Hand in hand: organizational and personal resilience

Dorothy Cotton
January 22, 2018
I was talking to some HR people the other day who were musing about the increased focus on employee well-being in recent years. Some reflected with a chuckle about the “good old days” when they thought everything would be peachy once they offered something like R2MR (Road to Mental Readiness) training to the masses.

If only it were that simple! It is easy to get caught up in R2MR, PTSD legislation and EAP (employee assistance program) resources and accommodation — all very important things. But it is also easy to lose sight of prevention — and early development of resiliency. You can indeed teach a lot about stress and resilience to individual employees, but for all those strategies to work it helps to take a look at the organization itself.

The whole idea of resilience in people exposed to significant stressful events has garnered a lot of attention of late — and, as is often the case when something gets attention, the concept has morphed over time. It used to be that we thought about personal resilience simply as the ability to tolerate/cope/bounce back after bad things happen. More current theories talk a lot about resilience as not just bouncing back to where you were before the bad things happened, but to actually ending up a better/stronger/more resilient person after the event.

Programs meant to improve resilience among individual people tend to be focused on... duh... individual people. We teach people to identify symptoms, self assess their level of distress, identify supports, develop coping mechanisms, distinguish between healthy and unhealthy coping, and to know when to get help. This is all good stuff.

There is also, however, a literature on organizational resilience. How well does an organization cope when bad things happen? When budgets go south, when a very bad, high profile event occurs, when there is a need for major organization change... how resilient is the organization?

I suppose it should not be a surprise to anyone that these two types of resilience are not independent of each other. One person who has done a whole bunch of work about resilience is Joana Kuntz, along with her colleagues at the University of Canterbury in the U.K. She provides the following definition of employee resilience:

“Employee resilience is defined… as the behavioural capability to leverage work resources in order to ensure continual adaptation, well-being, and growth at work, supported by the organization.” 1

What is interesting about this definition is that while it is talking about individual people, it refers to work resources and support from the organization. In other words: while it is all well and good if the individual person has adequate personal coping skills and self-awareness (the things we usually associate with personal resilience), it is also important that the person can leverage resources from within the organization — and that the organization in fact actually provides those resources.

I rather like this point of view because I have to confess that sometimes I think our efforts in relation to workplace well-being amount to little more than a shift from “Suck it up, Buttercup,” to “Please allow me to instruct you on how better to suck it up, Buttercup.”

There is definitely a significant advantage in having employees better able to suck it up and cope with whatever needs... er... tolerating. But I think the idea of “it is to the advantage of both the organization and the individual employees to develop a workplace that provides the support and resources for developing resilience” has a lot of merit.

What might these nebulous resources be? We are not talking about EAPs and peer support here. We are talking about systems and processes within the essential being of the organization, which facilitate employees becoming resilient before bad things happen.

This is where it gets boring. Kuntz and her colleagues have identified a number of factors that foster both individual and organizational resilience. I will be very surprised if you are surprised by any of them. They include (but are not limited to):

• Leadership and organizational culture issues: Do leaders encourage people to develop and flourish at work? Are processes seen as fair? Do they encourage creative problem solving?

• Valuing employees and their contributions: Do we reward employees who have done a good job? Do we actually care about civility in the workplace? Do we acknowledge that employees actually just might have a life outside of work?

• Promoting high involvement practices: Do employees have an appropriate level of autonomy?

• Modelling proactive behaviours.

• Facilitating continuous learning.

• Ensuring goal clarity and alignment: Is it clear where the organization is going — and do the activities actually seem to be consistent with the espoused goals?

Not rocket science, eh? You can find examples of exactly what kinds of practices are included in each of these categories but in the end they suggest it all boils down to four main principles:

The Adaption Principle: fostering not only behaviours in employees that help them adapt to organizational change but also fostering change in the organization in response to employee needs and ideas.

The Cycling of Resources Principle: resources — including people — are developed, utilized and transformed as needed; consistent with the organizational goals.

The Interdependence Principle: an acknowledgement that the relationship between people and their environment is fluid — that all these principles interact and that organizational resilience and personal resilience are not independent of each other.

The Succession Principle: individual roles, trajectories and needs will inevitably change and vary as organizations are in a state of flux (which is pretty well all the time!) but in order for people to succeed and move forward — which means the organization succeeds and moves forward — they have to be resilient.

Kind of circular? You bet.

1. Joana R. C. Kuntz, Sanna Malinen, and Katharina Näswall, (2017) Employee Resilience: Directions for Resilience Development. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 2017, Vol. 69, No. 3, 223–242.

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist. She can be contacted at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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