19. February 2020

The Resilient Organization as the Enterprise of the Future

„… and what’s really frightening, or interesting, depending on your perspective, is that the change from now on will even be faster and bigger than we’re expecting.“

Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts, 1996

Even if Negroponte’s words are now almost 20 years old, they have not lost their relevance. For companies to remain viable in a period featuring so much change, and to be able to actually exploit it as a means for achieving growth, they require plenty of flexibility and adaptability, not to mention robustness. They must succeed in mastering social and economic changes, both extraneous to and within the enterprise and to positively influence these phenomena wherever possible. This ability is known as “resilience”.

Evidence of its relevance includes current reports issued by the statutory medical insurance funds in which they all point to increasing case numbers of mental illness; a situation blamed, in large part, on negative stress in the workplace that end in burn-out .


  1. Culture, leadership, the individual

An organization’s resilience is largely determined by 3 factors: the corporate culture, the leadership culture and the resilience of the employees as individuals. The resilience of top managers is particularly critical in this respect. So much is clear; only those managers capable of emerging relatively unscathed or even invigorated from personal and professional crises can act as role models. Given that their behaviour also has a direct bearing on the enterprise and leadership culture, organizations will only be enduringly competitive and have the requisite resilience and adaptability if the management team largely consists of resilient individuals.

In the long term, successful organizations are the ones that exhibit a culture in which:

  • their employees pursue a common vision and share a common system of values
  • changes within the surrounding environment are perceived as being both a challenge as well as an opportunity for future development
  • actions are undertaken with foresight, equanimity and an appreciation of value
  • acceptance of the situation at hand is combined with a problem-solving attitude
  • there is a prevailing desire to positively engage and a conviction that influence can be exerted
  • there is a readiness to assume and designate responsibility, even if mistakes could result
  • great significance is placed on relationships and networks inside and outside the organization
  • the future is permanently in focus.

Corporate culture can only develop in this way if all managers, if possible, can pull in the same direction to create an environment in which employees flourish and behave accordingly.

The preconditions for this are:

  • that the managers are role models in conveying a common vision and set of values, that they act with integrity, typify a constructive philosophy in dealing with mistakes (including their own) and challenge employees through clear rules and expectations while also encouraging them with support and appreciative feedback
  • a participative leadership style, which involves employees in decision-making, thereby, boosting levels of identification, motivation and self-reliance
  • a positive attitude towards people, one that encourages their development
  • the establishment and preservation of supportive relationships and networks
  • an awareness and acceptance of the interactions between the organization and its environment and the anticipation of the challenges that emanate there
  • internalized resilience and the acumen to deal with stress.

The majority of workers want to believe in their company, to identify with it and participate in it. However, what should be done if this belief is ever shaken? If it ever becomes apparent that external, or even internal upheavals presage turbulent times ahead or that the frequency of changes is gathering pace rather than slowing as anticipated? If there is an impending risk of a plummet in the collective sense of self-confidence and ability to perform?

Although it would be better to prepare well in advance for such all too common scenarios, at this stage, it is now high time to put some effort into establishing a degree of robustness because the good news is … resilience can be learned.

Every person, and therefore every organization, has a certain inherent level of tolerance to new situations and stress; some have more, others less. And each and every individual can enhance their own corresponding abilities. However, somewhat akin to building up personal fitness, anyone seeking to strengthen their resilience needs to work at it with dedication and persistence. The decisiveness such training has for the individual or the organization as a whole frequently only becomes apparent in retrospect, i.e., when the change has revealed its full effects.

Remaining properly functional, even in times of crisis, demands that every company employee, and managers in particular, possess an appropriate degree of intellectual flexibility, emotional stability and physical equilibrium.


