Resilience: a journey not a destination

Resilience-Canyon

Dr Brian Walker *, ecologist and pioneer in resilience science, has recently released a fascinating new book on resilience: “Finding Resilience: change and uncertainty in nature and society”.  His timing could not be more perfect.

As a health practitioner, coach and workplace consultant: I am asked about resilience from varying points of view –

  • The patient, concerned about their own resilience and how it may impact their mental health
  • The executive coaching client who is all too aware of the impact resilience may have on performance
  • The business owner who is overwhelmed by how to improve their staff ‘resilience’ and whether the solution to this lies in providing a course, a coach or an online app

After digesting this book, I feel better about my own reticence to explain resilience in the same way to different people as it confirms my own impression- that context is everything.

Despite this, Dr Walker provides us with a succinct, ecologically based definition: “Resilience is the ability of a system (a body, an ecosystem, a city) to absorb a disturbance and re-organise so as to keep functioning in the same kind of way – to have the same ‘identity’” (Walker, 2019).

But take care, functioning in the ‘same kind of way – to have the same ‘identity’’ ought not be confused with being back to the ‘same it was’.  Instead, an adaptation occurs whereby the system will intelligently change and self-organise to become the ‘right kind of system’ for the current environment (Walker, 2019)

Thus, whether we consider things from a deeply personal, interpersonal or corporate point of view, this ‘reorganising’ will rely on our having the capacity to either adapt the current state or transform into a new one.  This capacity forms part of our mid-term resilience ‘report-card’.  I say “mid-term” because what becomes very clear when looking at resilience science is that resilience is always very much a work in progress.  We misunderstand the concept if we think of it as a finite goal.

At this juncture, it may therefore pay to consider your own context – given the speed and magnitude at which our own world, our economy, our communities and personal circumstances have changed in the past few months – where are you with your own ‘adaptive’ response?  Have there been any surprises in terms of your own capacity for transformation?  Naturally, this can be considered from any systems point of view and I would encourage you to do so.  Think about it from the point of view not only of yourself, but what of your family, your community and your business?

Worthwhile food for thought.

Dr Walker’s research suggested as we attempt to manage these ‘systems’, our biggest resilience error lies in focussing on one scale: “the scale of immediate concern, the focal scale” (Walker, 2019).

From a personal point, think of how often we consider our prevailing mood, our body habitus, our professional trajectory or even our bank account as the barometer for our resilience.  These areas each in isolation do not reflect our overall wellbeing and capacity for successfully navigating uncertainty and change.

From a business point of view, an obvious analogy would be an over-riding focus on profit or revenue as a success of the business resilience ignoring other factors which too are credible inputs such as quality of stakeholder relationships or workplace safety.

By now, you’re starting to realise that in the same manner that no single variable in our lives or businesses is an adequate reflection of the state of our resilience, our preparedness for resilience needs to reflect a multifaceted approach.  Dr Walker outlines a model with the following attributes as being most helpful:

  • Diversity

Putting all your eggs in one basket is a high-risk strategy at the gambling table, in life and in business.  In the same way that financiers have relied on portfolio diversification to protect against investment risk, we need to employ the same strategy.

On a personal level, we all have something to offer and have different strengths and skills. Our friendships, our families and communities are only enriched by our diversity and when disturbance abounds, our capacity to successfully respond is enhanced directly to the extent that our differences can be employed to help the ‘whole’ respond.

If diversity is valued and engineered at all levels in a business – both within and without – its adaptive resilience capacity is enhanced.

  • Having reserves

Self-care is an essential, not a nicety.  We can no longer afford for investing in one’s self to be seen as a luxury or saved for ‘when there’s time’.  In my role as a coach, I consider that self-care is not just about preventative health, making time for downward dogs or sipping almond lattes.  I advocate strongly for brutal honesty with oneself.  Doing so may help you avoid persistently wasting emotional and financial reserves in ways that do not serve you.

The advantage of having reserves may appear obvious in business but the nature of this ‘reserve’ will very much depend on the industry.  Whilst cash is always king, in a pandemic, as a hospital – what matters more is having access to ventilators and a skill set reserve.

  • Ability to respond quickly to shocks and changes in the system

In my humble opinion, New Zealand’s unicameral structure of governance and the ‘no-mess-no-fuss’ leadership and governance approach by its Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, is a good example of a system exemplifying this attribute.

On March 15th 2020, with only 100 cases, New Zealand closed its borders to foreign travellers and instituted mandatory home quarantine for those coming home.  Ten days later, strict lockdown was enforced.  Communication of these initiatives was swift.   But ten weeks later, the country was declared free of coronavirus and reports of an economy affected to the tune of operating at 3.8% less than usual (New Zealand Government, 2020).  An enviable and admirable position.

