Resilience and Safety

By Phil La Duke

Last week I watched a video posted by a LinkedIn contact Carsten Bush. Those of you who are fortunate enough to know Carsten know that he is on top of his game when it comes to safety and he brings a lot of insight to his posts. He posted a 12 minute video of a talk by Johan Bergström

The video makes some pretty profound points and I recommend that you watch it, but his definition of “resilience” that really got me thinking. Johan Bergström points out that the word resilience doesn’t make sense in Scandinavian languages but in English, for example, resilience has different meaning depending on context. It can mean the ability of a material to return to its original state after being stress (the example he uses is a spring returning to its former state after being pulled.  Bergström additionally points out that in the psychology “resilience” refers to a human being’s ability to thrive despite adversity (this is called resilience theory), and finally in ecology resilience is the ability to continually adapt to constantly evolving stressors. All of this is contained in the video linked, so any quotation or reference should be credited to Bergström not me.

I got thinking about resilience in the context of organizational change and safety. If a person can be resilient, isn’t it possible that an organization can be equally resilient? I see some profound implications for safety in all three definitions of the word resilience.

An Organization’s Ability to Return to Its Former State

Those of us in the change business have to consider that the difference between changing a culture and changing a climate depends to a large extent on how resilient the organization is. The more resilient the organization the more difficult it will be to effect lasting and sustainable change. Some organizations aren’t very resilient—for example organizations with significant turn over and/or changes in key leadership positions will find returning to the days prior to the organizational change very difficult as many of the key players are no longer present—while other organizations can undue a state-of-the-art and forward-thinking safety management system in weeks or months because it is so resilient that what seemed like a culture change was simply a climate change.

People’s Ability to Work Thrive Despite Adversity

If your current culture is highly resilient your people will be difficult to change because a key element of change is the organization’s dissatisfaction with the current state. If people are able to thrive in dysfunction they are far less likely to be dissatisfied with the current state. Years ago I worked with a company that had been sold five times in seven years. Talk about a resilient population! Any change imitative went largely ignored because the population would just wait it out.  It was impossible to govern or make any lasting change because the people could work through the discomfort of change and quickly return to their former cultural state.

The Ability To Continually Adapt To Constantly Evolving Stressors

If individuals are continually adapting to constantly evolving stressors, in other words they are highly resilient, it will take enormous effort to get them to recognize and accept that they need to change. Hazards are constantly evolving stressors and one of the greatest shortfalls of most approaches to safety is that we treat both behavioral and physical hazards as a) a discreet element unaffected with the other hazards present and b) static in nature, that is, they are constantly present as opposed to hazards that are intermittently present.  In fact, many hazards are constantly evolving and interacting with other hazards to heighten or lessen the risk of injury.  Many of us work with individuals who seem just plain accident-prone, but might they instead simply be less resilient—less able to deal with (thrive) in an environment rife with constantly evolving stressors (groups of hazards, or a hazard environment)? A lack of resilience in this sense also could explain why so many people inexplicably do so many stupid things or make so many mistakes (as I have mentioned in numerous other posts, stress is a performance inhibitor and greatly increases the likelihood that people will commit human errors).

So How Can We Use This Information

The first step toward innovation is to understand that every existing culture has some degree of resilience and before we can create a culture change we had better intimately understand the degree of resilience of our organization. Also, we need to recognize that resilience has limits and whatever solution we bring to the table must cause enough stress on the organization to “forever bend the spring”. Culture change initiatives must breakdown the organizations resilience to ensure that it adopts the new normal and never returns to its former state.

Finally, we have to continually reinforce the changes to the culture so that they stick. Culture change vendors who don’t provide a means for your organization to sustain the changes aren’t really offering you more than a temporary climate change, or a parasitic relationship where the change will only remain as long as you retain the services of the vendor.  I don’t know about you, but I like to pay for services once and not be held hostage by a vendor.