What is this thing we call resilience?

There are various definitions dependent upon the context in question. We tend to talk about ‘organisational resilience’ or ‘personal resilience’ without necessarily understanding the relationship between the two. In the personal context, resilience is generally understood to be how we react to challenging life circumstances, how we recover, overcome or bounce back.  The ability of people to recover from major setbacks, from disappointment and even trauma also impacts the organisation or the business. Unexpected change often sparks negative emotions and these must be managed, so leadership too plays a huge role in maintaining organisational resilience.

Managers are perhaps understandably, often inexperienced in dealing with the aftermath of major incidents, especially where trauma is involved. There are of course many procedural and practical steps that can be taken and sometimes these are laid out in standard operating procedures, but the human element is usually the most challenging of factors to get right. Anger or uncertainty are often present in the aftermath of incidents. It is vital to act swiftly to prevent anger from spreading and to prevent blame from being personalised and directed. All too often senior managers are seen as being distant and slow to react by those at the coalface, such criticism is sometimes fueled by media comment. Resentment spreads, confidence in the organisation evaporates and loyalty is lost. The first 24-36 hours are critical and the careful consideration and planning of how people are managed and communicated with will shape subsequent reactions. The fallout from such situations can be enduring and damaging for productivity and for reputation.

Personal resilience can be developed and improved by training, so understanding how people react to events involving potential trauma both in the long and short terms can also improve organisational resilience. Training and understanding improve the confidence of managers to act in a timely fashion. In times of stress people crave effective leadership and when it doesn’t appear, a vacuum forms that is generally filled with negative responses. Organisations should plan for managing the human fallout from incidents. Ad hoc responses are usually not thought through adequately and can make things much worse. Untrained, under-pressure managers can say and do the wrong things, fueling anger and resentment. As with all such emergency procedures knowing when to act and what to do is crucial.

Related:  How Resilient is your Organization? An Interview with Martin Gomberg

The stock response by organisations is to bring in bus-loads of counselors or to hand out phone numbers in the hope that this will be enough. Generally, is isn’t enough, people need to see and hear their leaders; they need to be told what has happened (not necessarily why it happened) and to see that they are also affected by the event. They should be seen to take ownership of the management of it. This needs training if the common pitfalls are to be avoided. Identifying those people who are not doing well and getting them to early help is also key, as is the longer-term management of people as the organisation recovers.

Personal resilience is not purely innate, it has to be developed and built up. The same is true of organisational resilience; training and preparation are vital and understanding the human elements in play are as important as any other procedural factors. When rehearsing and planning emergency responses we need to include the procedures for managing the psychological effects. Simply outsourcing this element to counselors is not sufficient, your people will still be around long after the counselors have left and they will still be your responsibility. Invest in training while you can, effective responses not only reduce risk to individuals and the organisation as a whole, they protect morale and cohesion. Be prepared, be resilient.

Richard Dorney

Richard Dorney

Richard Dorney, MBE, MStJ, MSc is the Director of Strongmind Resiliency Training Ltd, a UK based company that specialises in post incident trauma management, mental health awareness and resiliency training. Richard served for 39 years as an infantry officer in the British Army and was a Non- clinical expert in military mental health and wellbeing. He holds an MSc in War and Psychiatry from Kings College London and has studied psychotraumatology, mental health first aid and suicide interventions. He is a published author and has a wealth of experience in the delivery of resiliency training to a wide range of civilian, law enforcement and military organisations.