressure. Resilience is an individual, a relational and an organisational competence (not a trait). In the following paragraphs, I argue that the core element of resilience is the degree to which each employee’s and each leader’s reflection competence is played out in a smaller (relational) and a larger (organisational) context. I also make suggestions as to how supervision can create and increase resilience in individuals, in groups, and in organisations.
Over the past decade, the term RESILIENCE has made its way into the organisational world. People want resilient organisations and resilient employees. Critics ask if that means there’s no room for vulnerable employees. Do you essentially have to be an elite soldier to be part of the Danish workforce?
We know the word “resilience” from biology, where it describes an ecosystem’s ability to recreate itself or to re-emerge in a new form after being destroyed. The word means “bouncing back” like a spring, which is squeezed together at first, after which the pressure is released. In psychology, we know the term from the so-called “dandelion children” – children who, despite a tough childhood, end up leading successful lives.
In organisations, we talk about resilience in different ways. Is it a new “must-have” if you want to keep up with the latest developments? Is it management’s way of masking new (and unreasonable) demands? Is it a “new, fancy consultant term” that costs an arm and a leg? Is it a way of distinguishing capable from incapable employees? The resilient versus the non-resilient?
A few years ago I supervised a young psychologist with visible stress symptoms: insomnia, anxiety, depressive traits. Each time we met, we talked about what was stressing her out at that particular moment: an individual task, during lunch if a comment had been made, or a particular client relationship. Her first lesson was that she needed to learn to identify what was stressing her out. Once she had done that, we were able to work with why it was stressing her out, as well as how she could address the root of her stress and what her options were to change her response.
One day she asked me, “How long can I take this?” I didn’t hesitate. “Not for very long,” I replied. But she never completely gave up. She kept her job, which was actually (too) stressful. She gradually learned how to handle her work and her vulnerability, and she became an even better psychologist along the way. Was she resilient? Yes and no. Did she feel resilient? Yes and no. Did she grow more resilient along the way? Yes, she did. Does that mean that she will always be resilient at work? No, not necessarily, because her context will not remain stable for the rest of her working life.
What do we need to learn to be resilient to?
As an organisational psychologist, I meet many resilient people. I would go as far as to say that everyone is resilient to one thing or another. For example, I meet leaders who are resilient to their staff’s signals that their management is destructive for a department or an organisation – leaders who as a result leave departments devastated or are forced to explain (away) a large number of replacements with, e.g., “unwillingness to change.” I have also come across employees who are pretty resilient with regard to a leader’s broad hint that they are not the right person for their job and hence accept or continue to grapple with their own unhappiness at work. I meet employees and leaders who are resilient to their own physical and psychological signals that they are unhappy and who believe that they just need to learn to handle work tasks or conditions in new ways. I also meet researchers and political debaters who are keen to criticise what is happening in organisations with regard to resilience and the discourses surrounding it, but who are quite resilient to questions about what to do or say instead.
There are many circumstances that you might, temporarily or permanently, wish that you were more resilient to. These could include poor working conditions, dull leadership, whining and complaining, doubts and questions, work pressure, changing expectations, stress and burnout, unreasonable expectations, life’s twists and turns and unpredictability, strict performance requirements and monitoring, annoying colleagues, poor team spirit, personal challenges related to your partner and children, etc. The question is a somewhat rhetorical one, but still: is it a good idea to develop permanent resilience to these? My claim is that resilience does depend on the context. Resilience is not necessarily worth pursuing or negative because the moment we show resilience to something, there is something else (potentially important) that we may overlook.
However, I believe there’s a reason why we are still preoccupied with resilience in organisations. Based on the concept of resilience and with both feet solidly planted in old psychological curiosity and research, we can examine the X-factor that we see in some individuals, communities, and organisations in certain contexts and perhaps learn more about leadership, working for an employer, options, and choices.
Resilience as a Personal Competence
People show resilience when they develop positively or better than expected despite difficult or risky conditions compared to others who are subject to the same circumstances (Gravesen, 2016). Resilience is “people’s ability to overcome life’s stresses and risk factors” (Darko, 2013). Resilience can easily be mistaken for a personal trait, but Gravesen describes it as a "competence or a process" (Gravesen, 2016). You cannot measure an individual’s degree of resilience because any measurement of resilience will always be a snapshot of a person in a particular context (Hertz in Kristeligt Dagblad [Daily Christian Newspaper], 13/05/2016). An employee may display resilience to developing stress in a specific situation or time in their life, but that same person may be less resilient during a different time or situation in their life (Rutter, 2012). People – strong and vulnerable, capable and incapable alike – can be destroyed by poor working conditions. This doesn’t mean that they were not as resilient as they seemed. It means that resilience is a process or competence that we can learn and that can be affected by external circumstances.
