- Individuals and organisations are having their resilience tested by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A resilient organisation is one that can continue to produce the work it’s committed to despite the challenges.
- Managers should embrace three attributes – perspective, purpose and potential – to build organisational resilience.
By Abigail Murison
On 10 November 2020, the Collins dictionary team declared ‘lockdown’ the 2020 word of the year. Twelve days later, the Oxford Languages crowned no less than 47 words of the year, including ‘anti-masker’ and ‘Zoombombing’. But author and businesswoman Arianna Huffington disagreed. She declared on 4 December that 2020’s real word of the year was ‘resilience’.
“… unlike quarantine and coronavirus and social distancing, resilience is the only one that is going to be just as relevant when the pandemic is over,” Huffington wrote on her Thrive Global website.
Natalie Whitaker, who leads the organisation transformation team at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in Melbourne, says everyone has been affected by the recent challenges, from small business owners to experienced analysts employed by a multinational corporation.
“In October 2020, Deloitte and Fortune surveyed more than 125 CEOs in the global Fortune community. They revealed their four greatest challenges in this difficult time have been maintaining employee wellbeing, sustaining innovation, addressing declining revenues and engaging customers,” she says.
“Australian and New Zealand businesses are not immune to these challenges. Chartered accountants and their teams may be feeling these, both within their own organisations and in the businesses they support.
“There is no doubt that leaders, employees and governments worldwide are being tested, and those that withstand the adversity come out better on the other side.”
“Leaders, employees and governments worldwide are being tested and those that withstand the adversity come out better on the other side.”
But what exactly is resilience? While most of us understand it to be a form of toughness, and about rebounding from difficulties, how does that translate to what a resilient organisation should be
What is a resilient organisation?
“Resilience is not a destination; it is a way of being,” says Whitaker. “A resilient organisation is not one that is simply able to return to where it left off before the crisis. A truly resilient organisation is one that has transformed, having built the attitudes, beliefs, agility and structures into its DNA that enable it to not just recover to where it was, but leap-frog forward quickly.”
“Resilience is not a destination; it is a way of being.”
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is one group that has added organisational resilience to its risk register (a document that lists DFAT’s identified risks and what it’s doing to reduce them). It’s a growing trend, says Samantha Montenegro FCA, DFAT’s chief internal auditor and an FCA Risk Specialist.
“In a resilient organisation, leaders have a duty of care to give employees what they need to do the work, and employees have a duty of care to do the best with what they have,” Montenegro explains.
“Before the pandemic, when people were concerned about resilience, they were often considering supply-chain resilience in terms of economic and political factors. Now, organisational and personal resilience are of increasing interest, spurred on by the experience of the pandemic.
“Organisational resilience is a good thing to keep an eye on,” she continues. “It’s not and should not be considered an operational risk – it shouldn’t be pushed down to become a problem for operational or corporate services to manage. Instead, organisational resilience is a strategic risk: is the organisation and its business model capable of producing the work it has committed to doing?”
“Organisational resilience is a strategic risk: is the organisation and its business model capable of producing the work it has committed to doing?”
Montenegro adds there has never been a more important time to prioritise building and monitoring organisational resilience. “There will be winners and losers, and those who can rise above and come out stronger on the other side are well placed to seize an advantage,” she says.
Red flags that resilience is lacking
Where does this resilience come from? According to one man with skin in the game, organisational resilience is built through a combination of top-down strategy from the C-suite and a groundswell movement driven by staff.
“It’s important for the leadership team to create an environment where resilience can grow,” says consultant and professional coach Darren Box, a former chief financial officer and chief operating officer with the Australian Federal Police.
“They have to be willing to hear negative messages, to hear alternative views, and to create a space where people can have learning conversations where they feel safe, where there’s no fear of harm.
“Individually, building resilience is a very personal journey… because it requires us to feel uncomfortable. You need to prepare yourself for that, which is challenging because you need to be willing to take a hard look at yourself and figure out who you really are.”
There are warning signs that a company or department and its people are struggling with resilience.
“We tend to want to look for quantifiable measures to assess how resilient an organisation is,” says Montenegro. “One indicator that an organisation may be less resilient than it should be is if the usual business practices like reporting deadlines or critical elements of the control framework such as governance forums start to be delayed, or simply don’t happen.
“Another indicator is an under-focus on strategic and long-term planning in favour of focusing on the here-and-now. COVID has generated this focus in many organisations, with many thinking this would be a three- to six-month change to normal processes,” she says.
“Now, more than 18 months down the track, we know the pandemic is having more enduring impacts, and that if organisations continue to focus on dealing with the immediate pressures, the strategic outlook starts to suffer.”
Montenegro identifies a number of employee-related red flags that, taken together, can indicate an organisation’s resilience is not optimal.
“Depending on your context, flags could include an increase in employee absenteeism, or negative feedback in organisational culture surveys. For example, staff say they are struggling to do the work they are tasked with because of a lack of investment in infrastructure, including IT,” she says.
An additional red flag is an increase in ‘borderline’ staff complaints about bullying or harassment.
“The incidents could be happening in greater numbers, and this could indicate that employees are more stressed, on edge, and feeling more pressured,” Montenegro says.
“Sometimes we miss the employee-related indicators, or we might write them off when not considered in aggregate or in the operating context. When we see these anomalies, we need to identify the drivers.”
What builds organisational resilience?
“Leaders and teams have built tremendous resilience over the past 12 months,” Whitaker says. “People can adapt, pivot and survive.”
However, survival isn’t enough. To build greater resilience, says Whitaker, leaders and managers should embrace three attributes: perspective, purpose and potential.
Perspective requires leaders to challenge the status quo in order to unlock new paths to value creation. Leaders who can encourage and equip their teams to own outcomes will benefit from new opportunities.
In terms of purpose, Whitaker says leaders must communicate a “north star” that unites their team and drives a sense of community.
Potential involves capitalising on what the people in the team are capable of, beyond their static position descriptions.
“The challenges ahead require systems to be agile and adaptive,” says Whitaker. “That requires leaders to convene the ecosystem to collaborate in new ways and, in parallel, restore a sense of control in the present to reduce stress,” she says.
That’s something Deloitte’s global CEO Punit Renjen expanded on in a recent report: The Journey of Resilient Leadership. “Teams have been worn down by the seemingly endless uncertainly, familial strain, health threats and ambiguous loss that has characterised this extended period of the virus,” he writes. “The very act of inviting them to imagine a successful, thriving future state, and the path to get there, can be a source of hope and encouragement.”
But it’s one thing to talk about building resilience – the key is to maintain it. “Something someone said to me that has stayed with me is to always see the humanity on the other side of the desk,” says Box.
“People see themselves as individuals. They all come to work, but they are also parents and siblings and people who like singing or running; everyone brings different interests and strengths to a team.
“Resilience isn’t something you can work on at team offsite days and then forget about. Daily engagement – whether that’s face to face, on Zoom, via email or phone – is essential. People need to know how they fit together and how their work contributes to team goals and the overarching objectives of the organisation.”
“Resilience isn’t something you can work on at team offsite days and then forget about.”
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