Weathering the storm: The role of leaders in building organisational resilience

Last weekend I delivered two lectures on different aspects of leadership for Masters students at a UK business school. One of the areas we explored was leadership during an organisational crisis.

And let’s face it, there has been a lot of crisis to analyse!

In the past year we’ve had Grenfell Tower, Uber and United Airlines to name but a few. In fact, these were three of the case studies that I asked students to look at, with a critical eye on the role of the leadership in those situations.

So, it was with interest, that I came across a relevant piece of research in the September 2017 edition of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management.

 “The survival of an organization during crisis is dependent on the resilience of its members, as well as its leadership”

The research

The researchers had developed a model – the Relational Activation of Resilience (RAR) – and tested this out through a case study approach. The case study was of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, in Singapore, during the SARS pandemic of 2003. Interviews were carried out with a cross-cutting selection of staff in the hospital.

The reason the researchers chose this particular hospital in this particular country is that despite being one of the worst affected countries, Singapore was one of the fastest to contain the situation.

The aim of the RAR is to explain how leaders leverage relationships to activate organisational resilience during a crisis. The RAR has three pillars:

  1. Organisations as networked structures;
  2. Leaders as pivotal players with a high degree of social influence in these networked structures; and
  3. Resilience as a process to help develop relationships across networks which allow the organisation to flex, adapt and then quickly go back to normality

Key concepts explored as part of the research included:

  • The liminal period of a crisis – this is where routines get disrupted and where new relationships are built to manage the psychological, emotional and social impact of that disruption. In other words, a limited period of time.
  • Social capital – the quantity and quality of relationships across a given organisational network. Previous research has shown that high social capital facilitates faster organisational recovery following a crisis.
  • Structural social capital – the number and quality of connections between individuals inside an organisation and between organisations.
  • Cognitive social capital – the shared understanding between partners, including having a common language and shared goals.
  • Resilience activation – how resilience emerges when an organisation faces an unexpected emergency. Edward Powley wrote a key research article on this in 2009.
  • Social Network Theory – how people interact and how this then shapes networks and information sharing inside and outside the organisation. Peter Blau wrote about this in 1977.

In addition, the research cites the seminal work of Arjen Boin and colleagues which suggests five factors leaders need to effectively take their organisation through and out of a crisis:

  1. Sense making – understanding what is going on and helping others to understand this;
  2. Decision making – making decisions quickly and under pressure whilst taking in to account a range of views;
  3. Meaning making – providing authority and giving clarity on what is going on and why, along with outlining what needs to be done;
  4. Terminating – knowing when to move from emergency back to the normal routine; and
  5. Learning – making time and space to find out what went well and not so well, using this to help develop the organisational response in the event of another crisis.

The findings

Organisational resilience is dependent on:

  1. Leaders being able to quickly facilitate transitional networks inside and between organisations. In particular, where there are pre-existing relationships based on trust, organisational resilience will take effect a lot quicker.
  2. Leaders taking a mindful approach to communication. This is characterised through leaders noticing, feeling empathy and actively reaching out to people. This, in turn, leads to positive emotional responses which then invoke organisational resilience.
  3. Leaders putting effort in to creating collective meaning and sense making, helping others understand what is happening and what will be done to turn the situation around.
  4. Leaders ensuring time and space is given for reflection and learning once the crisis is over, and that these lessons are then shared widely.

Underpinning this is the visibility and accessibility of the leader.

One of the key things the researchers found is that none of the above can be done by the leader alone. It is vital that leaders involve others.

In addition, they make clear that leadership during a crisis is not only about positional power and traditional leadership roles.

“Leadership does not rest on one’s position in the hierarchy. Instead a leader is one whose ideas are expressed in talk or action and are recognised by others as capable of progressing tasks or problems”

Implications for organisations and practitioners

Whilst the research is limited in its focus (healthcare), it still provides a useful framework for other types of organisations.

The research suggests that organisational resilience is dependent on the quality of relationships inside and between organisations, heightened awareness of others during a crisis, and being able to work well together (give and take).

Here are three things you can do to help develop leaders and in turn, ensure your organisation will be more resilient during whatever storm it will weather:

  1. Leadership development: Whilst situational judgement tests (SJTs) tend to be used in recruitment, they can also be used as part of leadership development. This is particularly relevant for organisations that are highly likely to face emergency situations (local government, health, police, fire, aviation etc). Helping leaders to develop their ability to assess situations and make decisions under pressure is key to organisational resilience and crisis response.
  2. Identify networks and influencers:  A social network analysis can provide you with a map of key players in an organisation – who they have relationships with (inside and outside the organisation), the kind of knowledge they have etc. This can also help with knowledge management – particularly if key players have left following changes in the organisation – helping to plug gaps. Leaders who recognise that influence is not predicated on position are more likely to tap in to the most appropriate people during a crisis or emergency.
  3. Team building: This is particularly relevant for organisations in the public sector. Having regular quality time away to forge trusting relationships between organisational leaders could make the difference in the speed and effectiveness of building resilience and subsequent responses to a crisis or emergency. Scenario planning exercises can be one way to do this.

At the heart of all this is trust and understanding.

“When trust is present in relationships across the network, individuals are more able to adapt quickly”

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