It was one of many heartbreaking images in this year’s Tour de France, the legendary bicycle race through the French Alps. Fatigued, bruised and wounded after two serious crashes, Andrew Talansky, a promising young American rider, slowed to a stop and dismounted, oblivious to the picturesque mountain vista behind him. With tears spilling from his eyes, Talansky listened while his coach quietly spoke to him about deciding whether to continue in the race or pull out.
And then the unexpected – in the face of enormous setback and overwhelming odds, Talansky got back on his bike. Accompanied only by the team car, the Voiture Balai (aka the “broom sweeper,” the van at the end of the race that picks up stragglers) and a few dedicated fans, he battled his way, mentally and physically, to the finish line within the proscribed time limit.
Talansky showed not only immense personal courage and grit, but resilience, what the American Psychological Association defines as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, [and] threats."
Resilience is a trait that can be learned, say Drs. Dennis Charney and Steven Southwick in their 2012 book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. They note that intentional practices, such as cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness meditation, even yoga, can help to shift how to think about situations to overcome emotional stress and persevere.
Cultural organizations certainly have experienced their share of adversity and trauma, especially since the recession, and some very much in the public eye – consider, for example, the Detroit Institute of Art’s life threatening ordeal caused by municipal bankruptcy. Most often, such distress presents in the form of strained resources – overly ambitious programming, unrealistic audience projections, under-realized earned and contributed revenues, unanticipated leadership transitions – that bring organizations to a breaking point. But like elite athletes, organizations can train themselves to cultivate characteristics of resilience, such as courage, optimism and faith, in order to navigate through dire straits.
According to researcher Michael A. Bell, there are five key traits to organizational resilience:
- Leadership – Resilient organizations are guided by stable leaders who set priorities, efficiently allocate resources, define and balance risk, and clearly and regularly dialogue with their colleagues. Such leaders also demonstrate the “four core attributes of [resilience] — optimism, decisiveness, integrity and open communications,” as noted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine associate professor George Everly, Jr.
- Culture – Resilient organizations create a culture of shared vision and collaboration that embraces a collective institutional mission. In addition, they also foster transparency and accountability, nurture relationships built on trust, and empower employees to assume responsibility and authority.
- People – Arguably the most important asset of any organization is its people, and resilient organizations ensure that their teams are, as Bell asserts, “properly selected, equipped, motivated and led.” They represent a diversity of talent and perspective within their organizations, as well as among the communities served. Resilient organizations support employees through motivational HR programs that prioritize their well-being and professional development.
- Systems – Resilient organizations enable distributed leadership by investing in effective management and technology systems. In other words, they ensure that the proper structures, processes and equipment are in place to facilitate communication, support information sharing and galvanize performance.
- Settings – Perhaps an unexpected finding of Bell’s research is the diversity of physical workplaces within resilient organizations that accommodate various types of work and work styles. Resilience is reinforced through adaptive work environments that offer desk sharing, telecommuting and other flexible accommodations, as well as traditional office spaces.
Not surprisingly, Bell concludes that resilient organizations are “operationally superior” and have impressive bottom line performance. The good news in all of this, according to Professor Everly, is that resilience can be learned and permeate an institution through modeling and mentoring by credible leaders.
So the message here is to get back on the bike, like Talansky, and keep pedaling, trusting that your talent, training, coaching, equipment, support network and team focus will ultimately prevail.