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May 19, 2008
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Resilience — The New Imperative

An important characteristic of a great organization is the concept of resilience.

Neither academia nor organizations give much attention to it, especially in practical day-to-day organizational training and development.

Resilience is the property of a material, person or an organization to absorb the unexpected, or to absorb internal and external forces that may attack it, while being able to respond or bounce back from the impact of those forces. The greater the resilience of organizations or people, the more successful they will be in meeting the challenges of maintaining a productive work environment, managing crises and building a positive future legacy.

Conversely, an organization that is weak to begin with or has eroded over time loses its resilience and is less likely to survive a crisis effectively. Accepting “mediocre” as the organizational standard will result in a failure waiting to happen — just wait for the right (or actually, the wrong) combination of pressures and events to take place.

There is a clear parallel to human health. The more a person pays attention to her health by a combination of eating right, walking the HR dog regularly, having friends and a positive relationship with a family physician (I, of course, recommend the HR doctor daughter Rachel), the more likely she will be to survive accidents or illnesses and spring back to health after such events.

Resilience is a key factor in organizational success. However, our ability to develop resilience in local public agencies is sometimes affected by the short-sighted actions of politicians at other levels, typically (and increasingly) state governments.

State legislators seem to be suffering from what is almost a genetic compulsion to find ways to foist unfunded mandates and caseload-driven programs on local governments. Often, this is “gift wrapped” around press conferences to talk about how the legislator is responding to the wishes of the people. Unfortunately, further down the food chain, it is the local, and not the state, governments that deal with the problems of meeting these mandates at the direct service level.

While the mandates flow freely from the state houses, so does the apparent lust to restrict local governments’ ability to raise funds. This combination steers local governments’ focus toward more short-term crisis repair and less on long-term organizational development and prevention. The latter, ironically would make it easier for these unexpected mandates to be managed.

The move to increased mandates and reduced capacity will eventually hurt the states as much as the local governments. 

Perhaps the greatest victim of this amalgamation of legislative forces will be the individual citizens and their children and grandchildren. They will see, over time, the erosion of civil society, which at its best includes a strong sense of public safety, access to quality education, ability to care for its most vulnerable members, and the desire of the best and most able of the next generation to want to have a career in public service. There are only so many “new frontiers” for us to head to when we get fed up with the negative characteristics of crowded, urban, high-traffic, complex living.

Organizations that are strong and resilient can handle hurricanes and earthquakes. They can handle budget reductions and the adaptation of technology to the delivery of service. They will attract and retain great employees and more effectively manage inappropriate performance or behavior.

Great organizations look to the future as well as to the pressures of the present, but they cannot be successful if their focus is on a daily grind of narrow-focused responses and reactions to the events of the day.

Just as you should pay attention to personal health by a basic foundation of healthy habits and by responding immediately to a sense of anomalies or feelings of illness, so too will a resilient organization act quickly, ethically and respectfully to meet challenges and reduce liabilities. 

Do you want to manage the mediocre?  If so, read this article and then immediately do nothing. Do you want to be a contributor to organizational success?  Then read the article and assess how much your organization is doing to build resilience. It probably is not enough. Proceed to act on what still needs to be done.

Take the latter approach and you’ll find that not only is the organization improving, becoming healthier, and more successful, but so are you — and you’ll be having more fun in the process.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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