Culture & Leadership

Culture Matters: Five Practices of a Healthy and Resilient Organization

This is a guest blog by organizational consultant GG Johnston, president of Downstream Partners.

No longer is it enough for organizations to have a healthy internal culture in order to thrive. Two years into the most intense time of change and uncertainty most businesses have ever experienced, we’ve learned that they must also be resilient. 

The good news is that we’re all building muscles to work in new, effective ways. We’re also letting go of old patterns that will no longer support us in the challenges ahead. In many cases, these new ways of working are creating breakthrough ideas, opportunities and revenue streams. As essayist William Hazlitt said, “Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity is a greater one.”

Our society is suffering from division, isolation and disengagement in all corners of our lives. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently wrote, “People are frustrated and angry, and those feelings are fueling increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, student misbehavior in school and vehicle crashes.” 

Against this backdrop, businesses are facing new and difficult challenges. Some people are suffering burnout. Others are dealing with serious mental health issues and loss among their teams and in their families. Many organizations are pressed to quickly close development gaps that are a result of vastly different circumstances than they’ve dealt with before. Others are having to let go of decades-long patterns of top-down thinking. All of these situations require brand new skills and new ways of working together. 

The fixes are neither quick nor easy, which is where resilience comes in. To be clear, resilience is not about just taking what’s coming. Resilience requires us to look at the paradigm shifts that need to take place to make things sustainable. It means finding new ways to solve problems and make shifts that will allow organizations to thrive in the face of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that we’re dealing with during this time of crisis and major societal change. 

Getting to a place of resilience takes time and a thoughtful, strategic approach, but here are a few core practices that will help any leader get stronger in this area.

Lead with courage

Change is hard, especially in the midst of so much uncertainty. It takes great courage to move forward without all the facts, lean into discomfort and risk failure. There is no courage without vulnerability, yet courageous leaders are the most effective and successful. It’s the kind of leadership our world and our organizations need now more than ever. Find the courage to be that leader. 

Develop empathy

Some leaders respond to challenges with toxic positivity. They gloss over the hard stuff because getting present to others’ pain is too uncomfortable for them. But what people really need is for their leaders and colleagues to notice that they’re struggling. Empathetic leaders listen for cues that their people need help. 

In reflecting on the recent death of his Wharton colleague Sigal Barsade, organizational psychologist Adam Grant said, “Her pioneering research taught me that emotions belong at work, moods can spread from one person to another in any team or organization, and it only takes one friend to avoid loneliness.” We are the same people at work as we are outside of work. Recognizing that in ourselves and others sets us free, builds trust and fosters resilience.

Practice self-compassion

The physical and emotional toll of the last few years is significant. People are going through a lot, and it’s not letting up. We can’t always be at our best under these circumstances. Things will slip. We might even fail at something. Learning how to give yourself grace when this happens is the only way to get beyond it. Forgive yourself, and know you’ll do better next time.

Avoid comparative suffering

Don’t discount your hard time just because someone else has it worse. Can comparing your situation to theirs give you perspective? Yes. But it also diminishes the validity of your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel your suffering so you can process it fully. Only then can you get to the other side of it.

Seek clarity

In an environment of so much volatility and ambiguity, we have to seek and offer clarity wherever we can. Having clear values, priorities and boundaries gives us a solid place to stand in the chaos. Clarity can be calming, and sometimes your own clarity is all you have. Use it to stay steady and focused.

Building resilience in individuals will increase employee satisfaction, fortify your organization in the near term and set it up for future success. The times are calling for all of us to transform how we lead and work. Building a resilient culture is a strong first step in that journey. 

GG Johnston is president of Downstream Partners, where she and her team help companies navigate through operational, communication or cultural challenges so they can get to the next level, faster.