  • Degree of Connectivity

There are so many filters through which this attribute can be viewed:

On a simplistic and very relevant level: keep us each too close and our individual resilience is reduced e.g. Infection.  But too few connections and we become socially isolated which is downright bad for us. 

So how much is good and how much is bad?  As you may have guessed, the kind of connection and degree ideally ought to calibrate with the nature of the system at the time and the external environment it finds itself (Walker, 2019).  Without being suggestive – this principle reminds me of those relationships some of us may aspire to – where a couple are intuitively close at times but not too close that they stifle each other and then at other appropriate times, they shine as two unique independent individuals. 

Drilling down on connection, we are advised it also becomes more complex as there are likely internal connectivity variances (Walker, 2019).  This makes me think of patterns within a family or within a company, with some units more closely linked than others and how this will / ought to change at times of stress or duress….

There is also the nature of connectivity to consider:  External connectivity refers to the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ nature of the system with ‘open’ being posited as typically more resilient (Walker, 2019).  The Global Talent Independent visa program aiming to recruit 5,000 of the ‘best and brightest’ in the  highly skilled migrant category is an example of how a system  – in this case a country – based on ‘open’ connectivity may enhance its resilience.   On a personal level, I’d like to suggest that having an ‘open’ mind vs a ‘closed’ mind may yield similar results: as we ‘open’ ourselves up to consider a diverse range of options and viewpoints, we enhance our prospects of successfully navigating whatever curveball life has just thrown in our direction.

  • High levels of social capital

The features of these systems include:

  • High levels of trust
  • Strong social networks
  • Good leadership

This pertains especially to social systems (Walker, 2019).    Reading this, resilient families came to mind, I am sure we can all think of those families who epitomise this.  On the business level, successful brands also do so and in a post-pandemic era, I would suggest those brands exhibiting higher degrees of internal and external stakeholder trust with strong leadership and social networks may fare better.   Politicians are no different.

  • Values:  Empathy and Humility

A recent Harvard Business Review, highlighted the role of both Empathy and Humility in ‘inclusive leadership’ (Bourke and Espedido, 2020).  According to Bourke and Espedido, inclusive leadership matters because “the more people feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate”.  Common sense, I believe and equally applicable to co-operation at home or performance at work.  More co-operation and collaboration will only enhance our capacity as a system to respond to challenges in our environment.

  • Values: Fairness and Equity

Back to New Zealand again: a comprehensive research review conducted for the Ministry of Social Development, with the view of supporting individual and household resilience in the wake of the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes, modelled their findings pictorially as a tree.  So important were Fairness and Equity in contributing to resilience, that they were modelled as the trunk of the tree.  The trunk depicted the necessity of procedural and distributive justice for all social structures that underpin our lives.  These structures include our economy, gender and race relationship as well as those relationship characteristics pertaining to social class.  The authors emphasise: It is through power laden social relations that the expression of resilience is made easy or difficult (University of Canterbury, 2012).

What follows is that the marginalised and vulnerable fare worse off during times of environmental stress (University of Canterbury, 2012).   I would suggest the events of the past few months are literally providing our world with live feedback on where procedural and distributive justice may be lacking and we are seeing first-hand how this lack may impact the resilience of those affected.

Let us then seek out the opportunities for feedback as this represents an opportunity to do things differently.  To hope for and to aim for better.  It is all work in progress.  We’re certainly smart enough to take this on board and in fact, I would argue perfectly designed for just this: growth, adaptation and survival.  Whether it be our own bodies, our families, our communities or our countries, I sense there is a growing tide of self-awareness and willingness to use the feedback we are given as our boundaries and limits are stress tested to guide us to do better in the future. 

And so we end acknowledging the dynamic nature of resilience and the certainty only of uncertainty in our world.  But it is this very flux which shapes and keeps us on our toes as we journey through this life.  One person’s sense of resilience is another’s sense of enlightenment as we learn along the way to retain our faith in our own capacity to withstand or adapt to these environmental forces with grace and tenacity without losing sight of who we are.   

Resources:

  1. Walker, Brian & Proquest (Firm) (2019).  Finding resilience: change and uncertainty in nature and society.  CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South VIC
  2. New Zealand Government.  (2020, June 8).  New Zealand Moves to Alert Level 1 [Press Release].  Retrieved from https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/new-zealand-moves-alert-level-1
  3. Bourke, J. & Espedido, A. (2020).  The key to inclusive leadership.  Harvard Business Review.  Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-key-to-inclusive-leadership)
  4. University of Canterbury, Report for the Ministry of Social Development.  (2012). Resilience Framework and Guidelines for Practice. Retrieved from: https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10092/9821/12642223_msd_resilience_framework.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Note*: Dr Brian Walker graciously made himself available to review this article. I am indebted to him for his time and his guidance.

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