Change has visited every corner of our economy. In theory, employee ownership is supposed to foster long-term adaptability. Because employees have a stake in the company’s future, they will adopt entrepreneurial thinking and change course rapidly when necessary to secure the business. But if you’re experiencing the equivalent of organizational trauma or even just a bit of discomfort with change, you may have come face to face with the fact that business resilience does not come automatically with employee ownership.
“Like building a muscle, increasing resilience takes time and intentionality,” says the American Psychological Association about personal resilience. Personal resilience is often regarded as an unalterable personality trait. When someone bounces back from a life-altering loss or trauma, people often comment, “I would never be able to recover like that,” or “he’s lucky he is strong and can bounce back.” These comments hint at a big gap in our cultural understanding of resilience. We sometimes treat resilience like some kind of superpower; you’ve either got it (lucky you), or you don’t (how unlucky). This isn’t how it works at all. It’s not true for individuals and it’s not true for organizations either.
While many employee-owned companies haven’t had to exercise this particular muscle for many years, they are doing it now. Maybe you had some business challenges during the Great Recession ten years ago, but that was different. Today’s changes may be more personally disruptive, and we are seeing change on top of change. This brings longer periods of uncertainty. But don’t worry, your organization can get into shape to build resilience quickly by practicing these principles.
1) Operate out of purpose
Whether you recognize it or not, your business is operating with some core values, beliefs and underlying reasons for existence. If you haven’t put words around those, now is an ideal time to start examining and communicating the underlying reasons for decisions or change. Whether it’s furloughs, layoffs, changes in distribution policies, interim valuations or work from home policies, employee owners may not like changes. They are capable of understanding tough calls when you explain the underpinnings. Going back to your core values is particularly important if you are balancing the tension between two core values. You may need to take tough actions to preserve the enterprise now so you can continue to do great things in the future. It’s better to make the tough call and share the difficulty it presented than ignore the tension. Returning to our core purposes when things change is part of thinking and acting like an owner and it’s something we need to practice.
2) Communicate and make connections
Many companies in crisis centralize communication and increase the one-way communication from the company headquarters or corporate office. This is a good approach to a crisis — we need one source of company information. But at the same time, businesses in crisis — tackling rapid change– also need many sources to collect feedback and reaction.
The physical isolation of working from home is emotionally crippling for some people. Resilient people make use of their circle of support and reach out for help. Resilient organizations need to develop more two-way communication in a time of uncertainty. Strengthening relationships and connections will help people adjust in the midst of rapid change.
Here’s where managers and your ESOP Communication Committee can help the executive leadership team with the feedback loop. As one of our clients put it: “There are things that we need to know about our team members’ experience, but they won’t tell me. That’s where the committee comes in.” Learning to listen and provide feedback is part of acting like an owner. Again, no one is born with this quality, it is a skill you (whether you are a manager, executive, committee member or a non-management employee owner) must practice.
3) Promote authenticity and self-care
I thought about leaving this one out because it is good old common sense, but it is often overlooked. Each person, starting with the executive team, needs to be encouraged to take care of their own mind, body and spirit. Unhelpful habits and poor judgment emerge when we are tired, hungry, lonely, angry, or otherwise reacting rather than acting.
Resilient organizations operate from their best understanding of reality. Part of that reality is being aware of how people are feeling. If you try to deny it, it will rear its ugly head in other ways. Your organization will take cues from you if you are the executive leader. And if you are not a manager or executive, be aware that your mindset influences others ability to perform, too. You cannot help others if your inclination is to habitually catastrophize — imagining the worst extreme outcome. Same if you deny and numb reality (sugarcoat reality or self-medicate). Taking care of yourself, sharing your best understanding of reality and admitting when you don’t know the answer, are all part of thinking and acting like an owner. Businesses that are resilient encourage people to see the full reality of what is going on with the business (and ourselves) — so that we can take needed action.
4) Use disruption to your advantage
The first three practices make it possible for the fourth practice to emerge; you can’t force it. Disruption — as many 21st-century business gurus have told us — can help us innovate. But this is true only when people have the knowledge, guardrails, and safety to take risks. Resilient organizations are practicing small risk-taking all the time. They admit the do not know all the answers and they have created an environment where people believe they can find the answers.
Think about the times when your organization has overcome what looked like unsurmountable odds in the past. Use those stories to help people recognize the mindset they need to develop to accomplish today’s challenges. Organizations that practice the first three principles build the confidence to handle anything that comes their way. Embracing change is part of thinking and acting like an owner, but it is something we must practice.
Learning resilience is like learning a musical instrument or a language. It takes repetition and if you don’t practice– you can get rusty. If employee owners understand how business success benefits them, feel safe and connected in their current environment and believe that their work impacts value, they have the ingredients to adapt and practice cultivating more resilience.
For help strengthening your organization’s ability to practice resilience, call Cathy Ivancic from Workplace Development at 330-896-7285 ext. 101 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in an Ownership Advantage column in the ESOP Association’s monthly newsletter.