The 19th century was about scale. Industrialization changed the way we produced things. Our ability to create products in volume changed the way we sold and transported them. Our need to procure raw materials in bulk changed how we obtained them. Commercial logistics and supply lines were born as a result.
The 20th century was all about efficiency. We recognized the messiness of the real world and its ability to inject inefficiencies in every process. So much of the century was devoted to optimizing the processes we had.
I am painting a massively broad picture, of course. But its essence is fundamentally true.
The 21st century is full of uncertainty and challenges. The scale of the problems we face and their sheer unpredictability and complexity make it the century we learn to build resilience in our systems and develop resilience in ourselves.
This begs the question of course: what form does resilience take? How do we recognize it in order to acknowledge it and take steps to develop it, if we don’t possess it already? And if we do possess it already, how do we enhance it?
This is where neuroscience comes in and it starts its break down and analysis of resilience from the nuts and bolts: the way we respond, neurobiologically, to stress. Studies show that people who can go through stressful situations without suffering lasting psychological scarring have the capacity to sustainably exhibit the traits of mastery, commitment and competence.
A study recently published in the journal Behavioral Medicine, titled: "Adapting to Stress: Understanding the Neurobiology of Resilience," had a particularly apt passage by the authors where they noted that:
“…active coping strategies, humor, hardiness, and extraversion can promote resilience through fostering feelings of mastery, commitment, and competence as well as the ability to help others through bonding. Importantly, the propensity of resilient individuals to express positive emotions, in relation to negative events, enables them to control their anxiety and fears.”
When it comes to individuals these are traits that come under the broad and generally ill-defined label of ‘character’. What is recognized to be character in an individual is usually called culture in an organization. The overlap between the two is virtually exact and it’s made up of the same data points that define the dynamic of their trajectory. A person’s character guides his or her behaviour and the culture of an organization determines what choices it will make and what actions it will embark in.
Culture (and character) are guided by internal beliefs that form our perception and past experiences that shape our expectations. In both, individuals and organizations resilience is then made up of the exact same three components:
Jane McGonigal who wrote Reality is Broken suggests these three traits are also what marks a good gamer and a game environment (i.e. culture) that’s designed to help players stay long enough to overcome an unknown and initially adversarial and frustrating game environment so they can develop their skills in a game. Because they are an integral part of pro-social skills, they are bounded by activities that generate bonding within an immediate familiar group and a wider social context.
Companies and People
You can argue, of course, that companies are not people. That their purpose is different and their more rigidly organized structure has nothing to do with biology or even the usual pro-social community bonds we form every time we create a group of people. Yet companies are made up of people the same way people are made up of cells. The behaviour of cells when they encounter an environmental stressor is the perfect analogy of the behaviour of people when a company comes under stress itself.
What stops cells from running amok with neurochemically induced panic and paralyzing us with a cortisol overload is the person’s ability to add perspective through perception and guidance through experience. Essentially, a person’s ability to regulate emotions and apply guided reason in order to achieve specific outcomes. Take that into a company environment and you begin to see, I hope, the benefits to be derived by having a mission statement, corporate values and a real sense of purpose.
If cells, in a person, play such a pivotal role in their behaviour what exactly are we looking for when we examine the differences in responses from people who experience extreme stress? To answer that question neuroscientist Richard Davidson from the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry University of Wisconsin, used fMRI imaging to study brains under stress.
What he found was that brains that possess more axons, the white matter that connects neurons in the brain and interconnects different brain regions with each other, a brain has; the easier it is for that brain to tune down specific regions that initially react to a stressor and take more reasoned action.
A subsequent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, carried out by Eric Nestler of the Department of Neuroscience, Friedman Brain Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York; concluded that the failure to be resilient in the face of adversity was a “failure of neuroplasticity”. In other words a failure to adapt.
It is the failure to adapt to fast-evolving adversarial situations that makes us less resilient. This is true for both individuals and organizations.
The good news is that resilience can be developed. So, what does this development require for individuals and organizations?
A 2010, detailed, study published in the Journal Of Community Psychology broke down the factors that resulted in rural Australian communities to be resilient and rebound from the experience of extreme adversity into twelve, very specific attributes, that stem from five distinct characteristics that define resilience.
The characteristics (and they’re the same whether you’re a person suffering a personal tragedy or an organization trying to rebound from an existential extinction event) are:
The attributes, from the Australian study, that map to these characteristics are: social networks and support; positive outlook; learning; early experiences; environment and lifestyle; infrastructure and support services; sense of purpose; diverse and innovative economy; embracing differences; beliefs; and leadership.
There are a couple of lessons we can learn from this, immediately. First, resilience is not something we can develop alone. It requires connection with and the help and support of others. Second, the one unique component we bring to the table is our sense of purpose, beliefs and perception based on past experiences.
As individuals we need to cultivate social ties, embrace social change and be public-minded in our actions, in order to actively cultivate resilience. Companies and organizations whose cultures fail to exhibit these traits fail to adapt. The future is, most definitely, cooperative.
- Carlos Osório, Thomas Probert, Edgar Jones, Allan H. Young & Ian Robbins (2017) Adapting to Stress: Understanding the Neurobiology of Resilience, Behavioral Medicine, 43:4, 307-322, DOI: 10.1080/08964289.2016.1170661
- Heller AS, Johnstone T, Peterson MJ, Kolden GG, Kalin NH, Davidson RJ. Increased prefrontal cortex activity during negative emotion regulation as a predictor of depression symptom severity trajectory over 6 months. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(11):1181-1189. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2430
- Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han MH, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nat Neurosci. 2012;15(11):1475-1484. doi:10.1038/nn.3234
- Buikstra, E., Ross, H., King, C. A., Baker, P. G., Hegney, D., McLachlan, K., & Rogers-Clark, C. (2010). The components of resilience-perceptions of an Australian rural community. Journal of Community Psychology, 38(8), 975-991.