Resilience: The secret sauce

Resilience is robustness and agility. It’s what it takes to thrive, not just survive.

Sound familiar? Having read dozens of articles on organisational resilience, it always seems to come back to that same mantra. Yet, isn’t there something missing? Where are the people? Where is the heart and soul that keeps organisations going, especially when the going gets tough?

Resilience has been the name of the game for some time now. In my research, I’ve mostly found it to be about individual resilience, timely (and important) reminders of self-care, and care for others. This is critical, because how we feel at work, and in life, paves the way for how we contribute to and shape our teams and organisations.

The funny thing is, when I read about organisational resilience, suddenly it’s all theories and diagrams. Somewhere, we leave behind the human qualities we value so much when we talk about what it means to build resilience at an individual level: persistence, passion, empathy. 

In our experience over the last year and more, the Invisible Grail team and I have seen countless examples of these qualities; humanity in the workplace that has helped teams and organisations gather together and find a way through a difficult and emotional time.

I think it’s time to draw this out more clearly, and to dust off how we think about collective resilience. 

The shape of resilience

What if we saw that it depended much more on who we are and the choices we make, rather than our business plans?”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of resources on resilience. I’ve come across some excellent spiral models and some less than inspiring triangles of text. But neither of these have satisfied my curiosity about the shape of resilience at an organisational level: What does it feel like, look like when you have it? What characteristics define it, and do we recognise – and so can amplify – these in the moment?

I’ve turned to a useful marketing tool I like to use when I’m trying to find the shape of something. I  imagine who resilience would be if it were a person. My interpretation goes something like this:

Resilience is a child, not the oldest nor the youngest. A little wild, but only a degree or so more than everyone else. They belong deeply in the family fold and wouldn’t be anywhere else. But they’re constantly curious about what’s going on in the neighbour’s garden. Every now and again they throw a frisbee over the fence just to see what happens. Over time, they throw it further, more boldly, fly it better, but not without some scrapes along the way.

I wonder who you might create; who resilience looks like to you and your team?

Rather than pressing ourselves into the confines of a resilience model, what if we thought of it as a way of being that we can learn, practice and develop in one another. What if we saw that it depended much more on who we are and the choices we make, rather than our business plans?

Organisational resilience in qualities

If we unshackle resilience from it being a statement of intent, ‘be more resilient…increase our resilience…’, and think of it as the outcome of the qualities we bring to our teams and organisations, what might these qualities be?

Showing others that this approach is valid, that there is room to explore, to grow. That’s the secret sauce.”

A sense of exploration and experimentation. The more I steep myself in what it means to be a leader, the more I see this as absolutely integral to creating a culture that flexes and adapts. It calls for a little courage, acknowledging that something might not work, but you’ll only find out when you try it on for size. Showing others that this approach is valid, that there is room to explore, to grow. That’s the secret sauce.

A colleague once gave me a piece of advice – to think of experiments as things you hold very lightly in your hand. There’s such power in this way of thinking. You can weigh ideas in both hands, but seen as you only have two hands it makes sense to ask others to hold these as well, to turn them over, see what they think. Invite people into the process of creating solutions.

In itself, this reinforces a sense of togetherness. Showing that no one person has the answer. The point isn’t to necessarily accept everything that is put on the table, but to treat every opinion fairly, with equality and respect. To seek out more diverse opinions and thinking, different ways into thorny problems that rarely, if ever, can be solved by one person alone.

Experimentation takes patience and practice both from leaders and the people they lead. But it’s a shared endeavour, the responsibility to each other creates unity. We’re all moving towards to the same goal, we’re all part of this, we all have a role to play. And with this, is how you build trust.

Looking ahead

To create a vision for the future requires deliberate reflection, choice and action.”

When I was thinking of my persona of resilience, it was inevitable to me that it should be a child. A character that experiments and plays, but for who creating futures for themselves comes naturally. Sees themselves as a champion athlete, living in a big city, travelling the world. One idea not being at the exclusion of others. Children are brilliant at this, at seeing the possibilities.

Looking ahead, keeping our eyes on the horizon and not just on our feet, is a hard won skill for most of us. But it helps keep us moving forward, and that sense of movement, of proactivity to build a future that we want, keeps our collective hearts and minds focused beyond the challenge of here and now. It gives us perspective.

We’ve seen this in the institutions we are working with, who are looking forward with persistence and passion. Whether they are launching a new part of their built campus, and on a journey to shape the culture of that new place and space. Or whether they are seeking to decentralise power and devolve decision-making to teams across the University.

To create a vision for the future requires deliberate reflection, choice and action. It’s purposeful. As leaders, we can set the tone for this – we can create safe spaces for colleagues to think, to experiment, and contribute to how we achieve the vision, together. It is the exact opposite of a mandate from the top, that strips power away from people and that has no place for their ideas or voices.

So many strategies talk of culture but it’s in our actions to one another, how we choose to connect, communicate, give purpose and energy to others that we build our organisations’ cultural bedrock. Resilience is an outcome of this, it’s not the input. It is crafted and moulded by the actions of everyone.

What it comes down to is us, as humans, and how we choose to create the world of work around us.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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