In a Danish context, we have translated the word resilience as robustness. Robustness originates from “robustus,” meaning “oak tree” or “strength,” which leads us to think about a condition or a trait, rather than a process. As we mentioned earlier, and compared to this picture of robustness as a condition, resilience means “bouncing back,” which is a phrase with a stronger connotation of flexibility and adjustment. Where a tree develops strong roots as a consequence of resistance towards the wind or the elements, things like a spring or a branch will respond to their environment, keep some of their shape and adjust to the pressure, or they develop new attributes. In this article, the term resilience is therefore used consistently to emphasise that I view resilience as a process or a competence rather than a personal trait.
Resilience as a Relational Competence
In many job adverts, organisations are looking for “robust” or resilient employees. However, as mentioned, resilience cannot be viewed in isolation as an individual trait but should be seen rather as a process, which you can find embedded in relationships and contexts. This means that resilience can be created or occurs in a context of factors, on which, as a workplace, you have more or less influence: in the conversations, in the team, in the relationship to my “best buddies,” etc. Thereby, you can view resilience as a responsibility and a task, not only for the management but for the entire community.
Ann Masten, a professor in clinical psychology, says, “I think of resilience as the ability to adjust. When we look at individuals, we see the manifestation of that ability. If society wants to equip people to handle crises, it must build systems and networks that help people adjust.” In the quote, she connects individual resilience to relationships when she talks about resilience as the ability to adjust and then assigns society a specific task: building systems and networks that support adjustment. When Masten talks about resilience as the ability to adjust, she doesn’t mean that employees and leaders should learn to say, “Oh, never mind,” rather than ask questions or challenge decisions and initiatives. The point is that in social systems and communities, people adjust, ideally with supplements, support, challenges, and compensation. We must foster resilience in the very communities where we feel acknowledged as an important piece of the puzzle, where we participate and feel involved (Balibar, 2015).
I often use the following chart when I coach employees and leaders:
When I ask the focus person to show me where in the chart they are at, they often start by describing the challenges as being (too) big but say that they lack the support needed to thrive. They lack support from management, feedback from their colleagues, or “buddies” in the organisation – people whom they can go to when they want to talk about their weekend over a cup of coffee, or go for a beer after work on Fridays. The French psychiatrist Cyrulnik says that resilience lies in relationships (Cyrulnik, 2015), and Masten describes what protects us in risky situations with the term “ordinary magic.” Both say that what builds resilience often comes from very normal circumstances: “ordinary magic” includes individual competencies, as described above and relational competencies, for example, the relational competence that is found in our connections with other people and the (relational) support systems that surround us personally and in society. Peter Berliner, professor and resilience researcher at DPU, Aarhus University, adds: “We get the individualised resilience culture from the United States, and thereby forget our tradition of creating sustainable and robust societies. We are selling ourselves short as a result. It is destroying the glue of our form of society, namely that we view robustness as something shared” (Kristeligt Dagblad, 13/06/2017). The development of resilient communities should be prioritised at the management level, but resilience lies just as much in the informal culture of the workplace – in the “ordinary magic.”
A good question is how we can all – employees as well as leaders – contribute to creating professional communities that are characterised by the confidence to say yes and no, recognition of limits, and professional focus. If resilience is individually about knowing your limits as to how much you can handle and when to say no, then how can we bring about organisational communities that are characterised by this same quality?
Resilience as an Organisational Effort
Doesn’t every leader want a resilient organisation? An organisation that can “bounce back” when it encounters resistance, an organisation that can “heal itself” and grow strong despite everything? An organisation that, just like a system, can “absorb interruptions and reorganise as it changes, an organisation that can ensure retention of the same fundamental functions, structures, identity and feedback mechanisms”? (Zolli & Healy, p. 7) How do you create that kind of organisation? And what characterises it? Who has the mandate to call an organisation resilient? And does everyone have to agree that it is resilient?
Because many leaders put resilience on the agenda and talk resilience with employees and leaders, the erroneous linear conclusion is obvious: that resilient employees create a resilient organisation and that we will, therefore, succeed if we make leaders and staff resilient. Unfortunately, in light of the previous paragraphs, this sentence makes no sense: as mentioned, resilience is a competence that we embed in a context. No employee or leader is always resilient, and that would be unhealthy if they were. Furthermore, there is no inherent linearity in which people create resilient organisational cultures because, in organisations, individuals interact with each other; they make connections and conditions for each other that are unpredictable – in line with the formulation of the complex theories that something improbable will probably happen. When dealing with societal systems, we cannot predict the outcome, and hence we cannot just equip individuals with “resilience competence” and assume from there that we are going to build a resilient organisation.
This makes it relevant to ask: what practices characterise resilient organisations?
