resilient trees

Building Resilience in Organizations

January 14, 2019

The need to focus on practices that allow organizations to bend, but not break

Why is it that in the face of significant challenges some employees remain strong and take things in stride, while others struggle or even crumble under the stress the challenges present? The answer is that some employees are more resilient than others.

Although the general concept of resilience has circulated in casual conversation for a long time, its presence in corporate hallways and meeting rooms is a new development. It might come as a surprise to learn that the evolution of the resilience concept didn’t grow out of organizational behaviour or management, but out of the world of developmental psychology. Developmental psychologists have long studied why some children, who grow up in very difficult conditions, such as those involving poverty, abuse or neglect, are nonetheless able to thrive when so many of their counterparts succumb to their less-than-ideal circumstances and end up damaged or poorly-adjusted. Today, managers are interested in understanding how they can capitalize on what developmental psychologists have learned in order to foster resilience in their employees and organizations. They need to succeed in the face of difficulties such as cost-cutting, downsizings and ever-intensifying competitive pressures.


The first step in knowing how to promote resilience in organizations is to understand exactly what resilience is. Authors Stephen Lepore and Tracey Revenson use the analogy of a tree blowing in the wind to explain that resilience can be understood with three different frames. In the first frame, the wind blows the tree and the tree bends in response, but when the wind stops the tree returns to its usual upright position. In this way, resilience can be understood as a recovery process in which trees, or employees, are able to return to their normal state after being exposed to some stressor, pressure or difficulty.

In the second frame, when the wind blows, the tree doesn’t bend at all. In this way, resilience can be understood as a resistance process in which, in the face of stressors or traumas, employees don’t react negatively in the least. Some consider this the essence of resilience.

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In the third frame, in response to the blowing wind, instead of bending and then returning to its original position, the tree actually changes its shape. In this way, resilience can be understood as a reconfiguration process in which employees alter how they deal with stressors and cope more effectively by changing their understanding of the situation or how they behave.

All of these frames, which involve maintaining positive adjustment in the face of difficulties or adversities, are valid ways of thinking about resilience. For organizations, the important question is how to build these forms of resilience into the fabric of their operations. We can structure our discussion of how to do this by thinking of the various resources that can be developed and leveraged at different levels of an organization: the individual level, the group level and the organizational level.


The individual level focuses on protective factors within employees. There are a number of assets that people may have or can develop that help them to be resilient in the face of adversity. For example, hardiness allows people to bounce back from difficulties because it leads them to view difficulties as controllable, important, and as challenges rather than as threats. That is, even though things may be tough, hardy employees consider that difficulties can be dealt with and overcome. As such, hardy people are able to reconfigure the way they think about situations and become more resilient. These individual-level protective factors can be developed through training. However, the degree to which employees demonstrate hardiness depends on the environment in which they find themselves. This brings us to the next level.

The group level focuses on interpersonal or social factors that help people cope in the face of difficulties. One such factor is social support. Social support comes in a variety of forms such as providing material assistance when someone is in need, or providing advice when someone is unsure of how to address problems. Such support can come from work colleagues but can also, of course, come from supervisors and leaders in an organization. When employees have the social resources they need to cope with challenges, the challenges aren’t as challenging. Management development and team building can help build this scaffolding.

The organizational level focuses on structural aspects of an organization that can help it and its employees maintain equilibrium in the face of significant challenges. Lengick-Hall and associates have written about the human resource policies and practices that build resilience. Such practices include cross-functional work assignments that allow employees to better understand the environment in which they operate, and joint employee-customer teams that can build relationships and supply lines that help employees act quickly when problems arise. These and other organization level practices allow an organization to bend without breaking, thus promoting recovery when confronted with stressors and challenges. HR audits can be used to assess where opportunities exist to build organizational resilience.

In the end, resilience is a dynamic process. An employee can be resilient one day and crumble the next. The trick is to monitor the personal, social, material and structural resources employees have available to cope with specific difficulties and ensure that the necessary amount and quality of these resources is available when needed. This is what will allow your employees to recover, resist and reconfigure in face of challenges. That is, be resilient.

Jamie Gruman
Dr. Jamie Gruman is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour. He has taught in the undergraduate program, MA Leadership Program, MBA program, and PhD program in Management at the University of Guelph. Dr. Gruman is the Founding Chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Dr. Gruman has consulted and delivered seminars for Fortune 500 corporations, public and not-for-profit agencies.

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