Resilience // Part III — The Importance of Resilient Organizations

This is the third blogpost out of three in my series on RESILIENCE.
See the first post “Resilience — Adapting well in the Face of Hardship”
and the second post “Hands-on Steps to Strengthen your own Resilience”

After having focused in my first and second blogpost on the individual, personal resilience, I want to put the spotlight in the last post of this series on the importance of resilience for organizations.

Which role can resilience play in organizations?
How can we analyze, and in a second step, improve the resilience performance of more complex systems?

May it be in the workplace, in a volunteering organization or in an entangled family-friends-network — the more resilient a system is, and, consequently, the more coherent it acts towards its environment, the healthier and happier can the people be, being part of it.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into organizational theories, but to provide you with some basics relevant for our topic — the formal “purpose” of a company or organization, in other words, their business model or the “factual level”, is actually just the peak of the iceberg. The interpersonal levels, and the level of the “system’s laws”, take way more space in the day-to-day systemic operations, but are unfortunately still less taken care of. They often remain semi- or even subconscious.

Some of the system’s laws that are rather universal, while other depend strongly on the specific context.
Here are some notes on the more general system laws:

a) Right of Belonging
This is one of the most important system laws. Studies show that exclusion activates in the brain the same areas that are also highly active during pain
— That means consequently: The better the communication, and the better coordinated the actions are within the team, the higher is the probability of creating a deeper feeling of belonging

b) Right of Appreciation
— Every contribution to the system’s success wants be seen and appreciated — Missing recognition will most probably lead to a decline in motivation
— Unfortunately this is not always straight forward achievable: if a person for instance has a low self-esteem, they might not recognize positive acknowledgements, or are not able to accept them, but will still miss the recognition

c) Right of a Balance of Giving and Taking
— This law basically says: I want to get something in return for my efforts
— Often money is not necessarily the most appreciated unit for expressing recognition = highly depending on the person on the “recognition-receiving” end

d) Right of Recognition of Polarities
— Interesting fact: contradictions can actually accelerate mutual understanding and insights. Polarities can be understood as the energy fields of systems
— We often have to navigate between several desired outcomes, which are sometimes even mutually exclusive, while operating through limited resources
— A healthy system tries to find solutions inside these polarities, acknowledges them and doesn’t try to “harmonize”, ignore or rationalize them — that would slow the drive, too!

e) Efforts of Balancing are Essential
— It is crucial that the tradeoffs, that inevitably result from the polarities, are being balance - if not on a regular base, than at least middle- or long-term
— Therefore, it is important to take care that tradeoffs don’t always affect the same group (e.g., one specific internal team/ the environment/ supplier/ …)

So how can we achieve such a resilient organizational culture?

Literally every approach includes, as simple as it may sounds: communication.
Normally, around 90% of the system’s energy is guided towards the factual, and the interpersonal levels. It is already a success, that e.g. with the emerge of awareness and mindfulness also in professional contexts (see for example,new work approaches), the interpersonal level is being put more and more to the center of attention. But, if we want to achieve a truly sustainable, comprehensive and inclusive effect, it is important to pay attention to the system laws level, too.

This can mean to really allow and invite the participating people of a system: with their full personalities. To realize this, we are not just caring about this specific task to be done — we want to invite people as active parts of the system to question, to create, and to innovate.
In order to accomplish these more complex and demanding goals, we need to be able to do mistakes. No real growth is possible without learning, no learning is possible without mistakes. The more open the system (which means, the humans in it!) handles, and communicates mistakes, the easier we will feel about making, admitting, sharing, and learning from them. The narrative that mistakes should be avoided just creates an environment of oppression, unrealistic expectations, and fear, where bad circumstances may occur due to covered or silenced mistakes.

Another component of a rather toxic, older narrative of “professionalism” involves to be always available, and omni-knowledgeable. This is incompatible with our more and more complex and dynamic world, also characterized as VUCA (volatile — uncertain — complex — ambiguous).
So, instead of expecting a person holding some title or position to “know everything”, why don’t we invest in a culture where it is celebrated and acknowledged to honestly admit when we don’t know (yet) the answer, or another person might have brought some innovative new idea into our field?

This all sums up to the following question:
How about training people to obtain the competences to thrive, instead of the static knowledge?

Another, more specific approach, centered on the innovation of systems, is the Theory U. Created by Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this approach was initially targeted on the innovativeness of businesses, but can be adapted to single individuals, as well as to other types of systems, too.

The five steps of its core process consist basically of
a) aiming a connection to the “world that is outside our institutional bubble”, as well as a
b) deeper dive into the “world within” our system, through observation, and deep listening, to
c) prototyping the new in a co-creative way, in order to reach a real embodiment of “the new” into the world.

This approach is really centering on a deep openness — to the others, in and outside of the system, through e.g. the creation of open spaces where others can contribute.
In order to fully observe, we need to combine this openness with a quasi-anthropologically manner — with, as Scharmer puts it, “an open heart — open mind — open will”. These three entities involve the ability to be listening and observing without fear and judgement, and to move in a further step to brave actions.

When combining all these features, we can learn to responsibly and sustainably lead change in “times of disruption”. This is also the name of a90-minute free introduction online course of the Theory U by the MIT.

My suggestion — how about we are starting to use more sentences like:

“Great question! I don’t know the answer yet, but I will investigate on it and come back to you.”
“I didn’t make the best decision here. What would you suggest?”
“I feel right now quite burdened by something that has nothing to do with this task.”
“I am taking a day off to take care of my mental health — for being afterwards way more balanced, having the energy and resources to be back more content and focused.”

What would this do to us, and to our systems?

Find my first blogpost on a definition of the resilience concept here,
and my second blogpost on some hands-on steps to strengthen your personal resilience

Originally published at on June 7, 2021.

Social Impact Professional with experience in CSR and Systemic Coaching. Passionate about tackling social-ecological issues.