Since 2020, adverse economic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation have forced companies to exercise resilience to keep their businesses afloat.
A recent joint study by SHRM Research and Gap International examined the importance of resilience during difficult times. A shared characteristic among resilient organizations: inclusiveness.
"At the organizational level, we found inclusive cultural norms were greater for resilient organizations in comparison to non-resilient organizations," said co-author Katie Merlini, senior researcher of thought leadership for SHRM Research. "At the employee level, we found that inclusive leadership, inclusive workgroups and inclusive organizational norms all related to higher levels of employee resilience."
In the report, researchers surveyed:
- 620 senior leaders—including 220 executives, 86 vice presidents and 314 directors—in organizations with at least 50 employees to gauge their characterizations of their organizations' performance and employee well-being factors from pre-pandemic to now.
- 1,007 full-time employees about their resilient behaviors and work environment to ascertain what made the difference for enabling employee resilience.
The results indicated that inclusive tactics such as implementing fair treatment, integrating differences and allowing employees to have a voice in decisions were significantly greater among organizations in the resilience trajectories compared to the non-resilient trajectory.
Workers with the most resilience reported having supervisors who displayed empathy and inclusive leadership behaviors, an inclusive immediate workgroup, personnel and social resources, and organizational culture norms related to adaptability and inclusion.
Buy-in from company executives served as a critical factor in inclusive, resilient workplaces. The report noted that inclusive leadership from executives was a catalyst that trickled down to other levels of the organization.
Examples of inclusive leadership included:
- Supporting employees' needs.
- Ensuring organizational equity.
- Facilitating shared decision-making.
- Encouraging diverse contributions.
- Helping employees fully contribute.
Co-author Liya Williams, a researcher with SHRM Research, said leaders must commit to inclusion efforts and take several actions that ingrain inclusion into their organizations.
"Without senior leadership buy-in, it becomes extremely difficult for organizations to create and maintain inclusive work environments," Williams said. "Employees need to know their CEOs, executives and managers are committed to building an inclusive work environment, because if their leaders aren't, why should they?"
Adhesion and Dispersion
At first glance, the relationship between inclusion and resilience may not appear intuitive. However, Merlini said inclusion helps in two important ways: by acting as an organization's "glue" and "grease."
"We suspect it acted as the glue by helping employees stick together—and with the organization—while also helping each other cope during the pandemic," she said.
For example, employees who feel like they belong are more likely to form bonds with their colleagues, which can be helpful for both commitment and support. This can build trust, respect and communication within a company, and this greater organizational adhesion helps companies and employees weather difficult times.
"We also suspect it acted as the grease by facilitating the spread of novel ideas to solve problems related to the challenges of the pandemic," Merlini added. "For instance, when employees feel like their uniqueness is valued, they're more likely to share their unique perspectives with others, which is important for ideation."
Dispersion of ideas and perspectives can help organizations overcome economic uncertainty or challenging problems.
Merlini noted that inclusive norms leverage diverse experiences and ways of thinking, which can be useful in identifying solutions to challenges brought on by adversity. These norms also facilitate a sense of belonging for workers of different backgrounds, helping employees feel supported and ultimately contributing to positive attitudes.
Tips for Increasing Organizational Resilience
The SHRM survey is one of several published in the last few years that analyzes the relationship between diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and organizational resilience.
For example, a 2019 report examined the relationship between diversity at work and resilient companies. The study's findings suggested that organizations with greater diversity are more likely to be equipped to anticipate, cope with and adapt to difficult situations.
Brian McComak, founder and CEO of DE&I consulting firm Hummingbird Humanity in New York City, said that diversity at work can lead to greater organizational agility and inventiveness.
"An inclusive, human-centered workplace culture fosters new ways of communicating and collaborating while fostering psychological safety, allowing employees to bring their best selves, their best ideas and their best solutions to work each day," he said.
In June 2022, Harvard Business Review outlined ways leaders can play a role in supporting employees' resilience, including by:
- Offering paid therapy services and paid leave.
- Taking suggestions from employee resource groups to solve work-related problems.
- Developing a culture that supports employees' voices and healthy emotional expression.
- Adjusting expectations in acknowledgment of a challenge, which demonstrates respect for employees' humanity while creating an environment that makes resilience possible.
These actions can lead to a sense of "psychological safety" that can benefit the employee and employer.
"When employees feel a sense of psychological safety—meaning they feel like their voices and identities are respected, valued and seen—they are able to openly contribute new ideas and solutions to challenges," said Bryce J. Celotto, founder and head of strategy at consulting company Swarm Strategy in Charlotte, N.C. "Building a sense of inclusion requires this level of psychological safety and ultimately leads to belonging."
SHRM is hosting a four-week online program, "Inspiring Resilient Teams," aimed to help organizations overcome unexpected challenges and obstacles. The course begins Oct. 24.