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Research Pinpoints Factors of Organizational Resiliency

​When COVID-19 hit the world in 2020, some organizations crumpled to their knees, closing their doors and laying off employees. Others were able to weather the storm of a pandemic. Why were some better able to survive—and sometimes thrive—in the face of adversity?

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Gap International released June 14 found that having prepared leaders who could swiftly size up the crisis' implications, take quick action, and engage key staff members and their networks was crucial to helping organizations surmount the pandemic's challenges. The research also found that employees can better cope with stress and change when their supervisors and workgroups practice inclusivity.

"A resilient organization can keep the workforce going through crisis and protect staff and stakeholders," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM president and chief executive officer. "The best leaders responded to obstacles with next-level ingenuity—their organizations are not only surviving, but thriving.

"Leaders can protect their employees and businesses by engaging in swift and continuous communication, removing obstacles to employee empowerment, and ensuring their cultures reinforce collaborative and adaptive behaviors."

The organizational resiliency findings are based on a survey conducted in March with 620 U.S. senior leaders.

Resilient organizations have the resources needed to withstand emergencies. Such employers were more likely, for example, to have people working in risk or crisis management. They had strong internal social networks: Employees knew who to approach for assistance, and other people were available to fill in if key workers were unavailable.

Organizations were distributed into one of four categories as measured by productivity, finances and employee attitudes before, during and after the pandemic:

  • Thrivers. These companies functioned better post-pandemic when compared to their pre-pandemic levels.
  • Persisters. They exhibited little or no change.
  • Survivors. These companies bounced back to their pre-pandemic levels.
  • Decliners. They functioned worse compared to their pre-pandemic levels.

Findings on employee resilience are based on a March survey with 1,007 U.S. employees working in professional or nonmanagerial roles. Employee resilience was characterized as low, average or high, based on a behavioral measure.

Keys to Organizational Resiliency

Among the factors that resilient organizations shared:

  • Leaders were more likely to make information and expertise accessible to employees and decision-makers and more likely to elicit feedback on how effective their actions were in responding to the pandemic.
  • Leaders broke down bureaucratic barriers, brought employees on board to enact change and coordinated the workings of the organization more effectively as a way to usher in changes.
  • Leaders were more likely to empower employees to use their knowledge in new ways and recognize out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Leaders actively listened for problems before the pandemic occurred, had plans for when unexpected situations arose and practiced those plans. 
  • Leaders practiced inclusive decision-making and supported inclusive cultures.

By establishing norms to value differences, leaders were likely able to leverage diverse experiences and ways of thinking. Inclusive cultures foster a sense of belonging, which may help employees support one another—and convince employees to stay with the organization during turbulent times.

Perhaps surprisingly, changing products or services in reaction to the pandemic did not drive resilience, the report found, nor did having remote or hybrid workforces. There was no evidence organizations were more resilient when these factors were present.

Other factors played more influential roles in an organization's resiliency, according to the report. 

"From these findings, we see that various companies changed products and/or services in response to the pandemic. However, changes don't always equate to success," said Katrina Merlini, Ph.D., researcher, thought leadership, in SHRM Research. "This is not necessarily surprising as scholars have estimated that around 70 percent of organizational change efforts fail.

"Changes are more likely to succeed," she added, "when they are compatible with the organization's culture and when there are strong change leaders at the helm."

Keys to Employee Resiliency

Employees who worked for supervisors who practiced inclusiveness and employees who worked in inclusive groups may feel more supported, "fostering their coping capabilities," the report suggests.

"[Employees] may be more likely to voice their unique ideas and contributions regarding better ways to adapt" when they have a supervisor and workgroup who value their uniqueness.

Having access to team members and social resources—such as communication platforms like Slack—also contributed to employee resilience during the pandemic. This access fostered camaraderie, provided a way for workers to share their personal experiences and offered an outlet for co-workers to assist colleagues in managing increased workloads, researchers suggest.

This is not surprising, said Alex Topakbashian, vice president at Gap International who is responsible for the company's Breakthrough Diagnostics practice.

"When leaders and teams actively build strength in their relationships, as the study shows, they become well-prepared to deal with the unexpected," he said. "Our experience suggests that when we are not dealing with the pressure of an externally driven crisis, camaraderie can even serve as a platform to create resilience that propels the organization forward, beyond the normal, everyday results."

Leaders' empathy also contributes to employee resiliency, according to the report. Leaders who understand and care about employees can "buffer the effects of adversity," researchers noted.

But being resilient, they pointed out, doesn't fall solely on the shoulders of individual employees or leaders. Resiliency has to be fostered and cultivated by organizational culture and resources and through workgroup and supervisor behavior.

"We may not be able to predict with certainty the next major adverse event," the researchers conclude in the report. However, these findings "may help senior leaders brace for and overcome the impact of future adversities."


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