Resilience and Adaptability: HR at the Root of Better Business

By Nancy Painter

In today’s environment, change is omnipresent—only its pace and magnitude vary.

What also varies is the presence of resiliency that enables organizations and individuals to deal with it; yet successful navigation of change is vital for survival.

The Resiliency Continuum
“Resiliency exists on a continuum, from highly resilient and skilful, to rigid and even toxic,” says Tana Heminsley, founder and CEO of Authentic Leadership Global and author of Awaken Your Authentic Leadership—Lead with Inner Purpose and Clarity.

Tana Heminsley

A highly resilient organization has a clearly defined and well-known strategy with systems and structures in place, and is focused on moving up the resiliency continuum, Heminsley adds. It can expand and contract, grow and have periods of rest and rejuvenation to stabilize after growth spurts. It works to create a culture that supports realizing the full potential of every one of its employees, stakeholders, partners and communities.

In kind, Heminsley continues, highly resilient individuals are able to return to centre and retain perspective after being off balance. They can live and lead authentically, operating from a clear moral compass and the belief that they can override ego to do the right and ethical thing.

What is essential to understand though is that the human mind defaults to a negative position.

Three Brains in One
There’s a reason for that, according to Dr. Carlos Davidovich, vice president of executive coaching at Optimum Talent in Toronto and an expert in neuromanagement, bringing practical applications from neuroscience research to the business world.

“The brain can be defined in different ways,” Davidovich explains. As the human brain evolved, prior versions of it didn’t disappear, but co-existed with new ones, resulting in humans having three types of brain in one:

  • The reptilian brain, similar to that of crocodiles and snakes, controls basic functions such as sleeping and waking, eating, making love and the fight/freeze/flight response.
  • The mammalian brain, similar to that in large apes or horses, is mainly in charge of emotions. In the human brain, this is called the Limbic brain.
  • The rational brain, the one that differentiates human beings from other animals, controls all our learning functions and analysis.

When we sense a threat or danger, we feel fear, which triggers two reactions in fractions of a second: the fight/freeze/flight response activated by the reptilian brain, and the de-activation of the rational brain.

When fear prompts us to move to survival mode, the reptilian brain reacts the fastest. We trust it the most, because it has kept us alive for millions of years. The rational brain is slower and can affect survival in a negative way.

Positivity Fosters Growth
Organizations that run on fear put their people into survival mode. Punishing failure is a good example. In this environment, their physiological reactions will simply preclude them from using their rational brain to its maximum potential.

“To be resilient, I must believe I can do what is needed,” Davidovich says. “I can’t do that if I am in survival mode.”

Dr. Carlos Davidovich

Davidovich believes that what is more important to resilience than being happy or optimistic is having a positive attitude. He calls this a growth mindset, the belief that failure is learning and that if you invest more effort, you will be able to do it in the future. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, which believes that if you fail at something, you are unable to do it and will never be able to do it.

“A positive attitude says that whatever happens, I have the necessary resources and I can face it. ‘I will try, again and again.’ We can face accidents, trauma, challenges, problems of any kind —the situations that normally happen in life,” he explains.

People Define Resilient Organizations
To be resilient, people must ask themselves, “What choice do we make?” according to Lori Pierson, director of HR at The Cove Lakeside Resort in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.

“Resiliency looks like flexibility and patience, having courage to make tough decisions, but still be compassionate through it—soldiering on, but not at all costs,” she says. “Resiliency steps up hand-in-hand with individuals.”

“When I think of organizations that are resilient, I see ones that are courageous, that take risks but without harm, that aren’t afraid to do things a little differently. They’re also compassionate. An organization isn’t an entity; it’s the humans that make it up. It’s the sum of the personal resiliency within it. Humans make decisions about how resilient an organization is going to be,” says Pierson.

People Focus Fundamental
“Resiliency is how the organization helps the people in it to weather change, whether it’s catastrophic like a fire or more business-specific like a merger or acquisition and it’s how leaders or owners react, having the ability to notice they need to do those things,” says Pierson. “HR has its arms around the organization and the people in it. You have to know the people—who will be resilient, who needs people—and help people understand the change.”

HR is there to be a strategic partner for change in an organization, she explains, and to bring the human element into practical processes.

