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Seven Things to Build Agility and Resilience

Elaine Pulakos & Tracy Kantrowitz

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented global uncertainty for individuals and organizations that demands agility and resilience. Even before the pandemic, companies were working to build these characteristics in order to remain competitive amidst a flurry of unpredictable change. But now, the need for these has become essential and immediate.  There is a knowing-doing gap, however, largely because it is not entirely clear what leads to organizational  agility and resilience. 

Our new research on over 300 global companies revealed some surprising findings about agility. Paradoxically, the most agile and resilient companies are best at counter-balancing the complexity and chaos of disruptive change with practices that create simplicity, clarity, and focus. 

Like yin and yang, opposing but complementary processes form the nucleus of organizational agility. Among the three conditions that most enable agility, stability ranks highest on the list. 

Why Is Stability So Important? 

Organizational stability provides a foundation of security and confidence that helps the entire system handle change and recover. A secure base helps keep people engaged and performing through worrisome and fearful times, which in turn allows organizations to absorb change, bounce back, and more easily pivot to new strategies. This is how stability enables agility.

The Secret Sauce for Creating Stability

Leaders play an essential role in creating stability. They need to develop a radar for stability and be vigilant about nipping threats to stability in the bud. Leaders need to constantly ask, “How stable is the environment my teams are operating in?” and focus with intention on taking actions to enhance stability.

Our research shows seven essential things leaders do to build stability. These need to start with the top-most leaders, but top leaders can’t do it alone. All leaders need to understand the stability imperatives and ensure they are in place – especially those managers on the front-line who form the glue that holds teams together. Some of the imperatives aren’t surprising – they’re what we expect good leaders to do. But what’s new are the evidence-based linkages that show their critical role as shock absorbers that stabilize organizations. Some of the seven imperatives actually run counter to “best practices” and current trends.  

1.    Sharpen Focus
Leaders must minimize distractions and help team members focus. This means continually clarifying and emphasizing the vital few priorities that matter most to execution. The midst of disruptive change is not the time for “nice to have” initiatives that create unnecessary demands and increase complexity.

2.    Break Down Barriers 
Leaders need to become attuned to performance blockers and remove them. They need to be conscientious about not letting issues fester that will make performing even more difficult and distracting than it already is, as these only chip away at stability and shake confidence.  

3.    Optimize Failure
Leaders need to create psychological safety by welcoming new ideas, trying new things, and allowing failure without finger-pointing and blame. This becomes even more important during disruptive change when new solutions may be needed to cope with unexpected challenges.  Even more stabilizing is when leaders use new challenges as learning experiences and opportunities to develop solutions that will benefit the team in the long run. 

4.    Build Optimism 
Leaders need to convey a grounded belief that the team and organization will succeed. They need to focus on positive angles to the extent possible and keep bad news in perspective. This does not mean sugar-coating bad news or naively downplaying its significance, as this breeds cynicism and distrust, but realistically calibrating setbacks and disappointments with a focus on what can be done. Leaders create hope and optimism that is stabilizing when they find hidden opportunities in change and work with their teams to exploit these. 

5.    Reassure People 
Affirming team members’ roles and value in the face of disruption helps put their minds at ease and keeps them focused on work instead of distracted by worry and fear. However, leaders must get the right balance between realism and optimism to create stability.

6.    Harmonize Resources 
 “Do more with less” is a morale killer, especially in changing situations that already take more time and energy than we expect. There’s nothing more destabilizing than exhausted, upset people who don’t have the resources they need to deliver. Leaders need to understand the burn-out that comes with insufficient resources and do their best to fit the demands of the situation to the resources they have available. 

7.    Preplan Recovery 
Quickly developing recovery plans when needed and showing progress against these builds confidence that is stabilizing. But leaders don’t need to wait for disruption to occur. They can work with their teams to preplan how they will handle further disruptive scenarios and develop plans for how they will handle these. This not only boosts the team’s confidence in their ability to handle unexpected change and jolts but helps them get back to normal operations as quickly as possible, which is critical to recovery. 

Towards Recovery and Resilience 
Leaders create the stability that is vital to build the organizational agility and resilience it takes to successfully manage unexpected, disruptive change. There is a lot leaders can do now to help their teams navigate through the current pandemic successfully and at the same time, reduce their stress and uncertainty. The seven evidence-based practices for providing stability will help leaders take decisive action based on a thoughtful consideration of trade-offs and consequences, avoid ill-conceived knee-jerk reactions, and show up in ways that steady the system and provide a secure base.

About the Authors

Elaine Pulakos, PhD, Chief Executive Officer, PDRI
As CEO of PDRI, Elaine sets PDRI’s course and cultivates the values and culture that enable PDRI to continue its history of innovation and growth. Under her leadership, PDRI has transitioned from a strictly professional services company to also offering scalable talent solutions. Elaine is a well-known thought leader and product innovator in performance management transformation and enabling organizations, teams, and individuals to become ARA – adaptable, resilient, and agile. She has been a long-standing and trusted advisor to HR leaders and fellow professionals over the course of her career. Her multi-award-winning products and publications have helped hundreds of organizations globally improve their talent management and organizational performance outcomes, setting the standard for PDRI products and services in the marketplace. Elaine is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, where she also served as a past-President.

Tracy Kantrowitz, PhD, Chief Product Officer, PDRI
Tracy leads product development with passion and a solid track of delivering innovative, agile, and high-quality solutions that help customers address their most pressing talent challenges. Tracy focuses on innovating new technology products and transforming PDRI’s R&D efforts into solutions that can scale easily and efficiently. Tracy joined PDRI from SHL, where she served as Research Director for 13 years, innovating award-winning talent management products that have been recognized by leading industry associations and publications. Tracy is a known thought leader in the area of talent assessment and has held several leadership roles within the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), presently serving as Practice Portfolio Officer and editorial board member for Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science. She is a Fellow of SIOP and is a recipient of the M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace and the Distinguished Early Career Contributions Practice Award.

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s new Remote Work page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work-life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.

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