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The Moment of Truth: How Resilient is Your Culture?

What does a small biotech, midsize bank and a public defender agency have in common?

Put to the test of the unprecedented challenges due to the global pandemic these organizations have managed to stay the course and they are poised to come out much stronger out of the crisis. They have highly engaged and inspired employees and they have increased productivity based on the latest employee survey results. They have been rising to the occasion not only in the hour of crisis, but in an enduring, sustained manner. This is thanks to the investment they each have made in building a culture with a solid foundation over the past few years.

Some common elements across these very different businesses that have helped shape a culture of resilience are as follows:

- shared core values

- everyone finding meaning and pride in the work they do

- strong feeling of belonging and community

- effective communication with frequent touch points

- agility and fluidity

There is no good or bad culture in absolute terms, the optimum culture is always in relation to the mission, vision and strategy of the organization. Should you aim for a culture of excellence? Culture of quality? Culture of accountability? Culture of creativity? All of the above? None? Some of these will help your business thrive while others will be counter-productive depending on what kind of business you are in, what stage your business is and how rapidly you are growing. No universal prescription will work when it comes to culture, you must decipher what works uniquely for you, for your business at any given time. But you must have a solid foundation and build a resilient culture.

Dealing with disruptions puts your culture to test. Just like pseudo teams, cultures that are not built on strong foundations will fall apart. What universally differentiates the winners is the resilience of the culture and how quickly you can bounce back from adversity, adapt to the new normal imposed by changes. The global pandemic has been and will continue to be the ultimate test.

So how resilient is your culture? What creates a strong foundation?

Shared values – Each of the above-mentioned organizations had a different set of core values but what was outstanding was the degree to which all leaders embodied and exemplified these values in their own unique ways. Employee survey results and regular pulse checks confirm that the values were widely shared. Caring, which was a common value across all 3 organizations, came to life as reaching out to every single employee to ensure that they were doing well, daily huddles with direct supervisors and frequent town halls over zoom. They all made sure that everyone was safe, that all concerns were heard in a timely manner and dealt with. All created room for fun, whether it was happy hours, song contests, or pet shows.

Finding meaning – Research on resilience highlights that one key factor that distinguishes resilient people from others is finding meaning in life. Aligning around purpose is key. Organizations with a mission worthy of commitment such as saving lives as in the case of the biotech or fighting for justice as in the case of public defenders provide a fertile ground for finding meaning in the work you do. But people can also find meaning and pride in the work they do in any purpose led any and value driven organization as was the case in the midsize bank (in fact, well over 90% of the employees felt so, based on a recent survey). Not only did people keep going amidst the challenges thrown their way every single day, they were doing above and beyond their call of duty.

Belonging – The pandemic initiated a fight against not only the virus but also negative emotions that can lead to ever increasing anxiety, stress, loss of capacity to function. The isolation could trigger the worst of it all, a mental health crisis. The feeling of community and knowing that you were not alone in this fight and someone was there to help, support and guide you during these difficult times was paramount to building resilience at the core. All three organizations had strong leadership demonstrating empathy, and humility. No one had all the answers, everyone was in this all together, forming a strong community. People got a glimpse into the personal lives of one another, getting to know the children, the household pets, home offices and daily challenges outside of work, feeling ever more connected and supporting each other through it all.

Communication – What was interesting to see with the pandemic was the increase in the rate of communication in all 3 organizations, with more calls, videos, and emails than ever before. People felt more connected than before, especially across the geographical spread. Distance calls were now over video, increasing the effectiveness of communication. Teams were united online, all the time. And there were simply more communications from the top that highly contributed to everyone feeling as strong as they could be. People felt not only informed but also included, as leaders created the space for 2-way communications. The antidote to the external ambiguity and uncertainty caused by the pandemic was frequent communications providing transparency in decision making, giving people clarity as to immediate next steps and preventing internal ambiguity to the extent possible.

Agility – It will take a long time before we can settle on the “new-normal” if there will ever be one. There are way too many unknowns and we need to constantly change and adapt as new data becomes available. In all 3 organizations, new practices were invented on the fly and continuously adapted as their ecosystem demanded. Speed of decision making and execution under changing circumstances was key. They innovated their business practices and policies quickly and frequently. This was not only driven from the top, everyone became a “bricoleur” taking initiative as needed to make it work.

This is and will remain an ongoing challenge for a while. Culture is primarily shaped by the leaders in an organization. It is sustained by their resilience under changing circumstances, how they cope with change and how they can help others navigate through change, deal with anxiety, stress and uncertainty. Culture is living and breathing, defined by the collective and continuously evolving. All the practices above must be sustained through leadership to cultivate resilient cultures.


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