Organizational Resilience and Navigating the Cognitive Challenge

Organizational resilience determines not only how an organization navigates through crisis, but also how it recovers. Truly resilient organizations come back stronger following times of disruption, having integrated into their systems, structures, cultures, and beliefs the necessary features for thriving.

But how does one cultivate such resilience? A recent study by the See Change team on the presence of organizational resilience in 20 independent schools, found both evidence of resilience as well as a need for schools to employ a recovery plan to mitigate the short and long term fallouts of the last year.

The biggest barrier to organizational resiliency is what has been described as the “cognitive challenge.” The cognitive challenge results from our brain’s tendency under stress to employ denial as a coping mechanism, blinding leaders to the realities in front and ahead of them, and leaving them surprised by foreseeable events. As Duchek explains in his summary of research on resilient organizations:

It is argued that critical events, even if they are predictable, often come as a surprise because organizations take refuge in denial. This means that, “for many organizations, the future is less unknowable than it is unthinkable” .

(Duchek, 2020)

Reflecting on leadership approaches and decisions made during this time of challenge and change is essential. Answering yes to the questions below indicates evidence of your organization experiencing the cognitive challenge:

Has your organization been surprised/blind-sided by predictable events?

This is the most common symptom of the cognitive challenge. Time and time we see schools being caught off guard by events or reactions to events that are more or less predictable (e.g., COVID regulations constantly changing, having to do distance learning for an extended period of time, faculty’s reluctance to come back into the classroom, 2020’s summer vacation not providing the typical reprieve, increased escalations with members of the community, expecting people to be happy/grateful).

Have you or your school administrators been reluctant to label this time as an organizational crisis?

Despite the fact that COVID fits all the definitions of an organizational crisis, leaders may have challenged the idea that their organization is in crisis (e.g., “COVID is a crisis for our communities, but our organization is not in crisis”).

Have you struggled or failed to implement a comprehensive grief strategy?

Grief is impacting independent schools more than any other factor, yet only one out of twenty schools we studied had a comprehensive strategy to support the community through grief.

Have you struggled with or not even considered putting together a COVID recovery plan?

It is hard to think long term in a time of crisis (reflective of the brain’s natural coping mechanism to narrow its time horizon to conserve energy and focus on more immediate perceived threats), but it is also essential that schools have a plan to mitigate the potential long term fallout of crisis. Telling yourself the story “we just need to get back in person” or “we just need to get back to normal” blinds us to the reality of our recovery needs in the coming year(s).

Have you struggled to prioritize time to invest in upskilling for your faculty, staff, and administration?

All our jobs have changed drastically in the last year in form and/or function. An example of this is the increased expectation on leaders to take on new roles such as grief counselors, health experts, risk management consultants, crisis managers, and mediators (to name a few). There are some critical skills leaders need now to ensure effective recovery. Yet, many schools are struggling to see upskilling in key competencies as critical to their resiliency.

Have you struggled to prioritize time and space for reflection?

One of the pillars of resiliency for organizations is reflection and learning. More now than ever, leaders need space for reflection. When the See Change team works with organizations going through crisis we recommend one hour a week solely for reflection and connection for leaders. If you are reading this and thinking “we don’t have time for that,” that is a symptom of the cognitive challenge.

Is your governance board not fully understanding their role in crisis navigation for the organization?

Boards also need to make space for reflection and upskilling, particularly regarding building capacity in crisis management. Most board members have not navigated an organization through a crisis before and none have governed through a pandemic, but in many cases boards have struggled to prioritize their own need for learning and reflection.

A common belief among leaders we interviewed was that the finish line for COVID was in sight and with it a chance to return to “normalcy”. They told us “we just need to get back in person” for the fall of 2021. This perspective reflects the cognitive challenge and may give us short-term relief, but the long-term implications are daunting indeed. As difficult as it may be to accept, the reality is there is much more work ahead to lead through and recover from the current COVID crisis. Tensions that have increased this past year will result in increased turnover, loss of productivity, and increased escalations. Schools are already seeing evidence of this, and will continue to see the impact for years to come if they do not invest in a recovery strategy.

The good news is many of these fallouts are preventable, and it is not too late for schools to cultivate their resiliency to come back stronger from COVID. However present the cognitive challenge may have been for you or your school community, a staunch acceptance of reality is the first step towards recovery. Our study found that the following will be the key determinants as to how an organization recovers: 

  • Acceptance: to what degree is your school willing to accept that recovery must be a priority to support resilience and prevent fallouts? 
  • Upskilling: how can your school prioritize strategic upskilling of all employees to support the successful navigation of the year(s) ahead? 
  • Grief Processing: as nebulous as this may feel, how will your school better identify the presence and support the effective processing of grief? 
  • True Healing: what support does your organization have to design an effective recovery plan/strategy that will support true healing for your organization so that it may come through COVID stronger than ever?

For independent schools it is time to rip off the blinders. When it comes to cultivating organizational resilience, the future is knowable. The time to act is now.

Duchek, S. Organizational resilience: a capability-based conceptualization. Bus Res 13, 215–246 (2020).

Kate Sheppard’s work focuses on helping non-profit and human-service organizations develop leadership, evaluate and articulate impact, and synchronize their actions and ideologies. Kate has worked as a consultant for the past ten years as a Senior Associate for Dialogues in Action leading over 100 large-scale evaluation projects. In 2018 Kate founded her own consulting company, See Change Consulting. For the past seventeen years, Kate has also worked for the YMCA of San Francisco. Her current role directing staff development allows her to focus on supporting over 2,400 staff in creating positive work environments, building individual capacity, and leading organizational change strategies.

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