The importance of social resilience in organisations

by James Ayers

James Ayers

James Ayers

The changing face of society is impacting the role and functioning of today’s organisations.  Growing social and ecological uncertainty and changing human needs require a new role for today’s organisations and institutions. The question is, can organisations survive, flourish and find their place in a new paradigm? This is social resilience.

 A changing social and environmental base

In a disconnected society, our reliance on natural resources to operate is often forgotten and organisations are no different. The sustainability challenge, so well documented and debated in recent times, is a pressing issue for organisations trying to reconnect us to the fact that society is only as big as the ecosystem that encompasses it. Human impacts on the environment, highlighted in rising demand for decreasing resources and our continued reliance on cheap, damaging fossil fuels for energy, create both ecological destruction and social inequality. Yet, despite our knowledge of these problems, inflexible infrastructure and entrenched mindsets mean we are embedded in a system that is instigating its own (very significant) collapse.  Organisations are entering a period that, despite considerable human intelligence and access to technology, will feature increasingly significant and unpredictable turbulence.

In fact, the sustainability conversation is no longer being conducted in the future tense. Rather, a generation of organisations are discovering themselves to be in the age of the change where shocks are no longer simply forecast or predicted, but experienced. Increasing energy costs, competition for natural resources, legislative impacts and an increasing population fueled by a materialistic culture highlight the increasingly treacherous navigation required by organisations to survive.

The changing social and environmental base has left the bleeding edge of a system and a shift in the stasis on the planet is occurring, and organisations, as building blocks of society will both influence and be influenced by this change.

Why social resilience?

Neil Adger (2003) defines, ‘Social resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand external shocks to the social infrastructure, such as environmental variability, or social, economic and political upheaval.” However, resilience also provides a basis by which transformation of an organisation (and thus society) can occur, it does this by providing communities with qualities that transcend the types of established thinking that created many of these problems in the first place.

Survival and transcendence relies on the organisation being able to problem solve and adapt from the inside, an effective solution that increases chances at absorbing and innovating against shocks. By developing knowledge, and organisational learning a community has greater understanding of their situation, surroundings and responses to danger.

 What kind of shocks will organisations face?

As social and ecological problems grow, organisations will face greater and more varied disturbances in their operations. These exist in two forms:

Press disturbances: Problems that escalate over time, increasing pressure on an organisation until a tipping point is reached and collapse occurs (think of the increasing price of energy bills as oil prices increase) or;

Pulse disturbances: Pulse disturbances are those in which a sudden, unexpected shock occurs that can critically damage an organisation. Natural disasters, or political upheaval that directly effect an organisation as examples (see the Russia-Ukraine political dispute that resulted in north-west Europe being cut off from crucial natural gas supplies), or BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Louisiana.

Climate change, as the most significant social and environmental challenge society faces is a perfect storm of disturbance, characterised by qualities that both press and pulse, seen in its current ability to slowly impact numerous sectors (agricultural) while contributing to threatening natural disasters and unpredictable weather patterns.

 What does social resilience look like?

Social resilience can be seen as a number of variables or qualities within an organisation, three characteristics include the presence and development in the community of:

  •  Trust: Trust is main ingredient of social capital.  Without interpersonal trust relationships and networks are weak.  Without institutional trust corruption may occur. Institutional trust also indicates wider social trust because institutions design rules and behaviours that guide individual behaviour.  Therefore institutional design is the leverage point for fostering trust or mistrust within a society.
  • Diversity: Diversity allows components of the system to continue to operate (in same or similar form) despite disturbances as multiple elements can perform similar roles. Diversity comes in social, environmental, economic, institutional and technological forms and provides a base of knowledge for problem solving and innovative thinking.
  • The ability to learn (Learning Organisations): Continual learning fosters the capacity for creation, for deeper understanding of the interrelated components of a system and is a way towards organisational intelligence that can be both reactive and importantly proactive.  More understanding and heightened creativity lend themselves to new ways of thinking that can provide solutions to complex problems.

These characteristics provide a buffer against risk and insurance against the growing numbers of ‘bumps’ faced by organisation.  High levels of these qualities also provide an ability to transform and redesign an organisation into a more effective model.

How can organisations increase social resilience?

There are a number of ways to increase social resilience in organisations to improve organisations’ ability to cope and transform through change.

  •  Fight gentrification

Despite our best efforts, bar a few outliers, organisations operate in a model of strict gentrification. Many organisations mistake homogeneity for security, an issue best seen in hiring practices and the continued existence of paternally driven institutions symbolised by gender wage gaps. By reinforcing uniformity organisations portray an inherent distrust of unusual ideas and knowledge, and develop an engrained conservatism that views change as suspicious.

