COVID-19 CEOs: “resilience” isn’t code for “suck it up”

Picture from consulting firm’s EY’s website: EY: Ten ways to enhance firmwide resilience

Here we go again – another crisis another “in-word”.

After a previous crisis the word ” engagement” which, by the way, was code for you engaging with us, not the other way around – was all the rage.

Now it’s “resilience”.

You can’t turn a page, scan an online newspaper or website without the R-word screaming at you. And I don’t mean that other R-word, the virus reproduction rate, I mean “resilience”.

To be fair, most writers use of the word is well intentioned.

For example, if you Google “resilience”, first up on my browser at least, after the adverts – and all credit to their SEO people – is Deloitte with:

Combating COVID-19 with resilience: Leaders like you are responding to one of the most sweeping crises in recent memory, calling for both empathy and action to guide your people and businesses through uncertain times. This page gathers Deloitte’s global insights to help you not only respond to this crisis, but recover and thrive.

I’m sure Deloitte didn’t mean that it had found a cure for coronavirus, which a literal interpretation of its headline, but that resilience will help your business “recover and thrive” by guiding your people with “empathy and action”.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Isn’t Deloitte’s purpose to sell consulting services and are they not merely demonstrating how much they are in touch with the zeitgeist and needs of their clients?

Boston Consulting Group takes a similar approach. Its website on the subject says:

How Mindfulness Can Boost Our Adaptive Resilience to COVID-19: COVID-19 is having dramatic impacts on our world. While the coronavirus inflicts damage on health, society, and the economy, it also exerts a strong emotional impact on individuals…If we let ourselves be hijacked by what we classically call negative emotions, we risk reacting blindly and impulsively.

Similarly EY notes in its “Ten ways to enhance firmwide resilience”:

10.   Promote a learning, resilient culture In the end, resilience is about having the organizational discipline and nimbleness to develop — and constantly enhance — the firm’s plans and capabilities to deliver services continuously. This requires a culture that is open to learning from past mistakes and events — those of the firm and its peers — and that promotes timely and effective remedial and enhancement activities. This focuses attention on changing human behaviors — making employees appreciate their important role because resilience is very much in their hands. It is not someone else’s job. If successful, this creates the necessary conditions for a resilient culture.

Is EY wrong?

No. Of course not. All three world leading management consultancies are making what they feel are valid points.

My concern is the danger that the underlying purpose of the focus of consultants and CEO’s on resilience will shift quickly from people’s needs to business needs, exclusively.

There are hints of this in the extracts above. EY gets to people and culture in detail only in their last point, Point 10. The earlier nine “ways” are great but they are mainly about business process. BCG’s excellent article feels it necessary to use a metric, presumably because they feel they must: “The 31 teams that participated in a ten-week mindfulness program showed an average 13% increase in their collective intelligence.” One has to wonder about the value of that metric. And Deloitte is quick to point out that leadership focus should expand from a “very inward (and entirely appropriate) focus on employee safety and operational continuity to also include embracing a return to a market-facing posture”. Note the brackets.

The dictionary definition of resilience is:

“the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”

It’s a noun. The verbs used with it give it force. In the extracts above we have Deloitte “combatting with…resilience” and BCG “boosting with resilience” and EY abandons the noun altogether and uses the adjective form as in a “resilient culture”.

This use of language assumes that everyone has the same ability to recover. It’s as if resilience is a bench-markable thing that anyone can achieve with the right processes. A bit like “engagement”. And look how long that fad lasted.

If your purpose is to build a resilient culture after COVID-19 I’m afraid you’re a bit late to the party. Now is not the time to be building a “resilient” culture that recovers when a crisis happens. It’s too late, mate. The crisis has happened. The horse has bolted.

Those organisations who invested time and money in building kind cultures where people learned to be kind to themselves and kind to each other – these are the organisations that will recover faster.

The “resilience” fad will be shorter lived than the engagement nonsense because some CEOs will quickly become frustrated and resilience will become code for “suck it up…get your act together…and if you can’t we can find people who will” thereby wiping out any incentive for their people to give the discretionary effort absolutely required for organisations to recover and the use of the word resilience will be seen for what it is.

And no money will buy that discretionary effort.

What’s needed is not resilience but kindness in helping people to recover from a trauma. And if you think that’s a bit wet, go ahead, see how much “discretionary effort” you get from bullying already scared people.

So, CEOs:

  • take your time
  • acknowledge that people have different rates of personal recovery. Help them. One size doesn’t fit all.
  • and be kind, for kindness sake.

Then and only then will you have a chance of recovering from this crisis and building a resilient culture for the next.

Ciarán Fenton

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 CEOs: “resilience” isn’t code for “suck it up”

  1. It seems to me that yet again, in a crisis, employees are being asked to develop “resilience” as if it’s their problem and can be solved by some form of upskilling. If you sell management processes and training there is literally no problem that can’t be turned into an opportunity to sell these services. (When you own a hammer, every problem is a nail) Being kind as you put it or simply helping your employees in a time of crisis should be an end in itself and incidentally this can and should work both ways i.e. employees showing empathy and kindness to managers/owners. And don’t even get me started on mindfulness increasing “collective intelligence”. If companies think that mindfulness is another tool to increase productivity or quality of outcomes then they are completely missing point of what true mindfulness is in my opinion. Loving the posts. Keep them coming!

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