Building Organizational Resilience in the Face of an Ubiquitous Challenge

Ubiquitous: present, appearing, found everywhere. The challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic fit this definition better than any event I have experienced in my lifetime.

We each have a moment when our life changed — a before and after COVID-19. For some it was a few weeks ago — when you worried about laying people off, contemplated canceling events or faced confounding questions such as “How do I keep my staff safe?” For many it was the news of Wednesday night, March 11: cancellation of the NBA season, a ban on foreign nationals traveling to the US and Tom Hanks’ infection. Within one hour the world had shifted.

Whenever your moment, it probably involved many emotions — confusion, fear, suspicion, uncertainty, grief, anxiety, anger. It may have affected your ability to cope, focus or problem solve. And it also may have involved adrenaline, determination, altruism and kicked in your innate ability to be resilient.

As a leader, you are moving mountains to bounce back, to adjust in the face of this unprecedented adversity. These efforts prompt the questions: How do we intentionally promote resilience in the workforce? How do we continue to provide our complex services while taking care of our families, our work force, each other and ourselves?

The teachings and principles from trauma-informed approaches and resilience offer a foundation for answering these questions.

Safety. As a result of COVID-19, everyone is in a state of alert, living much of the time in our lower, survival brain. Staff are worried about their jobs, how to care for children, if they or their family members will get sick. As leaders, we need to focus on prioritizing physical, emotional and psychological safety in every interaction and process.

Trust and transparency. Trust is imperative in our organizations, especially during times of uncertainty and fear. Trust is built through practice and intentional relationship building.

  • Explore Brené Brown’s BRAVING framework from Dare to Lead, an excellent model for building trust in our workforce.
  • Share as much information as possible. Staff have lots of questions and may doubt our decisions or intentions. Be accepting of staff who are slow to trust.
  • Understand that staff can handle difficult news. Offer opportunities for processing hard information and allow differences of opinion.
  • Examine current expectations. Consider if established work practices can be adjusted. Can deadlines be extended, projects be reassigned or put on hold? How can teams be nimble to adjust to changing needs and challenges of staff?

Collaboration and mutuality. Working together while practicing social distancing, is required right now. A tragic outcome of these events will be if our relationships suffer because we are physically removed from each other.

  • Partner with staff. Ask for ideas. Listen to and consider solutions. If the solutions aren’t feasible, communicate that and thank staff for the input.
  • Assume that everyone is doing the best they can. This tenant of trauma-informed approaches helps us stay regulated and focused.
  • Consider allowing staff to use the organization’s sharing platforms, such as Zoom, to stay in touch with their families.
  • Look for common experiences with staff (not only related to this crisis) that can highlight our shared humanity.

Empowerment and choice. Everyone needs to feel seen and to know their options.

  • Seek staff input in planning or changing team and organizational processes. Offer options, when possible, for altering work schedules based on staff needs.
  • Honor different ways to engage in the work. Understand those who are quiet, or even sullen, may not always have the capacity for rich conversations about how they are feeling or what they need.
  • Ensure all staff know how to access Employee Assistance Program resources to address behavioral health concerns.

Peer support. Now, more than ever, we can rely on each other and our shared experiences.

  • Consider creating a buddy system that ensures no staff member is outside the protective culture.
  • Bring Mental Health First Aid at Work to your workforce, a valuable resource for educating staff about the signs and symptoms of mental illness at work.

Gender, historical and cultural differences. Many of us have significant privilege. This moment requires us to understand and check our privilege

  • Practice cultural humility.
  • Be curious about how this pandemic impacts people across all sectors and groups.
  • Be curious about how systemic approaches to this crisis impact marginalized populations.
  • Ensure everyone is invited to contribute to solutions.

Employing these principles is humbling and exhausting work. As a result, it is critical to practice self-care and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. You are doing the best you can, and it is enough.

Building resilience in the workforce is key to adapting to the challenges ahead. The good news is our resilience is ubiquitous. It is present, appearing and found everywhere.

Karen Johnson
Trauma-Informed Lens Consulting

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Guest Author

Karen Johnson
Trauma-Informed Lens Consulting