Resilient companies adapt so that they “can function during constant system changes and if unpredictable crises occur,” says Roland Kuper (Kupers, 2014). To him, this is in stark contrast to the risk management and ‘accidental solutions’ on which many individuals manage organisations. Instead, this arrangement looks like the human immune system, whose core competence is to absorb an external stressor and then learn from it and strengthen the system going forward. Furthermore, he believes that the streamlining that we see in many organisations does not necessarily create resilience. The point of streamlining is that you strip away anything redundant and thereby optimise the potential in a conventional way that can make the system vulnerable, leaving it without a “buffer” during times of crisis. Even though in our rational logic we want “lean” organisations that are efficient, well-oiled and healthy; we risk them becoming thin and weak instead and therefore start to “do crazy things” when a crisis hits.
From ecosystem research, we know that “resilience and stability are a function of having many connections of many different kinds at many levels” (Kupers, 2014). Resilience is about collaboration, networking, and most importantly, learning. Now add to that the fact that in resilient organisations, we often find what Zolli and Healy describe as “translational leaders” or leaders who play a critical role behind the scenes, “connecting constituencies, and weaving various networks, perspectives, knowledge systems, and agendas into a coherent whole” (Zolli & Healy, 2013, p. 15). This type of management works to mobilise networks and collaboration and to get different levels to contribute with their knowledge and to work together. Zolli and Healy call this “adaptive governance”: formal institutions’ and informal networks’ ability to collaborate when facing a crisis.
Zolli and Healy conclude that resilience has the best conditions when the following circumstances come together: “beliefs, values, and habits of mind; trust and cooperation; cognitive diversity; healthy communities; translational leadership and adaptive governance” (Ibid.). In this way, Zolli and Healy manage to connect the previous paragraphs perfectly: they base resilience on the interplay between the three levels – the individual, relational and organisational.
Creating Organisational Resilience
Building resilient organisations can happen at many levels by management, employees, and the organisations interacting with each other. In the following section, I will use an example from my supervision of leaders and staff to show how organisations can work on building resilience through facilitated reflection and dialogue.
In Latin, “super” means “from above” and “vision” means “see.” So, supervision is an attempt at placing oneself “outside of something” to examine it from new angles.
When I supervise, I draw on many positions and approaches to reflection: coaching, consulting, facilitation, feedback on one’s style, training and therapy (Rosenberg). For me, “the supervisor’s primary task is to make sure that the supervisee gets smarter or attains clarity about the presented issue and develops ideas for moving on” (Lund-Jacobsen and Wermer, 2001). This means that I often try to mobilise the person who is being supervised with thoughts and ideas before bringing my own into the picture. When supervising in organisations, each employee’s or leader’s practice is the superior context in the sense that supervision can be retrospective about something that has happened already. They may be prospective concerning something that awaits or they may direct at something in general. For example, a repeated pattern; or a specific, defined case.
The clearly defined framework and ample room to manoeuvre means that, through supervision, employees and leaders can reflect on things, like what is currently stressing them out, and how to change or improve it. The first question of this article was: “What do we need to be resilient to?” And the answer is that we need to be resilient to stress and the things that stress us out. But what is stressful for an individual right now? What is heavy, difficult, hard, unclear, or just irritating? In which relationships is it difficult to say no and why do we have difficulty saying no? What tasks take up too much of our time? What kind of support do I need and from whom? In supervision, we work with whatever takes up a lot of space and time. Not a topic put on the agenda by the organisation, but rather what is stressing the individual out right now and making it difficult for them to solve work tasks and participate in the community. It is usually liberating for both employees and leaders to talk about what is at play right now, to become aware of a vague emotion or sensation, and to give it a voice and let it interact with other similar or different emotions in the group. Supervision strengthens resilience because in supervision you try to practise and embed reflection competence in the organisational culture. The competence to be able to reflect on one’s work situation and context, the competence to imagine things outside of oneself, to zoom in or out, to give a voice to the stresses and to perhaps thereby see one’s situation from an entirely new perspective.
Supervision and Organisational Resilience
In the supervision realm, I often work with groups of 5 to 8 leaders or employees. We work with something that is urgently present for the individual and the group, and as a result, this brings about a strong relational space within the group. I work to make all participants of the group central to the process of contributing by both supporting and challenging each other through the practices that I facilitate. This can happen through reflecting teams, role play, and several feedback structures. At times, the person who is being supervised can experience the support as being too little, and this makes the challenge and insecurity take over, followed by despondency and a feeling of isolation. Then it is the supervisor’s task to help the group increase their support for the person who is being supervised so that hopefully they can leave the session with a sense of belonging to a professional and caring community. At other times, the group is good at praising and acknowledging, but not used to challenging, and the supervisor has to help the team express and allow space for what they are thinking about rather than talking about – often to the relief of the people who are being supervised.
