Organizational Resilience

Cultivating Resilient Individuals in Organizations

The concept of resilience is attracting considerable interest in today’s climate of uncertainty and change. Horne and Orr (1998) note that the term resilience began to be applied as an organizational resource in the early 1990s.

More recently, the concept of the resilient organization has gained popularity as a quality that might help organizations survive and thrive in difficult or volatile environments (Riolli and Savicki, 2003).

Most definitions of resilience as an organizational resource emphasize its relationship with effective adaptation.

Mallak (1998) defines Resilience as the ability of an individual or organization to expeditiously design and implement positive adaptive behaviors matched to the immediate situation, while enduring minimal stress.

Mallak considers organizational resilience as closely related to individual employees’ resilience. Other definitions of resilience in the literature include:

  1. Hamel and Valikangas (2003) define resilience as the ability to dynamically reinvent business models and strategies as circumstances change.
  2. Starr et al. (2003) define enterprise resilience as the ability to withstand systematic discontinuities and adapt to new risk environments.
  3. Horne and Orr (1998) define resilience as a fundamental quality of individuals, groups, organizations, and systems as a whole to respond productively to significant change that disrupts the expected pattern of events without engaging in an extended period of regressive behavior.
  4. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defines resilience as the quality or property of quickly recovering the original shape or condition after being pulled, pressed, crushed, etc. (Hornby 19888).

In general, these definitions convey positive connotations. The underlying assumption is that resilient individuals, groups or organizations thrive in dynamic environments.

Critical to this point of view is that resilience is regarded as process capability, instrumental in overcoming barriers to change and in developing multiple sources of competitive advantage.

Resilience and Pressure

It is important to emphasize that the nature and determinants of resilience are very different at individual, team, and organizational levels. At every level, however, resilience is defined and distinguished from related concepts (such as performance) by its relationship to pressure:

The management of pressure is integral to both the process and the outcomes of building resilience.

At the individual level, pressure plays a central role in the development of resilience, which in turn delivers better outcomes in coping with future pressures.

That is, under the right conditions, a high level of stretch pressure can be instrumental in building resilience, while staying in one’s comfort zone over the long term can have a detrimental effect.

Similarly, exposure to negative experiences that are difficult but mild enough not to inflict lasting damage can have an inoculating effect (Khoshaba & Maddi, 1999), and may even positively influence the underlying neuro-biological mechanisms of resilience (Haglund, Nestadt, Cooper, Southwick, & Charney, 2007).

The processes and outcomes of managing pressure are also integral to understanding and defining resilience at the team and organizational levels.

When leaders improve the way workplace pressures are managed for the group as a whole, this is reflected in positive employee survey results, especially in relation to high levels of wellbeing, job satisfaction Opens in new window, and employee engagement Opens in new window.

When negative (hindrance) pressure is allowed to get the upper hand, this leads to undesirable outcomes such as higher levels of employee stress, Opens in new window increased intentions to quit, lower job satisfaction, and lower commitment (Podsakoff, LePine, & LePine, 2007).

These outcomes in turn have implications for employee retention, customer satisfaction, productivity, and other measures of organizational performance (Robertson &Cooper, 2011).

Therefore, the capacity of individuals and teams to manage pressure is central to an organization’s ability to take advantage of stretching opportunities, manage risk, and generally deal with environmental and industry change, completion, and tough economic conditions in resilient way.

The Resilient Person — A Workplace Perspective

An individual’s capacity to manage everyday pressure is clearly important across his or her life, but for many people the workplace is where this capacity is most frequently tested.

Some studies have focused on the need for resilience in particularly challenging jobs such as social work (e.g., Howard, 2008). Others have taken the view that many work contexts are subject to increasing levels of challenge and change, making resilience widely relevant to individual wellbeing and organizational performance.

Cooper, Flint-Taylor, and Pearn (2013) discussed the latter view in the context of exploring what managers and organizations can do to support the strengthening of personal resilience.

Based on a review of the literature, the authors propose four clusters of “personal resilience resources” relating to:

  1. self-confidence,
  2. sense of purpose,
  3. personal adaptability, and
  4. social support.

The aim is to provide a framework that captures the complex nature of resilience while making it easier for individuals to take stock, identify specific strengths and risks, and work out what approaches would be most useful in sustaining and building on their current resilience capability.

Once the complexity of resilience is appreciated, it becomes evident that there are many different approaches that can be used to strengthen it. These approaches are drawn from various fields of theory and practice, including cognitive therapy and positive psychology.

The work of the positive psychology movement has had a significant impact on the study of resilience in organizations. For example, the construct of psychological capital (PsyCap) has been linked to work performance, satisfaction, and organizational commitment Opens in new window.

PsyCap Opens in new window represents a trait-state continuum spanning across pure positive traits (intelligence), trait-like constructs (consciousness), state-like psychological resources (including resilience), and positive states (moods and emotions).

Another approach with particular relevance for the work context is centered on the construct of hardiness, conceptualized as encompassing three components (3Cs):

  1. control (influencing events),
  2. commitment (engagement/purpose), and
  3. challenge (seeing problems as challenges, not threats).

Hardiness is said to act as resistance resource that can mitigate the adverse effect of stressful life events (Kobasa et al., 1982). Evidence has shown that hardy people perform better and stay healthier in the face of stress Opens in new window.

Hardiness has been associated with fewer physical and mental health symptoms in Gulf War soldiers (Bartone, 1999) and lower levels of somatic and psychological distress in university students (Beasley, Thompson, & Davidson, 2003).

Hardiness also has been shown to increase the use of planned coping mechanism and the influence of positive affect in people who have experienced job loss (Crowley, Hayslip, & Hobdy, 2003).

Later discussion of hardiness present the 3Cs as resilient attitudes rather than dispositions and add two vital skills of transformational coping and social support, and are described as complementing the resilient attitudes.

In terms of categorizing the personal characteristics associated with resilient outcomes, the hardiness attitudes and skills also reflect many elements of the core themes that emerged from the literature review mentioned earlier (Cooper et al., 2013).

Based on their research in the field of sport, Clough, Earle, and Sewell (2002) developed a model of mental toughness, extending the hardiness model to include the notion of confidence (an individual’s confidence in his or her own abilities and interpersonal confidence).

In a broader work context, mental toughness ratings were found to be higher for people in senior positions, with mental toughness generally increasingly with age, suggesting that it can be developed (Marchant et al., 2008).

More work needs to be done to establish the generalizability of the “mental toughness” construct outside the domain of sport (Crust, 2008). Nevertheless, together the constructs of mental toughness and hardiness help to demonstrate the relevance of a dynamic interactive, and developmental view of resilience in the context of organizational performance and developmental interventions.

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    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. The Routledge Companion to Wellbeing at Work By Cary L. Cooper, Michael P. Leiter.