Thriving in Turbulent Times

Published on August 25, 2020

Bauer Researcher Explores How To Use Resilience to Thrive in Crisis

Organizations blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic have learned firsthand how difficult it can be to weather a crisis.

But is it possible for firms to not just survive in turbulent times, but to thrive?

That is the focus of a C. T. Bauer College of Business research paper recently published online in the leading academic and practitioner journal, Organizational Dynamics. In “Resilience as Thriving: The Role of Positive Leadership Practices,” Management & Leadership Professor Dusya Vera and co-authors offer an alternative view to resilience.

The researchers take a close look at three companies that have cultivated positive leadership approaches and have been able to emerge from adversity better than before, identifying strategies for pivoting in a positive way.

“Bouncing back to wherever you were before the crisis, that is good, but some companies are able to do even better than that,” Vera said. “They actually come back better. People in the organization become more purposeful, more energized, more engaged, more intentional in creating positive connections and positive communication. The potential of everybody gets to the next level.”

Such companies share a commitment to some foundational values: Having a meaningful purpose, a positive climate, positive relationships and positive communication channels, she said.

“These assets are created before any crisis occurs and can be of great benefit during the crisis. These organizations have taken care of their culture, so its purpose is explicit and meaningful, and communication is very transparent and authentic. That allows leaders and organizational members to always go back to the bottom line: Why is it we exist, and how can this crisis become a mechanism for growth?”

Drawing upon that positive foundation in crisis can lead to thriving, if organizations then practice what the researchers characterize as the three A’s: Assess, Accept and Adapt.

The strategy may sound simplistic, but is actually a deliberative approach that allows organizations both big and small to bounce back and avoid panicky wholesale dismissals of valuable employees in the face of sudden change.

“Organizations engaging in positive leadership practices put people first, starting with employees and clients; they know that putting people first benefits the interests of shareholders. If you put people first, the last resort is going to be cutting people,” she said. “In the course of reorganization, you may ask employees to trim their hours, be retrained, be transferred, or whatever else is necessary. You may decide you have to start offering different products or services, but you’re trying to save the relationships that companies have with employees. You may well have to do layoffs, but often that decision is made too early. When layoffs are needed, honest conversations are key, and people need to be trusted with the truth. Transparency, consistency, fairness, and acknowledgment of emotions enable layoffs to be done in a compassionate way.”

In addition to staying true to foundational values while making a thorough assessment, organizations can’t afford to gloss over whether they are fully accepting a new reality, Vera said.

“The same way an individual can fall into denial, or feel like a victim of circumstance, organizations can get stuck if they fail to accept change,” Vera said.

The third step, adaptation (i.e., major change), is never easy, but can be energizing if an organization successfully navigates the first two phases, the researchers say.

“Accepting the need for change is easier when members view the disruption as a challenge for excellence, growth, and learning,” they write.

“As firms adapt and change the way they operate, a positive climate reminds organizational members of the opportunities ahead and positive meaning focuses them on the long-term impact of their actions.”

For more examples of how companies are responding to the COVID-19 crisis and taking care of internal and external stakeholders, these two resources are available:

Vera’s co-authors include two graduates of Bauer’s doctoral program, Assistant Professor Codou Samba of the University of Tennessee and Assistant Professor Tiffany Maldonado of Sam Houston State University; and former Bauer faculty member Associate Professor Dejun “Tony” Kong of the University of South Florida.

By Julie Bonnin