Organizing For Resilience - Individual Resilience

This week I want to take a look at a paper that examines resilience from a number of different angles. I think that it’s an interesting and important way to look at some of these concepts, so I’ll be breaking it down across multiple issues. This week I want to focus on resilience at the individual level.

Organizing For Resilience

This week we’re taking a look at a chapter by Kathleen Sutcliffe and Timothy Vogus from Positive Organizational Scholarship. They say that the majority of the research focuses on the negative, especially on failure. This chapter that they wrote is their attempt to do to do the opposite, instead focus on the positive.

They do this by looking at resilience from multiple levels first individual, which will be talking about here. Then groups and organizations which will cover in a future issue.

I found chapter especially interesting since I’ve seen increasing discussion in the community about personal resilience that often as the authors do here, to the idea of resilience as typically used in psychology.

The authors start with the question:

How is it that some organizations and individuals and units of which they are comprised experience adversity and successfully adjust thrive amidst these conditions while others fails to do so?

They suggest that resilience use will want reveals how organizations are able to do this. Where this view will complement existing organizational theory about what organizations do to cope.

The authors tell us up front that unlike some other research that treats resilience as something special (which they feel is a misleading view), instead that resilience is something that emerges from normal adaptive processes. But while those adaptive processes may be normal, it is the dynamics of individuals groups and organizations that are special or distinct. These are dynamics that help create or preserve resources whether cognitive or emotional in a form that is flexible enough to allow resilience to emerge while also allowing the organization to dodge or sidestep the maladaptive traps.

The authors define resilience as:

“the maintenance of positive adjustment under challenging conditions.”

Using this definition we can see that determining if something is resilient is actually a judgment about two different things. First, whether or not the thing or group is doing well or better than, relative to some standard or expectation. Second, that ye thing the group has faced a sufficient amount of threat or adversity to having good outcomes.

If you’ve been a reader for a while you’ll notice that this is certainly not the first definition that I’ve provided here and the authors touch on this as well admitting that the definition varies a lot across fields.

And they bring up an important issue, especially as it relates to thinking about personal resilience: it’s important to distinguish resiliency as a personality trait from resilience as a process. Defining solely or thinking of it solely as a personality trait is somewhat dangerous, it can create this idea that it’s something someone has or doesn’t, that some people just can’t hack it.

Another way of looking at it is from organizational theory where resilience is the capacity to absorb strain persevere or even improve function despite adversity. This means that the threats could be internal or external. Or the ability to bounce back from events.

The authors touch on an idea that I’ve been using and exploring for a while now, so was especially glad to see it mentioned: that resilience can be a lens through which we can view or organizations and systems. It is a perspective which can help us better understand them and hopefully how to improve them.

Individual Resilience

In psychology, resilience is often seen as development or personal growth. It does not emerge in response to any specific disturbances or threats. Instead, it happens over time, from the continuous handling of various strains and stresses. This tells us that resilience is relative, emerging and changing in the presence of different challenges.

Resilience in one situation may not occur in another. We see this some in the research. For example, as we covered in issue 55, the authors closed by mentioning they were aware of a similar situation where resilience didn’t seem to emerge. However, an organization or an individual responding to a challenge can help strengthen that ability to respond and adjust in the future.

The developmental view of resilience implies that there is some underlying, untapped, potentially yet to be discovered resource that can be brought to bear when new challenges appear.

In light of these things increasingly more of research is viewing resilience as adaptability. The authors quote Wildavsky saying:

“To be resilient is to be vitally prepared for adversity which requires ‘improvement in overall capability, i.e., a generalized capacity to investigate, to learn, interact, without knowing in advance what one will be called to act upon.'”

That view is likely more familiar from much of the research that I’ve featured here. One nice thing about the developmental perspective is that it avoids portraying resilience as being constantly invulnerable to threats. It also captures an idea that the authors say is often overlooked in organizational theory, which is resilience as bouncing back stronger and more resourceful than before, perhaps even in the face of failure.

This is in contrast to a lot of organizational theory that seems to suggest a lot of deterministic perspectives. They accept things like cognitive narrowing, where under threat people will simply consider fewer options as a coping mechanism for complexity, has a given.

Additionally, the authors explained that the resilience perspective also allows more accurate theorizing about how organizations adjust given a world with increasing competition and increasing presence of complex systems. This is somewhat in contrast to other organizational theory research where resilience is just sort of provided as an explanation when an organization unexpectedly succeeds.

Even in the psychology world where resilience was primarily looked at from a developmental psychology perspective, there has been a shift from looking at what made individuals response with resilience by identifying protective factors to instead looking at protective processes so that it could be better understood how those factors give rise to resilience in individuals.

Broadly the research found two things that were needed: a sufficient amount of quality resources whether this is emotional social material and also the ability to mobilize a person’s “mastery motivation system”.

The “mastery experiences” that can help people grow and activate that motivational system are more likely to occur when they can exercise their own judgment and discretion. It is also reinforced when they have the chance to make and recover from mistakes. This strikes me as similar to Rasmussen’s suggestion around creating environments or people can explore the boundaries of the system is in purchase failure.

An organization resilience tends to emerge when those who are more likely to have relevant knowledge to solve a problem are given the authority to make decisions. These research outcomes are probably unsurprising, given what we know about work at the sharp end.

This is important for us to understand and remember though because it can inform how we shape our teams and organizations. It can affect whether or not we do game days or other tabletop exercises and how.

I’ll be visiting other sections of this paper in future issues, but I think that looking at resilience in this way at the individual level and from an organizational perspective that essentially says expertise is valuable and can be brought to bear to greater effect is a very useful lens.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see Andy Fleener speak on some of the subjects like building a learning culture and a team mentality as well as valuing expertise. I strongly recommend you watch his talk.


  • Resilience can be a lens that we use to see our organizations and systems in order to better understand them and potentially see opportunity for improvement.
  • Resilience can be seen as the persevering in the face of challenges, but also the bouncing back and returning stronger after a failure.
  • It’s important to separate the idea of resiliency of an individual from resilience as a process, else it can be easy to fall into a trap thinking it’s something only some individuals have.
  • Looking at individual resilience is useful beyond just for the individual, since of course our teams and organizations are made up of individuals.
  • Research from developmental psychology on resilience has found that there are two important factors:
    • Having enough high quality resources available (social, material, etc.)
    • Having the opportunity to master something
  • From an organizational standpoint we can translate that into people who have the right knowledge and expertise the authority to make decisions.
  • Mastery motivation is further influenced by the ability to make and recover from mistakes. This can have a great influence on how we create practice opportunities or respond to incidents.
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Handoff strategies in settings with high consequences for failure: lessons for health care operations →

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