A collective perspective on resilience: What’s leadership got to do with it?

How much do you think a positive human experience of work impacts our resilience?

I say “a whole heck of a lot!”

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a keen interest in resilience, leadership, and high performing teams, and how they impact each other.  In 2021, I embarked on research with the team at SupportingLines Institute to assess the relationship of resilience and organizational performance.  We asked ourselves three questions:

  1. Can you have a high-performance culture without resilience?
  2. What aspects of your organization’s culture support (or reduce) team member resilience?
  3. Can you have a high-performing team without a resilient leader? 

After significant research using different approaches we have a much clearer understanding of how organizational culture cultivates or reduces resilience.  Our research shows that a positive human experience of work enhances performance, cultivates psychological safety, is predictive of engagement, and contributes to increased resilience.

In this post, I will share what we are learning in response to our three questions, along with a few reflections.

What is Resilience?

By now, after two years of the stress and strain of living through a pandemic, I don’t think anyone is confused about what resilience is.  It refers to our ability to manage our stressors so that we can persevere and adapt well in the face of adversity.  Many things influence our resilience: thoughts, feelings, words, actions, and human connections.

What I find interesting, is that resilience is often referred to as ‘personal.’  We forget that ‘personal’ resilience is both a function – and an outcome – of the system(s) with which an individual is engaged.  Organizations and teams are collectives.  If we approach resilience from a collective perspective rather than an individual one, we open ourselves to a plethora of possibilities and opportunities to achieve a healthier, more positive human experience of work.

However, it’s important to remember that groups of human beings form systems and networks that operate together, alongside and within other whole systems.  It is a complex web and each of these systems influences the extent to which we perform at work (or at home, at school, or at play).  These systems also influence how we experience, withstand and bounce-back from stress and adversity.  

According to AON, a multinational professional services and insurance firm, “If organisations want employees who are capable of managing their own health, mental as well as physical, and to benefit from the risk reductions that come with that – they need a resilient workforce” (AON Rising Resilient Report 2020, p. 21).  Yes, that’s true.  I also believe that in order to cultivate resilience, employees need more than benefit plans. 

Human beings need opportunities for meaningful growth and development.  We need clear expectations and communication.  We need effective leaders with whom we have a positive working relationship, and who demonstrate approach-coping (vs. avoidance-coping) behaviours, personal awareness and courageous authenticity.  Oh, and throw in a full dose of interpersonal intelligence!  It’s a tall order. 

The good news is that effective leadership behaviours which contribute to high-performance and resilience, are common sense things people can learn and practice across all levels and all lines of business.  Many of these common-sense things are captured in the High-Performance Index (HPI), an assessment based on 36 key elements of a high-performance culture. These elements are the same factors that create psychological safety & engagement.

So, what are we learning in response to our three questions?

1. Can you have a high-performance culture without resilience?

It seems unlikely.  When we examined the correlation, or strength of relationship, between the elements of high-performance culture and eight known factors of resilience, the data showed significant correlations for several factors (with 90% reliability).  The answer to this question is further explained below, as we respond to questions 2 & 3.

2. What aspects of your organization’s culture support (or reduce) team member resilience?

We looked at the data two ways to answer this question. In the following list we combine elements of HPI that impact resilience with resilience factors that impact culture (refer to Tables 1 & 2 below). We cultivate a stronger culture and build resilience by:

  • Engaging in meaningful development opportunities
  • Clearly communicating expectations
  • Working together toward a higher purpose or shared vision
  • Seeking support from others (not doing it alone)
  • Being curious about the experiences of others
  • Solving problems collaboratively

The findings illustrated in Tables 1 & 2 are consistent with those reported in the 2020 AON Rising Resilience report.  AON identified five factors that significantly increase the likelihood of resilience within the workforce.  Interestingly the top two factors align exactly with our own data (refer to Table 3 below).

HPI Correlations to Resilience
Resilience Correlations to HPI
Likelihood of an Employee Being Resilient (AON, 2020)

What was really surprising for us, was the difference in % correlation between peer support and leader support, to the Resilience Factors.  Peer support (indicators of meaning, teamwork and accountability) had a positive correlation of 43% with resilience.  Leader support (indicators of clarity, development, and performance) had a positive correlation of 58% with resilience.

We wondered: Why does leader support have 15% greater correlation with resilience than peer support? The answer lies in the academic literature relating to personality and social resources in stress resistance, the story of hardiness, leadership behaviours and subordinate resilience, and supervisor and coworker support.

Can you imagine the difference it makes to have a direct supervisor who values work-life balance, direct communication, caring relationships, and courage, vs. having a supervisor who is overly competitive, tied to their work, emotionally distant, and controlling?  The former are attributes that cultivate resilience, while the latter do not.    

Harland, et al. suggest that “subordinate resilience may be positively impacted by leader behaviors and that there may be a variety of leadership behaviors that positively impact subordinate resilience”.  Mayo’s team found that supervisor support had “undeniable beneficial effects to alleviate employee strain”; however, if the supervisor is perceived to be the source of the strain, then their support “has the potential for making matters worse”.

3. Can you have a high-performing team without a resilient leader? 

You’re less likely to have a high performing team without a resilient leader.  This is because many of the behaviours and thinking patterns for resilience are behaviours of effective leadership.  Some of these include: living in alignment with personal values; having a sense of purpose and meaning; feeling capable, confident and effective; practicing patience and perseverance to achieve long-term goals; perceiving change and problems as opportunities; and appreciating different perspectives.  Certainly for a short time, a team can be high-performing without a resilient leader… but over the long term, the absence of these things leads to burn-out, which leads to a team without a leader at all.

The resilience of the organization’s people not only points to the quality of an organization’s benefits package, it points to the health and hardiness of the organization’s culture, which ultimately points to the quality and type of leadership experienced at that organization. 

At SupportingLines, we have found that supportive and effective leadership includes simple, common-sense things like:

  • Having effective 1:1 conversations to address tactical challenges
  • Having effective developmental feedback conversations to address and resolve conflict or confusion
  • Knowing how (and when) to provide effective recognition
  • Knowing how (and when) to use a coach approach to support problem-solving

When we provide people with effective developmental support, clear expectations, and create alignment toward a common purpose, they build stronger relationships, experience a greater degree of fulfillment, and strengthen their resilience. 

The result?  A caring community of colleagues who communicate clearly and collaborate to achieve meaningful organizational goals because they have the ability to constructively cope with strain and stress.  If that’s not a positive human experience of work, I don’t know what is!

Want to get a sense of your team’s performance?  The HPI Prediction only takes 5 minutes and gives you lots of information and great clues to maximize the potential and performance of your team. Take the Prediction today!

Catherine North

Catherine North

Catherine is a certified coach and organizational development consultant who specializes in cultivating resilient, high performing leaders and teams.

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