By Richard Wilkinson, 2001
This article is about the meaning of resilience, and about serendipity.
“Riding with despair prohibited. Keep hopes up.”
“Life instructions: Have fun. Do not hurt people.
Do not accept defeat. Strive to be happy”
Two unofficial signs pasted over official warning signs in the New York subway system in 1994 “Philosophy in Transit”, NY Times, August 28, 1994.
Some years ago at graduate school I created my own definition of organization development. I did so because the more scholarly definitions just didn’t work for me. After reading the definitions of academics, the field of OD remained vague and hazy. Neither the nature of OD work nor the values underpinning its practice were clear, at least not to me. In defining OD for myself I was forced to wrestle with its essence in such a way that I owned the result. Once done, I really got the idea of organization development. Subsequently, others have found my definition helped them understand the nature of OD work better, too. Here’s how I defined OD in 1996:
Organization development: Intentional, collaborative efforts to make the workplace better; that is, more humane, more productive and more resilient.
Ah, but I was not done yet. I had learned from systems thinking that, “An answer is a question”s way of asking another question.” Sure enough, once I defined OD to my satisfaction, I found myself thinking about the meaning of the terms in the definition itself.
The first two ‘”humane” and “productive”‘ I breezed through quickly. Both incorporate the historical attention OD practitioners have paid to people and tasks, such as in the Blake-Mouton Management Grid from the past.
But, grasping “resilience” was a bigger challenge. It had implications for longevity, continuous adaptability, and successful incorporation of change. These qualities seemed to express the power of cultivating resilience as central to the work of OD. Yet for a long time I had puzzled over what behaviors actually characterized resilience. What exactly does it take to be resilient, to bounce back and adapt, not just once, but continually?
Then, in June of this year, came a surprise while reading a sidebar on page 95 of July’s Biography magazine. The article described a successful adult who grew up in an abusive home and whose difficulties were compounded by a disfiguring appearance. In the sidebar the magazine listed the following factors as contributing to resiliency in children who succeed despite early traumatic upbringings. I’ve added what I think are organization development implications logically stemming from each resilient characteristic.
OD IMPLICATION: Creativity and innovation
- Curiosity and intellectual know-how. Becoming knowledgeable about one’s situation and incorporating that knowledge into subsequent behavior.
OD IMPLICATION: Continuous learning
- Ability to compartmentalize. The ability to “turn off” awareness of terror or anxiety at certain times and become involved in other activities that provide joy and laughter.
OD IMPLICATION: Almost any planning activity
- A goal to live for. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about survival in the concentration camps: “Give me a why [to live] and I will tell the how.”
OD IMPLICATION: Mission and vision
I thought these four attributes worked pretty well in fleshing out the notion of resilience in my definition of OD. Pleased with this unlikely serendipitous occurrence, I wrote an earlier version of this article and e-mailed it to a number of colleagues, with the concluding wish, “Hope you find this interesting and/or useful.”
But, my work was still not done. Karen Kane of Catalyst Consulting in Seattle amplified my understanding of resilience even further with the following reply. Shortly after receiving my e-mail she wrote back:
I worked with the resiliency literature when I was a trainer in the sexual assault field, and you might be interested to know some of the other pieces of the framework. What you shared from the Biography article seems to be the piece about individual characteristics of resilient individuals. But, resiliency isn’t something people either have or don’t have – it can be cultivated. Another piece of the framework that also has implications for OD, I think, are the characteristics of environments that support and promote resiliency. These are:
- Opportunities for meaningful participation
- High expectations and,
- Caring and support.
This exchange meant a great deal to me, both in enriching my own thinking on the work of organization development, and in the delight I enjoyed in the process of discovery and sharing. I hope you will find the foregoing personally encouraging and professionally useful.
Now, as I contemplate again my definition of OD:
Intentional, collaborative efforts to make the workplace better; that is, more humane, more productive and more resilient.
I find myself posing the next question. What OD interventions enhance caring and support within a group? Perhaps I will discover the answer to my new dilemma in some unlikely place. When I do, I’ll pass it along. In the meantime, your answers would be welcome!
Richard Wilkinson currently serves as adjunct faculty for the business school at the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington. He retired from there in 2019 where he served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Organizational Effectiveness following twelve years working in global health. He is the author of The Manager’s Everyday Toolbox. Richard can be reached via LinkedIn.