Getting the better of tough times: 7 steps to building collective and personal resilience


 — May 18th, 2020

Getting the better of tough times: 7 steps to building collective and personal resilience

Life isn’t perfect. Crap happens.

In business and in life, we are thrown curve balls that come out of nowhere and knock us flat on our backs. COVID-19 has just done that – and it has done it to people and organizations around the planet.

Personal Resilience

Personal resilience is the ability to survive life’s challenges while learning and growing from each experience. While stress, trauma, and adversity aren’t welcome in our lives, people who are resilient find a way to move beyond the challenge and come out of a crisis even stronger.

Sadly, there are some people who struggle with bouncing back. Adversity weighs heavily on them and instead of getting stronger, they become increasingly vulnerable.

The good news is that you can build personal resilience. In the book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant share research and stories about overcoming adversity to prove that it is possible.

Employee wellbeing during COVID-19: What we can learn from Behavioral Science

Indeed, much of the work in the area of mental health and wellbeing is dedicated to building resilience.

But what about organizations? Is there such a thing as collective resilience? Absolutely.

Collective Resilience

In my work, I’ve seen organizations that are agile, resilient, and are quickly able to pivot (everyone’s favorite word right now) to avoid disruption or take advantage of new opportunities.

I have also worked with organizations where the opposite is true – companies where adversity creates divisiveness and fear. I remember conducting interviews at the start of a transformation project where someone told me, “it gets to the point where you believe the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.”

No resilience there.

Just as individuals can build resilience, it is possible to create a culture of resilience in organizations. But it takes hard work, committed leadership, and a strategic approach to internal communication.

Below, I outline the seven steps that are necessary for building collective resilience – these steps are backed by research and my own experience leading difficult and complex transformation projects.

Seven Steps to Resilience

The goal of these seven steps is to build an organization with the ability to thrive and survive challenges while also coming out on the other side empowered to imagine new possibilities.

Each step begins with an understanding of the elements of personal resilience because you can’t build a resilient organization without strengthening the ability of your people to survive and thrive in hard times.

  1. Start with hope

In the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, a young Lieutenant named Louis Zamperini is stranded at sea after his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He was adrift at sea for 47 days and then survived more than two years as a prisoner of war in three brutal Japanese camps.

During this epic tale of survival, Louis never gives up hope that he will see his family again.

Hope is a common theme among other stories of survival and perseverance. Signs of hope keep us moving forward – the idea that someday the COVID-19 pandemic will end is what gets all of us through each day.

We look forward to seeing our friends and family members, going shopping, or watching a concert or sporting event.

Giving people hope starts with communication by leaders that inspires optimism and confidence. I’m not talking about blind or unrealistic hope but hope that is bounded by realism.

Sharing the message that the organization will emerge from the crisis is one that will inspire action and perseverance.

  1. Act as a trusted guide

Trust is the foundation of any strong relationship. In business, trust is not a ‘soft skill’, it is a hard necessity because it is a fundamental component of a high performing and resilient organization.

The research is clear on this. Research by The Great Place to Work Institute shows that “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.” These companies beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.

Employees look to their leaders to be their trusted guide and this role is more important than ever in a crisis. Acting as a trusted guide takes honesty, openness, courage, and authenticity.

This means rejecting (or editing out) communication that stiff, robotic, and full words that make it sound like you are hiding something. Transparency is particularly important and even difficult news must be shared without any sugar coating.

  1. Unify people behind a single purpose

Like the cancer survivor who appreciates life and makes sure that she lives every day to the fullest, adversity can quickly bring purpose and meaning into focus. The same is true for organizations.

When a crisis hits, why you exist as an organization is essential for focussing people on what really matters.

A clear and meaningful purpose has the power to unify employees and create alignment with a common goal. When there is a mutual understanding of the organization’s why, everyone is inspired to think, act, and work together as a team.

  1. Give people a voice

Learned helplessness is a term used to describe the behavior of people who have repeatedly experienced a stressful situation and stop trying to change their circumstances even when they have the power to do so. Instead of building resilience, they become helpless, lose hope, and give up. However, when people believe they have the power to change a situation, there is a greater chance they will persevere.

When faced with adversity, organizations must harness the power of their employees, giving them control and influence over the situation.

When people are able to become part of the solution, not only is there a better chance of developing innovative ways of resolving an issue, employees take ownership of the problem and feel empowered to deliver solutions.

Organizations must make sure they are listening to employees – listening to understand concerns and harnessing the power of ideas to find workable solutions to adapting to a workplace that is radically different.

  1. Reinforce belonging and connection

How many television commercials have you seen where the theme is ‘we are all in this together”? People facing adversity need the support of others and forming bonds between people is critical to being able to bounce back after tragedy.

I have a friend who volunteers at a summer camp for kids who have lost a parent. The camp creates a sense of belonging for these kids by connecting them to others who have also lost a parent.

Reinforcing belonging and connection in an organization is yet another way to build collective resilience. And while the current situation makes it more difficult than ever to create those connections, it is important.

Creating a shared narrative based on a common experience can pull people together and create a stronger identity.
Employee wellbeing during COVID-19: What we can learn from Behavioral Science
  1. Encourage learning and growth

Perhaps one of the most important factors in gaining strength from adversity is the ability to learn and grow from the experience. I went through a painful divorce and at first, I saw it as a failure -- my vision of the perfect family was shattered.

But I quickly realized that no one is perfect and ended up going through a period of incredible awakening where I learned so much about myself.

I’ve written about the importance of building a culture of learning and about the power of storytelling to build knowledge and a shared understanding in organizations. Creating a continuous learning loop is critical during adversity to support problem-solving.

Sharing what your organization has learned from COVID-19 or any other crisis is extremely valuable. And don’t limit your focus to success stories – including stories about what went wrong can be just as valuable.

It’s natural not to want to admit failure but those cultures where learning from mistakes is acceptable to have better problem-solving skills and are more innovative.

  1. Celebrate the wins

Most Olympians spend years and years working incredibly hard and making enormous sacrifices. These elite athletes are great at breaking down big dreams into small goals and then celebrating achievements at each milestone.

Getting through adversity takes the same kind of sustained effort and sacrifice. Maintaining momentum and morale by celebrating progress is key to preventing people from feeling overwhelmed.

Showcase the progress your organization is making to help prove that everyone’s efforts and sacrifices are paying off.

The path forward

As organizations turn to the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are asking themselves, “how can we build resilience and come out on the other side a stronger organization?”

Following the seven steps to collective resilience will do just that.

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