Leadership   //   October 14, 2022

Why it’s time to redefine ‘organizational resilience’ in the modern workplace

How should we define “resilience” in the business context of today?

In his latest book, best-selling author Bruce Daisley argues that the concept of resilience urgently needs an upgrade for the post-pandemic world. Daisley, former vp of Twitter in EMEA, contends that resilience has negative connotations akin to grit and graft. He believes this should be replaced by the more well-rounded science of fortitude, the name of his book, published by Cornerstone Press in the U.K. in late August.

Indeed, the first chapter of “Fortitude” is titled: “I Get Knocked Down But I Get Up Again.” While these are the lyrics to U.K. rock band Chumbawamba’s 1997 chart hit “Tubthumping,” Daisley’s subtitle is more serious. He calls this phrase “the doctrine of resilience.”

The definition of resilience, in a business setting, according to the online Cambridge Dictionary, is similar. It is “the quality of being able to return quickly to a previous good condition after problems.”

Daisley set out to interrogate and challenge the ancient, received wisdom that if we want to have a successful life, we must be tough and stubborn. Weakness and inaction will lead to failure, runs the logic. “Fortitude” references empirically tested advice from experts and aims to provide a practical path to greater self-confidence and courage with plenty of tips for business leaders.

“For me, resilience is the collective strength we gain from each other,” Daisley said at an event attended by WorkLife in London in late September. “In an environment where work is individualistic, the notion that some of us are more resilient than others is often unhelpful and misleading.”

Existing in a control vacuum

Daisley ridicules the idea of organizations sending workers on resilience courses, which categorically don’t work, he said. Further, providing the wrong training is more damaging in the long run than not offering it.

Moreover, there is a critical need for businesses that have shifted to a hybrid-working model to reengage employees. “Around 78% of workers say they don’t have any input to any decisions that are made within their organizations, so people feel that they exist in a control vacuum,” Daisley said. “Simultaneously, bosses are generally summoning workers back into the office because they feel an absence of control when they can’t see people.”

One way to build collective strength, or organizational resilience, is by encouraging community groups so people can share their stories. Daisley added that everyone would gain a greater sense of belonging in this scenario. Ultimately, people will care more and be motivated to help when things inevitably don’t go to plan.

"Fortitude might encompass the persistence and resistance of a system, but resilience includes the resourcefulness to find solutions ingeniously."
Caroline Field, organizational resilience expert at PA Consulting.

But there are others who aren’t ready to sideline “resilience” as the appropriate definition for the kind of characteristics business leaders and employees need to show in order to thrive at work. “We have never needed to be more resilient,” said Edward Owen-Burge, a former military intelligence officer in the British Army. He shows business leaders and high-pressure teams how to operate resiliently, using specific tools and techniques. But, to him, the essence of being resilient has morphed over time. “We have forgotten that problem-solving, not endurance, is at the heart of resilience,” Owen-Burge said.

Dealing with whatevers thrown

Ollie Ollerton, a former U.K. Special Forces soldier, also said he believes that businesses can learn much about resilience from the military. “Our lives literally depend on being able to think on our feet and make snap decisions under intense pressure,” he said. “And the saying goes: ‘A plan never survives first contact with the enemy.’ So this is a major part of the resilience mentality: being able to deal with whatever is thrown at you.”

Workplace psychologist and organizational development expert Dr. Lynda Folan said her research has shown that for leaders to be effective, they require resilience, and that goes doubly if they’re to navigate the complexity of the post-pandemic world, she stressed.

Dr. Folan pointed to new NHS projections that calculated that 10 million people in the U.K. will require new or additional mental health support in the next five years. “Leadership effectiveness in this context will require a greater understanding of mental health and the capability to support their people in maintaining resilience and well-being,” she added.

Encouragingly, 69% of the 300 leaders surveyed for PA Consulting’s global report, “A New Way to Lead,” admitted they need to change their leadership approach. Moreover, they must lead by example and help themselves and those around them to build resilience.

“Resilience is far beyond grit and graft and goes past fortitude,” said Caroline Field, organizational resilience expert at PA Consulting. “Fortitude might encompass the persistence and resistance of a system, but resilience includes the resourcefulness to find solutions ingeniously.”

Strategic enabler: Organizational resilience

Resilience also provides adaptability to changing and uncertain conditions, and facilitates learning and transforming following disruption, Field added. “Organizational resilience is a strategic enabler for any business. Far from being outdated, the concept of resilience is essential in navigating ongoing uncertainty, from unparalleled political disruption to global health care crises, to war in Europe.”

However, for leaders and their organizations and employees to handle whatever disruption is lobbed at them in what remains of 2022 and beyond, self-awareness is imperative. 

Yes, those at the top must lead by example and display vulnerability and resilience. But that authenticity, while inspiring and a refreshing change from the pre-pandemic norm, is nothing without striving to achieve collective strength and a culture of belonging, according to Dr. Caroline Rook, a lecturer in leadership at the U.K.’s Henley Business School. This idea echoes Daisley’s conclusion in “Fortitude.”

“Overall, we are seeing a rise in stress-related illnesses because we are not always very good at checking in with ourselves and others about how we are doing,” Rook said. 

A degree of stress is good for us as it helps show peak performance and develop skills and experience, noted Rook. But it is a big problem when it tips over into distress. “If stress goes beyond our capabilities and we don’t have the right resources to cope, it becomes negative,” she said.

Rook added a final thought for business leaders about the importance of being self-aware and mindful of employees: “If we experience stress for a significant amount of time without taking time to recharge our batteries,” she said, “then any resilience capacity will not be enough, and we can slip into burnout.”