“It’s our role to remind leadership, to listen, to hear and to bring problem-solving skills or to present different perspectives that people aren’t seeing. We need to ask, ‘What’s the problem and how can I help solve it?’” Pierson says. “We want to be part of a strategic partnership focusing on people. We’re more than just a personnel department.”

Balance is key too, she adds, as organizations can be resilient in one area and not in another.

Lori Pierson

Pierson cites the examples of a non-profit that was resilient in its core function, but not resilient in managing its business in a changing environment. “They went along for a long time without noticing that the business was changing—the pool of donors shrinking and the number of charities asking for donations growing—and then had to make sudden, drastic changes.”

“Organizations need to have a redundancy plan, with options, to prepare to survive a catastrophe. Plan for what you can; if you can’t plan for it, it’s harder to weather, but it’s still possible. You have to be nimble.”

Roots, Community and Continuity
All organizations are defined by the life and blood of the people in it, according to Dr. Susanne Thiessen, an instructor in the HR Management and Leadership department in the School of Business at Camosun College. She lives and works on Vancouver Island in the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people; her own background is Haida and Scottish.

“Whether I’ve been working in Indigenous educational programs or businesses, I’ve realized we wouldn’t still be here if we weren’t resilient,” Thiessen says, pointing to the cedar tree, which has survived by adapting over thousands of years and is still providing, shelter, medicine and clothing. “We have to care for the environment it’s in and recognize its resilience in relation to other things around it—animals, people and environment.”

“You can’t separate organization, policy, process and people,” she adds, “or the relationship of the organization from the community it serves, whether it’s local, national, global or the cosmos.”

“Resiliency is a mindset, it’s a culture you create,” Thiessen says. “It’s an awareness of self, grounded in who you are and what you know, knowing what’s important and what you want to accomplish in relation to others, whether they’re businesses, nations, sectors or cultures.”

Dr. Susanne Thiessen

Group support can also be key to resiliency, she adds. “There has been a lot of support between nations that has given us lots of strength and resiliency. Support from my Metis sisters, my Innu brothers—I bring it to my work. It’s a collective.”

Trust and the HR Mindset
HR professionals can teach leaders at every level to be just as supportive and accessible, says Heminsley. “If I’m a manager with a million things on the go and a deadline I’m working on, and an employee comes to me with something going on at home, that employee needs me to be present and approachable.”

“If I’m seen as shutting him down, he doesn’t feel safe around me. He might try one more time and then will shut down and feel distant from his leaders,” Heminsley explains. “I need to overcome my ego, set everything aside and say to that person, ‘You look like you could use a few minutes.’ Then that employee will feel trust as he may never have felt it before.”

Trust builds team resiliency, she adds. For example, if employees feel safe at a team meeting, they are more likely to remember their best intentions, be kinder, collaborate more effectively, be more productive and offer better customer service.

In a crisis situation or one of rapid growth where people’s roles may change and they’re unsure where they fit in, HR can ensure someone verifies the new landscape for them.

“One thing that can be helpful is if someone at the top comes up with a clear direction and shares it, so that everyone feels part of something bigger than themselves,” says Heminsley. “If you have respect for diversity and are interested in being aware of and kind to other people, you can have good interactions.”

HR Lessons Bring Leadership
“When we partner, we are a force to be reckoned with,” says Heminsley, encouraging HR to develop partnerships with leaders throughout their organizations to understand its pulse and gain a bird’s-eye view. “We need to believe in ourselves, stand in our truth and share it with others. If it’s uncomfortable, often that’s exactly the time to say it.”

Where it is absent, leadership should be similarly encouraged to bring HR’s voice and intuition to the table where it’s needed.

At an individual level, HR professionals embody and can teach employees valuable skills that support resiliency, including balance. “Teach them to make space in their lives, set boundaries, say ‘no’ and have difficult conversations with people,” says Heminsley. “Teach them how to deal with their inner critic—if they can listen to it even 10 per cent less, think about how that could change their lives.”

Additionally, HR can connect those in need with support services such as family assist programs which can help employees deal with past traumas.

Sometimes leaders don’t know how to change employee behaviours, she adds, but if employees can re-connect with hope, they can see that they can change their behaviour if they work at it. “When people have hope, that’s a very powerful place to be.”

