How to Build a Resilient Workplace Culture in the Face of Setbacks

Every company faces changes and setbacks. Organisations inevitably have to pivot without much planning just to survive and stay competitive. Changes in strategy, business models, restructures and closures are the norm.

February 28, 2020 4 mins read

For some of my clients, facing their worst nightmares — terrorism, cyber-attacks, earthquakes — plunged their organisations and employees into chaos. Whether you are IKEA, Jaguar Land Rover or WeWork, the focus shifts to damage mitigation and saving workplace culture becomes a much longer-term goal.

Change is often the most painful for employees because they can see the impact of those survival decisions daily. It destabilises organisations precisely because it leaves people feeling untethered and disconnected from what is “normal”. When employees no longer recognise the company they worked for because of changes in the corporate mission, the ousting of beloved leaders or the departure of their friends after layoffs, anxiety and fear often quickly set in. 

The weekly pulse survey that I have helped to develop is a Happiness KPI™ that measures how teams are faring on a week-to-week basis. Change and the fear surrounding it makes an immediate impact on these results. Through my data, I’ve found that changes and setbacks can cause a drop of 30-60 points on a 100-point scale in a single week. 

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that an organisational setback is felt so directly by employees. However, what is interesting is how teams and divisions bounce back. Psychological attributes like resilience and trust play a significant role in recovery from setbacks, and these are attributes that can be cultivated in the workplace. 

Getting Setback Ready

A key component of resilience is the ability to absorb shocks. It is about the capacity of teams and organisations to anticipate, plan, and cope. The Stoic philosopher Seneca taught that as long as we are mentally prepared for setbacks — as in we acknowledge they could happen — we reduce shock and we won’t be as paralysed by them. Instead, we will be able to look at each other and say, “Well, that hurt. What can we do to get by?” 

Part of an organisation’s preparedness has to do with how well it knows itself. Do leaders, managers and employees understand the strengths of their culture and what this means for the way it will behave in response to a setback? 

For example, a family-owned business scored exceptionally high on relationship measures. Their strength was their bond, the relationships that made the company what it was. However, when it came to managing redundancies in a business transformation, this strength began to trip them up. 

When people are close and supportive of each other, they feel the pain of their colleagues —especially those losing their jobs. This sort of psychological insight brings humanity to corporate setbacks. It prompts thinking into how to protect and support people so their experience of change is as positive as possible. 

Using the Science of Wellbeing

Other companies are using the science of wellbeing to create cultures that enable employees to adapt and lean into change. In January, Melanie Robinson, Senior Director at ADP, spoke at an event about a new strengths-based approach to their talent management programme. If employees are encouraged to regularly check and adapt their work focus to play to their skills and interests, the organisation will inject agility into their culture. Research supports this approach, showing that organisations are more resilient when employees are not trapped in a rigidly defined career track. Agility allows the whole organisation to weather any setbacks with less disruption. 

Smaller businesses that can facilitate this kind of career mobility use tools like Friday Pulse to prompt regular and authentic conversations among colleagues about how they are feeling at work. What they learn is where their unique opportunities are — how to strengthen relationships and support autonomy — to build a culture of preparedness. 

Staying Inclusive

Trust is one of the hardest and most essential elements of organisational culture to maintain during change. When leaders are forced to make decisions for survival, that bond is often strained. Leaders are often consumed by their discomfort and pain surrounding the choices they’ve made. This discomfort can cause them to withdraw and focus on crafting messages to send out to the business, when what is really required is humility and an honest conversation. 

Consider how parents break difficult news to their children. At their most human, they bring how they feel about it and keenly listen to how it affects the children to know they can help them deal with the situation without jeopardising the trust in the relationship. 

In a similar manner, leaders can stay authentic, empathetic and competent in the eyes of their employees by having and sustaining honest conversations. It is better to paint a picture of likely scenarios than to wait to share a perfectly mapped out plan of action. If the organisation is small enough, it’s better to ask how employees are feeling in person. Global or remote organisations can use technology to communicate. 

Some of my clients have added custom questions to the weekly pulse survey during periods of business change, to monitor levels of understanding and find out whether colleagues feel supported. These questions allow the company to create space for people to suggest ideas on how to do better together. While in the short term these approaches may appear to slow the change process down, they actually speed up the transition as it reduces resistance. These approaches also recognise an essential point about the human psyche — we are more accepting of decisions we have been a part of making, even when they don’t go our way. In the medium-term, this engagement speeds up the transformation. And in the long-term, that trust is maintained or even strengthened. 

Build it Better

The Chinese word for crisis is made of the characters for danger and opportunity. Indeed, crisis is a window of opportunity for novelty and innovation. For example, constraints can shift people from complacency — what psychologists call the path of least resistance — to investing in better ideas. So long as these constraints are not too burdensome (limited budgets, less personnel), disruption and the novel problems it brings can cultivate greater collaboration and creativity. 

Change is also an opportunity to adjust people’s habits around self-care. Walking meetings, healthy snacks, massages, meditation, email downtime, expressing appreciation, informal socialising are all things that nurture and sustain us, and are often squeezed out by the busy day-to-day. Elements of change, like heavier workloads, are very draining and require short bursts of positivity and recovery to recharge. Much like how athletes have to have realistic expectations of their bodies to avoid injury, we also have to possess realistic expectations of our minds to prevent burnout. 

Resilience is often written about as an individual characteristic or capacity, but resilience is also a property of teams and organisations. The ability to absorb, adapt and transform at different scales — with trust intact — is what helps organisations navigate the maelstrom of change and emerge stronger. 

Ultimately, change is an inevitable and necessary part of the business journey. Though by nature people are change resistant, if you involve people in the change process then a successful transformation is possible — they become agents of change. However, this doesn’t happen unless you take steps to build resilience and trust at the outset.