With practice we can all develop our reserves of resilience. But this is not always an easy or comfortable process, says Joseph Lampel.
We live in an age in which our awareness of the future is more intense than ever before. Whatever we are doing in our day-to-day lives, we all understand that change, both in our individual lives and in the wider world, is inescapable.
Indeed, never has this been more prescient than in these present dark times as the whole world faces up to the huge challenge of coronavirus. Today we turn on the TV, visit a website, log on to social media, or read the latest tweet, to find ourselves inundated with news of change that is happening right now or may happen soon. And when we contemplate the broad range of possible futures we are pressed to decide which ones to pursue and which to discard.
Inevitably, when making decisions we are caught between hope and anxiety. Hope that projects we are starting will succeed, and anxiety that unforeseen difficulties will get in the way. So while change offers opportunities, it is also stressful and challenging, even when the intended outcome is positive.
To live successfully in such a dynamic, rapidly changing environment, it is essential that we know and grow our resilience. Resilience is encapsulated by the idea of bouncing back while sustaining a sense of purpose. A resilient decision-maker engages with change and is determined to forge ahead, while maintaining the flexibility of mind to adapt as necessary.
This is the subject of a new book* in which I and my co-authors, Aneesh Banerjee and Ajay Bhalla, discuss the different aspects of resilience in today’s society. One of the reasons we wrote the book was to move beyond conventional notions of resilience. For instance it is not uncommon to hear the word resilience described in purely reactive terms, usually equated to coping with adversity. But if you study people who are making major decisions in their professional lives you find that they exercise resilience both reactively and actively, depending on the challenges they face.
People who make major decisions in their professional lives need to be resilient almost by definition, and resilience allows these individuals to confront challenges that can stretch them to the limit.
Sometimes these challenges are ‘reactive’, consisting of unexpected problems such as having to recall products, new regulations, a sharp fall in revenues, financial and political crises, or natural disasters.
But, crucially, very often challenges are just as likely to be generated by the very pursuit of strategic goals, such as new ventures or ambitious efforts to reshape business operations - so-called ‘active’ challenges. Decision-makers therefore need a different type of resilience when dealing with reactive as opposed to active challenges.
Some decision-makers have the resilience to excel when confronting reactive challenges, others when they have to deal with active challenges. Some excel at both and are subsequently much sought after. But some have difficulties dealing with both types of challenges too.
It is fair to say though that most decision-makers have the resilience to deal with either reactive or active challenges, which is why we find them gravitating towards different areas within an organisation - for example operations versus project management.
On the other hand, decision-makers who do not have the resilience to confront reactive or active challenges are often sidelined into positions where challenges rarely occur - if they can keep their job at all.
It may seem self-evident that resilience is essential to decision-making. But the surprising thing is that organisations usually notice resilience only after a challenge has been dealt with, successfully or otherwise.
Our view is that resilience is not valued as much as it should be because organisations emphasise rationality and foresight as the path to success.
I have spent a lot of time working with senior executives who come to my classroom because they want to understand how to make better decisions. Many believe that the path to making better decisions lies purely in rational analysis of situations, leading to clear, well-defined recommendations. Sadly, however, there is a gap between this neat theoretical picture of decision-making and the messy reality.
The 2008 financial crisis is a notable example of how messy reality can challenge long-standing business practices.
Following the crisis my colleagues and I began to study how organisations and their leaders responded to the recession that followed. We looked into the differences between organisations that dealt well with the recession, and rebounded quickly afterwards, and those that continued to struggle, even after market conditions improved. We found that the primary distinction was that organisations that recovered quickly and developed a route toward a sustained upward curve were more resilient that those that didn’t.
The good news is that, with practice, we can all develop our reserves of resilience. But this is not always an easy or comfortable process. Only by regularly engaging our resilience can we see what a difference it makes to our daily lives.
Joseph Lampel is the Eddie Davies Professor of Enterprise and Innovation Management.