The gentrification of organisational knowledge is occurring more than we realise, the importance placed on qualifications and measurable outcomes, on language, dress and etiquette all lead to the removal of personality and individualism from our work places.  Sure, this reassures a certain viewpoint, but becomes a mechanism that comforts rather than challenges the status quo. Again and again we see this regulation result in mindsets that cause limp spirals of ‘change,’ defined by a simple rebranding of one attempt for change after another, rather than encouraging a true disruption in the workplace (notice we say, ‘restructure,’ a small shift within strictly defined organisation walls, and not ‘transformation’).

  • Create a decentralised social network

In a new societal paradigm, organisations need to be seen as communities rather than machines in which relationships are the focus of business, interaction rather than action. Creating a decentralised network allows systems and organisation to not be reliant on linear processes to work, a decentralised system is created by increased learning within the organisation and the ability for responsibilities to be embedded across groups rather than in silos.  Consider the role of a Position Description here, rather than individuals having responsibilities for one area of the organisation’s function, they might have responsibility towards the organisation’s values instead.

  •  Create learning

Expanding the knowledge base of your community is a key aspect of problem solving. It keeps people motivated and knowledgeable gives organisations the best chance to uncover solutions (from within– a less expensive option) that will help retain function in times of crisis and transform in times of change.  As Senge wrote, ‘through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.’  Learning within an organisation rewards the importance its people, who develop greater skills, depth and experience. Relationships mature to a higher plain of functioning and knowledge.

Keeping the community both stimulated and motivated while creating capacity within the organisation is an important element of resilience. If the various parts of an organisation learn and develop then so does the organisation, so allow organisational flexibility.  Ask ‘what do you want to work on?’ and then provide time for that.  If the organisation is defined by its values, and those values are recognised as creating value for the organisation, then all work that fits into them is beneficial. Give staff the keys, let them create the organisation and its direction, this provides investment and a self-desire for learning.

  • Promoting existing knowledge and programs (trust your community)

Most organisations have underlying programs, values that run throughout the institution.  There is a reason why groups of people have ended up working in a similar place. I once worked at an institution in a team designated to embed sustainability only to find that in many places it was already present, in small groups, teams and individuals who were creating change on their own time.  Tap into these currents and try to utilise the energy of them.  If nothing else, acknowledge the efforts and values of your people.   Don’t try to control groups but offer help and assistance.  Often the most important resource needed is time, the rest is informal and effective because it’s built on personal drive, not reporting lines or hierarchy.

Above all, develop Trust, create an organisation and that gives the chance to co-create culture and direction, this maybe standard rhetoric, but hierarchical organisational structures and lack of diversity in management, seem to point to the fact that this isn’t really the case.  Co-creation means the community becomes personally invested in the running and survival of the organisation, something that promotes retention (and knowledge) and efficiency.  Creating a shared direction and language for the organisation, promotes operational simplicity and removes bureaucracy.  Direction becomes clear and success becomes about the collective community and not about individual reward.

Trust is about the distribution of power.  By bottling it in management structures and hierarchies, organisations display mistrust.  In contrast by operating under a philosophy of benevolence, transparency, increasing individual competence and flattening hierarchical structures promote trust and the social confidence in the organisation.

There is no more critical factor than trust in times of disturbance, without looking at the distinct lack of trust that appears to be prevalent in society.  By encouraging and promoting transparency throughout the organisations, trust provides the main ingredient of social capital.  Without interpersonal trust relationships and networks are weak.  Without institutional trust corruption may occur.  Institutions must design rules and behaviours that guide individual behaviour.  Institutional design is the leverage point for fostering trust and mistrust within a society.

Check your ecological impacts? Energy!

You cannot be socially resilient without relying on an ecological base. Understand where your organisation is vulnerable and that availability of natural resources is decreasing.  Check your energy bills and understand they are going to rise. Ask the question can you absorb those costs or can you move towards energy independence? Sustainability reporting is a significant and effective way of measuring organisational performance and allowing strategic planning to occur.

As society moves into a global era of change, the need for resilience is becoming paramount. We are beginning to experience, as a result of the sustainability challenge, manifested by climate change, an uncomfortable world filled with more frequent and damaging shocks.  Society, and organisations are able to provide some insurance towards these problems by developing qualities of resilience within their communities.  The development of these qualities may be seen in the future as the tools that not only contributed to our ability to survive, but also the qualities that began the transformation to the age of sustainability.

This article was written by James Ayers as a companion piece to the publication, ‘The Role of Renewable Energy Cooperatives in the Social Resilience of their Communities,’ co-authored by James Ayers, Gabriel Melchert and Julius Piwowar for the Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) program in Karlskrona, Sweden. He can be contacted on [email protected]


Adger, W.N. 2003. Social capital, collective action and adaptation to climate change. Economic Geography. 79, p.387–404.

Senge, Peter M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency

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