At every level, people who are intentional, present and authentic will be more resilient, Heminsley says,“Any healing now will build strength for resiliency.”

Open Minds and Communications
At the core of the resilient organization, open communication is a must. “People want to know what’s going on. There must be transparency and HR determines the level of communication for key actions. The number of times I’ve heard someone say, ‘If only I’d known” or ‘I could have helped,’” says Pierson. “If the tougher the challenge is, the quieter it gets, then employees will circle the wagons. People need to be part of things and know what’s happening so they can prepare to be resilient. If it comes as a surprise, there will be a lag time.”

The organization must also believe it is in partnership with the people doing the work for it. “The frontline army needs to what they’re doing it for. They don’t mind changing if they know why,” Pierson explains. “Relationships are why people do what they do regardless of challenges. They’re doing it for more than themselves; they’re doing it for what you represent to them.”

HR is part of the collective that brings an organization forward, she adds, there to assess and help people as they move through change. Its practitioners need to build relationships to bring people along with it.

A good example of involving people in the process comes from Disney, Pierson says. They realized that the man picking up the litter in the parks had the most interaction with the people there, so they gave him as much information as they could.

By teaching people to avoid being judgemental and helping them learn that they can mitigate the complexity of other humans by talking to them, building relationships and involving them in the process, HR builds resilience throughout.

A Change in Viewpoint
In keeping, organizations must not treat failure as negative, but view it as an opportunity to learn, says Davidovich. “There are still many leaders who think punishment is the way to stimulate positive results, when the truth is actually the opposite.”

Instead, the mindset must be that we can do it better if we try again.

Individuals need to learn to change how they view situations, too. Davidovich says the “sweet spot” in his coaching practice is what he calls “reframing.” The key is for people to realize that any fact can be seen in different ways. He uses a model introduced by Albert Ellis, in which A represents the adversity and C refers to the consequences.

Normally, people connect C directly to A, but in reality, C depends on B—our beliefs. It’s not about adversity or a negative event, it’s about how we understand adversity. He encourages people to always define events from at least two different viewpoints, something that doesn’t come naturally to many.

Once people see different viewpoints, Davidovich explains, they can open the door for their rational brain to find different solutions. We just need our emotional brain to see things differently before engaging the bigger picture.

Getting at the Root of Resiliency
HR has the opportunity to help open those doors and redefine profit in the process, according to Thiessen. “If someone or something is struggling, bring it forward, look at it holistically and critically and look at re-shaping it,” she says. “Ask questions. Is it still part of our vision? Is it still important? Why is it struggling? What variables are affecting it?”

Profit doesn’t have to be measured in money; Thiessen cites the example of an Indigenous business that closed for a week during its busy season to show respect after the death of an elder in the family. Managers weren’t afraid to bring in their sales results at the end of the month because they understood that family had come before monetary profit.

To be resilient, any person or organization must have a clear vision of what’s important to them, she adds. “If an organization has a crisis and leadership or management is faced with responding to or making a difficult decision, the process must go back to knowing yourself, your culture, your spirituality. That gives you strength.”

How you work in relation to other people is also key, Thiessen says. It takes a high level of trust, more like a family relationship, but those organizations that have it weather problems better than those that do not. People are more collaborative, are willing to ask others if they don’t know answers and bring in the perspectives of the people affected by the decisions; leadership is humble.

Moving Mindsets Forward
“I have hope as I see an openness and the willingness of organizational leaders to support resiliency, authenticity and emotional intelligence like I have never seen before—there is a groundswell occurring,” Heminsley says. “I see employees reconnect to hope as they are encouraged to articulate and live congruent to their personal values and as their bosses learn about authenticity and emotional intelligence—and are more approachable and human in their leadership as a result.”

Resiliency can indeed be taught, and there are many methods available to help you do it. The key for HR professionals is to understand yourself and the business and to choose what works best for the most important element of all—the people within it.

Change and adaptation can be scary words, but reframed as shared challenge and growth—are catalysts for building both resilience, culture and thriving futures.

Nancy Painter is an award-winning communication consultant and writer based in Surrey. An internationally Accredited Business Communicator, she is a member of both the International Association of Business Communicators and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2017)

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