  1. “Self”-management and intellectual flexibility

Self-management is particularly important when it comes to intellectual versatility. Consciously controlling personal thoughts and feelings helps break out of unproductive circular thought patterns and to concentrate on those areas in which personal influence is feasible rather than fritter away vital energy in trying to change the unchangeable. By taking regular and conscious pauses and by critically observing their own “selves”, managers can create a space between themselves and their actual role; a space that allows them to reassess their own internalized attitudes. This shift in perspective frequently reveals other possible courses of action.

By adopting this “self-observer” stance, the individual can also gain awareness of their formative values as well as their own, possibly exaggerated, expectations, through which they can better understand their own personal patterns of behaviour and response. If this results in the repeated and successful application of new thinking patterns and the testing of new modes of behaviour, the individual will experience a gradually increasing level of faith in their own autonomy and their power to exert an influence. This is especially effective because rather than the challenging situation itself, it is the perceived lack of suitable response strategies that generates negative stress.


  1. Vision, goals and emotional stability

The commonly-shared vision of an enterprise’s goals is much more than mere consultancy jargon. It enables managers to give concrete shape to the goals of the enterprise and break them down to such an extent that they can be largely reconciled with their own personal targets and those of their employees. This is the only approach for ensuring that, in the long term, everyone in the organization acts through personal motivation instead of merely “working to rote”. It is also critical to this exercise that the right people are placed in the right positions within the company. Suitably matching the role holder with the role is essential to challenging employees without overextending them. If a balance can be successfully reached between performance standards and the available acumen then “working in the flow” is achievable; within a short time this state of having a perfect equilibrium between requirements and capacities brings improved work results and greater satisfaction regarding personal work activities. However, by definition, “flow” is not something set in stone but instead it describes a temporary state which can only be regained by continuously further developing abilities. Therefore, it also creates an incentive to augment personal competencies; opening up the opportunity for personal growth by constantly pushing back the boundaries of the individual’s comfort zone. Expanding this “sphere of action”, in turn, increases the levels of resilience within the individual and within the team.

One essential strategy for maintaining an emotional balance during times of crisis is to identify and unlock personal resources at an early stage. If managers have a clear view of what specific thoughts and activities give them traction, imbue them with strength or even inspire them, they can deliberately deploy these to create balance in demanding situations. At the same time, they should form support structures and actively work at cultivating relationships. Genuine, deep friendships, the family as a buttress and a constructive, appreciative manner of interacting with colleagues and business partners can constitute vital sources of strength, and somewhat “de-skew” one’s own perception. An honest exchange with a trusted individual can reveal wholly new insights, especially in relation to one’s self and create a safe area in which to talk candidly about any possible personal worries and doubts.


  1. Healthy body, healthy mind

 The importance of physical fitness and health should not ignored because the body is not merely a shell or a tool that helps the brain to function; physical imbalances can, conversely, directly influence thoughts and behaviour. It should be self-evident to everyone that adequate amounts of sleep and relaxation, regular movement and a balanced diet constitute the basis for physical well-being. Having regular medical check-ups is at least as important, as is paying heed to acute signals emitted by the body and having these promptly investigated. This can often be more difficult than it sounds, particularly in times of stress, because warning signs go unnoticed or are suppressed, or due to the attitude of “I don’t have the time” to deal with these properly.

All told, a comprehensive level of preparation, directed at the level of the individual, the management and the organization, is essential for an enterprise to acquire the resilience to cope with unforeseeable and unexpected changes and difficulties. In this context, the organization should be less concerned with deflecting new developments or rebounding from crises in the self same state as before, and more focused on adapting early to new circumstances in order to gain a competitive advantage. This is only feasible if the corporate culture permits the appropriate processes of adjustment to occur by exhibiting a degree of improvisational capacity, having a zest for innovation and tolerating mistakes. In addition to this, managers must, on the one hand, be properly prepared for their leadership roles and, on the other, receive support in critical situations with their team. Finally, it should be ensured that every individual within the enterprise is accorded the position best suited to them and that targeted intervention measures are utilized to help all employees establish their own personal resilience.