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The New Resilience: What It Means for Leaders and Organizations

by Dr. Graham Lowe ASEBP Consultant | February 11 2016

Resilience is an old concept that is finding new resonance today. Decades ago, psychologists studied the sources of personal resilience among children who overcame significant disadvantages to succeed in school and life. This early research showed that resilience is an individual’s capacity to thrive despite adversity.

Now, the concept of resilience is being applied to leaders and organizations. The Harvard Business Review calls resilience the new leadership skill. A growing number of cities around the world—including Calgary after its 2013 flood—recognize the importance of cultivating resilience within the community and its organizational ecosystem in order to prepare for future disasters. And the need for greater resilience within the workforce was amplified by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and Great Recession and now in Alberta, plummeting oil prices.

We know that resilience involves psychological traits and personal behaviours that can be learned—a crucial insight for leadership development. Resilient people don’t ‘bounce back;’ they bounce forward, finding new strength and equilibrium. They move to a ‘new normal’ that enables them to keep progressing toward a better future. Resilient people don’t just adapt to change, they find opportunities and renewed strength as they confront it.

Furthermore, people need a supportive environment to be resilient. That’s why it is so important for leaders today to cultivate resilience, both personally and among their employees, in order to effectively manage the constant challenges, changes and pressures of organizational life.

Resilient leaders skillfully—and proactively—respond to stressors, learning from failure, develop renewed strengths and show others how it is possible to thrive in the face of adversity. By fostering resilience traits among their employees, resilient leaders set the stage for higher levels of performance, support and well-being. In short, they foster a resilient workforce that is better prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Resilience also can be viewed as an outcome of a psychologically healthy workplace. This is the organizational context needed to cultivate a resilient workforce.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, has championed psychologically healthy and safe workplaces. The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, launched in 2013, provides a guiding framework and resources that employers can use to reduce risks to psychological health, remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, and in general foster employees’ psychological well-being as a route to enhanced organizational performance.

The Standard’s key workplace enablers of psychological health provide the organizational conditions required to foster a more resilient workforce. These workplace factors include:

  • Supportive managers and co-workers
  • A culture that values individuals’ well-being
  • Skilled people leadership
  • Respectful working relationships
  • Support for employee’s personal growth and development
  • The resources needed to manage workloads and job demands
  • Employee involvement in decisions
  • Recognition for contributions
  • The flexibility needed to achieve work-life balance.

All these factors are essential for a resilient workforce and a humanly sustainable organization.

Research shows that a manager’s capacity to be resilient is closely associated with a transformational (as opposed to a transactional) leadership style, higher work engagement, and positive well-being. Resilience can be learned and, increasingly, is being incorporated into leadership training. These are the traits that resilient leaders must acquire:

  • A sense of confidence and optimism about the future
  • Knowing how to respond to their own work pressures and helping others do the same
  • The self-care skills needed to look after their own physical and psychological health
  • Emotional intelligence skills that cultivate self-awareness of the impact of their actions and decisions on others and empathy for how others are struggling with change
  • The ability to learn from failures and see these as a source for new strengths
  • And the skills needed to show others how to thrive as they grapple with challenges in their jobs and lives

In sum, resilience is a 21st century organizational survival skill. How is your organization applying these insights to develop the kind of leaders and workforce it will need to thrive?

Dr. Graham Lowe

Graham is an organizational consultant, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, published author of Redesigning Work, alongside Frank Graves, and well known expert on work issues. Once known by the moniker “The Hound” in his days as a R&B musician in the 1960s, it has now been updated to “Grambo” by his 20-something CrossFit friends as he’s “the old guy who persists.” Despite a long list of personal and professional accomplishments, Graham has been held back by his one fear—of heights when walking along mountain ledges. Baby steps, Graham.