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Josh Bersin: 4 ways to build organizational resilience

By: | April 21, 2020 • 4 min read
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He will speak at the 2020 HR Technology Conference scheduled for Oct. 13-16 in Las Vegas. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

This pandemic has demonstrated just how brittle our society is. A tiny virus has drastically upset our lives, our economies and our societies. In a time like this, resilience—the ability to adapt and bounce back—will be one of the most important characteristics that will help us recover.

But how do we design our organizations for resilience? Here are four things to consider: 

1. Resilience demands distributed control with centralized coordination, not centralized control with distributed execution.

In order to prepare for the unforeseen, the military branches have developed highly trained, distributed teams that are enabled and empowered by coordination and data. We need to consider such a model in HR.

Traditional HR was seen as a low-cost, high-value service function—one that responded to employee needs and delivered services at scale. This is not the optimum model in a crisis. We need to distribute authority fast, make sure teams have the capabilities needed and coordinate the response.

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Early this year, the senior executives of a global retailer heard from HR leaders in Italy and China that they were letting employees go because customers were not patronizing the stores. The company empowered local teams to shut down operations and quickly shared this firsthand information so others could act.

As the military has learned, we only win wars when the people on the frontline are well-trained, experienced, coordinated and supported with ammunition, backup and data. Think about this in the context of your HR transformation.

2. Resilience demands high quality, real-time data.

Facts, detail and real-time data matter. We can’t respond to a crisis if we don’t know where it is, how fast it’s spreading and can’t separate truth from speculation.

In recent months, we’ve seen what happens when facts are not forthcoming or are obfuscated. In a company, you can’t afford to operate without complete transparency. In order for a “coordinated attack and response” to take place, accurate, real-time data is critical.

I recently talked with people analytics experts who had created real-time dashboards to inform managers where employees are located, where the virus is spreading and where travel is prohibited. On an employee level, managers knew who was working from home, living alone and might be at risk so programs and decisions could be appropriately tailored.

Such analytics are critical to resilience. If you haven’t invested in this infrastructure yet, please do it now.

3. Resilience requires leaders who care.

Resilient organizations have leaders whom people want to follow.

Our COVID-19 Pulse of HR found that financial security, health and family welfare are issues on top of people’s minds. If senior leaders don’t empathize and relate to this, your company won’t recover well.

If you want to build resilience, you have to build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders who listen, care and respond. Companies such as Unilever, Salesforce, Wegman’s, Novartis, Nextdoor and IBM understand this and created business models around empathy and transparency. Their CEOs “walk the talk.”

Empathy for your customers, communities, employees and their families goes a long way. Certainly, it’s a more emotional way of thinking about business leadership, but in a crisis, empathy must be a top priority.

One more thought: You can’t fake empathy in times like this. Companies that sincerely care will respond faster than those who don’t.

4. Resilience thrives in a community, not just an organization.

The most resilient, adaptive and high-performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other and support each other.

In the military, soldiers are trained to look out for fellow soldiers (“Nobody will be left behind.”).  How many of us have a battle buddy at work?

Decades of management philosophy have ignored this need. Remember the forced rankings and the Peter Principle models? These approaches pitted people against each other and created internal competition.

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Now we need a sense of oneness. We need to know each other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a family-like sense of belonging. Certainly, companies aren’t families (we do lay people off), but when there is a sense of collective culture, a company can adapt quickly.

When I visit companies, I always observe how people behave. Are people nice to each other? Friendly? Respectful? Do they talk or wait for the boss to talk first?

Sure enough, in the highest-performing companies, I always sense a feeling of “we know each other” and “we know how to work together.” Such social bonds are vital.

Ultimately, building resilience in our companies is coupled with liberating the innate resilience in each of us. When we give people adequate pay, healthcare, safety and security, they can adapt and grow.

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