Relationships are mentioned previously in the article as being crucial for the development of resilient organisations: supportive relationships where the focus is on security and trust, balanced with challenging communities where we create a collective sense of responsibility for our tasks, our clients, our organisation. Rasmus Willig talks about developing “a democratic, critical attitude where you ask questions about the way they do things”; psychoanalysis talks about increasing our “mental flexibility”; Ann Masten talks about the ability to adjust, and in the article, I have added the term reflection competence.
Supervision facilitates an organisational space where one can reflect, individually or in groups, on what causes us to feel the stress. There are dialogues about what it will take to be able to manage one’s work life – whether this means continuing like before, going on sick leave, doing something new, stopping and getting wiser, quitting, or something entirely different. Supervision should create the conditions for or encourage dialogues between various levels in the organisation so that it strengthens what Zolli and Healy referred to as “adaptive governance” (as mentioned earlier in the article): that the formal institutions and the informal networks of the organisation manage to collaborate during difficult times. Supervision aims at supporting and challenging to develop every individual and the community’s ability to respond flexibly (as opposed to rigidly) to the situations that we find ourselves in – together and individually.
The relationship between organisational resilience and self-efficacy
From psychology, we know the concept of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997, 2006), which means “the belief in one’s own ability to be able to affect one’s life” (Gravesen, 2014). From a research point of view, self-efficacy is considered the most prominent factor of resilience, and in this paragraph, I, therefore, wish to argue that supervision can support the self-efficacy both of individuals and of groups. In a work context, for example, self-efficacy is the feeling of having a say and getting a response when you set a boundary or appeal to a leader to remove you from a task that is too pressing or remove someone from a dysfunctional team.
Self-efficacy comprises four sub-elements that can and should all be examined in supervision: intentionality, vision, self-reaction, and self-reflection. In supervision, intentionality is about finding the intention behind an action and thereby the purpose of the action: why did I do what I did in a specific situation, and what was I trying to achieve? Vision is about being able to imagine the effect that an action could have, and thereby about the ability to see what action might (perhaps at some other time) be the most ideal. Self-reaction is the ability to regulate one’s thoughts according to action, for example seeing oneself and one’s reactions from the outside. Self-reflection is about being able to evaluate or examine one’s behaviour and its effects in a reflective space.
Like resilience, self-efficacy is a competence that plays out (is developed or limited) through social interactions. Even though one’s genetic foundation, childhood, and previous experiences can increase or decrease the general level of experienced self-efficacy; these experiences can become self-perpetuating with regard to future experiences. We also that the mental training methods that we can use to strengthen the way we view our capability in supervised or reflective contexts can increase an individual’s or a group’s self-efficacy.
If we describe the supervision space as “a structured learning space for professionals. A learning space that aims at creating new understandings, perspectives and options with regard to issues experienced by these professionals in their work” (Lykke and Pedersen, 2007), the very experience of a process where you learn or experience the ability to handle your work context (self-efficacy) is at the forefront. Because in the supervised learning space, they give the individual the opportunity, and the competence, to reflect on their own context in a relational context of colleagues and on their behaviour and reactions to things, as well as their limitations and options for acting in the organisation.
You have almost finished reading this article about resilience, which strikes a blow for the concept’s complexity rather than promising easy solutions.
Reverting to the article’s preliminary question, I would like to stress that in every context, we must allow ourselves to insistently ask what it is that we wish to be resilient to. The answer is that we must be resilient to stress, and this means that we must have different types of dialogues across all levels (horizontally and vertically) about what is causing stress to each individual and the community at this particular moment. In the article, I have used supervision as an example of how facilitated reflection, individually and in groups, can make an organisation more resilient during stressful and challenging times.
I have also argued that resilience is not the ultimate goal, but rather a process that the organisation will always find itself in, where, at any given time, it can be more or less resilient as a whole. Resilience is not a trait, but rather a competence that can be developed in individuals and organisations, and yet it is not constant but will fluctuate with stress. Don’t believe those who put resilience into a formula and sell it cheaply (or at a high price). Resilience is a method of travel, not a destination.
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Everly, G. S. Jr. (2011): Building a Resilient Organizational Culture, Harvard Business Review, June 2011
Gravesen, Daniel Thore (2015): Education – An Introduction to the Educator’s Basic Professionalism
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Lund-Jacobsen, D. and Wermer, A. (2001): An Invitation to Curiosity. A Systematic Approach to Supervision. Focus on the Family. Vol. 4.
Lykke, T. F. and Pedersen, H. H. (2007): The Colleague Community’s Blessings and Curses of Supervision
Zolli and Healy (2013): Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back, Simon & Schuster