Building Resilience and Engagement in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Lewis Garrad

Originally posted by Organisation Solutions Pte Ltd.

Many agree that the 21st century business and economic environment is characterised by change. High-growth markets, financial crisis, technological advances and even rapidly evolving demographics (like the aging workforce) are happening simultaneously. These changes and others have seen the emergence of concepts like VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), which are now widely used to describe the environment that many leaders, managers and employees find themselves in.

Sirota surveys more than a million employees around the world each year for international organisations like Shell, Hilton, Lenovo and Facebook. Recent analysis of the data by our R&D team found that people are certainly starting to recognise the new reality of work. Now more than ever, employees feel that companies are not keeping up with the pace of change in their external business environment.

Our analysis of senior leadership attitudes also shows an interesting story. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen executive attitudes toward stress, job security, development and even pay becoming markedly less positive. When we look at the areas where senior leaders show the most concern, adaptability of the business, quality, workflow and talent retention top the list. This suggests that leaders are certainly seeing the difference too.

This is significant because our research, as well as research from academics, has shown that increased stress and pressure actually narrows the focus and attention of people, causing them to be less creative, collaborative and innovative. On the flip side, leaders with a positive mindset actually create environments where people are more energised. (If you’re interested in this, try these studies: Avey, 2007; Sy, Cote, Saavedra, 2005.).

With more people calling for their organisation to “keep up,”a burning platform has been set. People want to see their organisations doing more to compete. However, there are some significant challenges for moving into action. For instance, we also found that on average less than half of employees feel that their management is listening to and taking action on employee ideas and suggestions, missing out on a valuable source of creativity and innovation.

So how can companies evolve to tackle the 21st century business environment? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Get performance focused feedback from the front-line. Regularly receiving focused input from employees on the organisation’s strategy and tactics is vital to understand how the “reality” is playing out on the front-line. Getting a strong data feed from your employees can help you indentify hot spots in the company that need specific attention.
  2. Plan for Paradox. Leaders will increasingly face a need to balance disparate and competing priorities. These paradoxes need to be reconciled and managed carefully. Helping leaders develop the skills to recognise and manage them will be important. For example, many leaders now need to work with teams that are more dispersed yet need to be even more collaborative. This is a huge challenge— Dr. James Eyring offers some useful advice about how to tackle this in his recent blog.
  3. Build Resilience and Engagement. With so much ambiguity, organisations will need to find ways to develop resilience in leaders and employees to combat stress. The researchers Kathleen Sutcliffe and Timothy Vogus identified differences in how organisations respond to threats— either with rigidity or resilience. Resilience is characterised by creating structures that allow for information and resource sharing, as well as a loosening of control to empower those with the most expertise. This is more likely in a strongly engaged organisation as positive mindsets psychologically create more openness to ideas and collaboration. (See the work of Barbara Fredrickson for more information on this.) Rigidity is the opposite— characterised by resource hoarding, tightening of controls and limiting information.
  4. Focus on the core needs of your people. Sirota’s research over the last 40 years has shown that people come to work with three core needs (no matter what they do or where they’re from): equity (fundamental fairness), achievement (a sense of progress in their work and personal development that is recognised by their leaders) and camaraderie (meaningful connections to colleagues in the interest of the bigger organisation). Focusing on these needs can help to drive stronger enthusiasm, engagement and resilience.
  5. Bring new skills and capabilities to HR. The significant technological advances of recent years mean that organisations are now able to collect huge volumes of valuable people data. However, few are able to leverage it in effective ways. Organisations like Google, Shell and Unilever are building HR analytics teams that can help them leverage their data to help them make better evidence-based decisions. This also means developing HR business partners to be more data savvy and evidence based. Accelerating the development of HR will be important.

Creating a competitive, growing organisation has never been easy. In the current environment we’re seeing unprecedented changes in the way we work and live our lives. As our friends in Finance will tell us, movement in any market is good if you are able to capitalise on it. The question is whether you’re able to create an organisation that can move quickly enough and stay the course to do that.

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