If patience is a virtue, then resilience must be one, too. This quality enables us to survive and even grow stronger from inevitable stress and adversity. However, today’s dynamic work environments present so much challenge for organizations that true, lasting resilience now requires more than just endurance. It takes a healthy dose of adaptability and proactivity. In a single word, resilience must also be nimble. Whether the goal is to improve the employee experience or increase innovation, leaders who model and cultivate values like transparency, collaboration, and flexibility can directly influence employees’ fortitude and, ultimately, help the organization rise to whatever tests the future brings.
In the ever-evolving workplace, organizations are addressing huge changes in their industries, marketplaces, technologies, and customer demands. And to succeed, many are depending on greater resilience from their employees. In fact, The Conference Board reports one of the top priorities for CEOs is to “build a resilient workforce to prepare for future challenges.”1
Resilience is traditionally defined as the ability to withstand challenges or recover from hardships. But this definition doesn’t work in today’s inherently dynamic workplace because it relies too heavily on the capacity of individuals and too little on the culture of organizations. Simply demanding that employees endure travails ignores the issues behind changing roles, practices, and job requirements. Consequently, resilience becomes whatever the employee can bear rather than proactive organizational preparation for change. Traditional resilience also has its limits. Our research finds over half (53%) of employees say they’re expected to just push through challenges without complaint, which leads to a 125% higher likelihood of burnout.
Moreover, traditional approaches to resilience are reactionary to outside forces. They focus on outlasting the challenge or change instead of addressing its origin and providing resources to adapt. According to our data, 64% of employees say their organization embraces change, but more than half say it reacts to change rather than getting ahead of it to meet the upcoming demands of their industry.
Nimble resilience requires a shift in mindset—from seeing change and challenges as setbacks or crises to overcome to viewing them as opportunities to innovate, evolve, and improve. More than ever, success requires organizations to have a framework in place with policies and programs that encourage employees to embrace change, collaborate, and practice cross-disciplinary thinking.
“The way we look at resilience has changed. We used to think it was grit, being strong, getting through it. Now it has shifted to more self-awareness and responsiveness to the people around you.”
—Steven Stein, Founder, Multi-Health Systems
The Three Key Ingredients of Nimble Resilience
Our research finds that nimbly resilient employees, leaders, and organizations are guided by three powerful principles: adaptability, proactivity, and perseverance. All are crucial to thrive in a dynamic work environment.
Adaptability. Anticipating changes or challenges and adjusting or innovating to meet them.
Proactivity. Continually evolving by seeking new ways of doing things instead of only reacting.
Perseverance. Seeing setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow rather than as crises.
Looking deeper, we can identify the attitudes and behaviors that reflect the application of these principles at the individual, leader, and organizational levels:
Nimbly resilient organizations are better positioned to adapt and innovate through changes and challenges than reactive organizations that double down on old practices and encourage employees to simply push through.
Transformation happens when an organization adopts the principles of nimble resilience and uses them to shape policies, programs, and workplace culture in ways that encourage employees to build relationships, find new solutions to challenges, work collaboratively across disciplines, and adopt a forward-thinking perspective that embraces change. As a result, trust in leaders and team members increases, as do connections to the organization and its purpose. According to our findings, when employees perceive their organization as nimbly resilient:
- Odds of above-average engagement increase 699%
- Odds of feeling a strong connection to the organization increase 568%
- Odds of being a Promoter increase 460%
In addition, positive business and cultural outcomes are dramatically higher at nimbly resilient organizations:
- Odds of greater revenue increase 158%
- Odds of innovation in the face of obstacles increase 737%
- Odds employees have a strong desire to stay with the organization for at least one year increase 634%
- Odds of having a thriving workplace culture increase 914%
“If you’re proactive, you focus on preparing. If you’re reactive, you end up focusing on repairing.”
—John C. Maxwell, Author, Speaker, and Founder, Maxwell Leadership
Nimbly Resilient Leaders Transform Employees
When leaders are nimbly resilient, their teams are more likely to be also. Nimbly resilient leaders think and work across disciplines, embrace change, and encourage pivoting perspectives when faced with new challenges, which, in turn, helps employees do the same.
Modern leaders (those who mentor, inspire, and connect employees rather than control and gatekeep) categorically practice several behaviors that promote nimble resilience. These include communicating transparently, building relationships between employees, fostering an environment of psychological safety,2 and prioritizing employee wellbeing, flexibility, and autonomy, all of which help employees build nimble resilience.3
As seen in our previous chapter about change, modern leaders are also more likely to have nimbly resilient teams who view change as positive because they inform and solicit feedback from employees.
Furthermore, employees who believe their leaders are nimbly resilient are 9x more likely to think they are also nimbly resilient, which leads to higher likelihoods of engagement (+582%), feeling a strong sense of fulfillment in their work (+233%), and experiencing less burnout (–79%).
Nimbly resilient organizations have leaders, and in turn teams, who are adaptable, proactive, and perseverant. This combination enables them to be more agile and create sustainable growth, no matter what changes or challenges they face.
“The best leaders don't know just one style of leadership—they're skilled at several and have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstance dictates.”
—Daniel Goleman, Author and New York Times Reporter
To build a culture of nimble resilience, organizations must be adaptable, proactive, and perseverant; champion leader resilience; and reward resilient behaviors.
1. Develop the qualities of nimble resilience and the practices to support it
Transparent communication, collaboration, flexibility, and autonomy all help promote nimble resilience in leaders and employees.
Employees can be more adaptable and proactive when they know what challenges the organization is facing. They can embrace new perspectives when they collaborate with other teams and pivot when they feel comfortable adapting to change. (See the chapter, Embracing Change.) As the following table details, these types of practices improve the odds that employees will see themselves as nimbly resilient.
Likewise, by regularly sharing information about changes and challenges, giving employees autonomy, and encouraging collaboration, organizations can affect how employees perceive them, as shown in the next table.
2. Champion nimbly resilient leadership
Organizations should train leaders to practice skills that build nimble resilience. They should also hold them accountable for modeling behaviors like communicating openly, collaborating with others, embracing new perspectives at work, tackling challenges proactively, and creating an environment of psychological safety,6 listening,7 and understanding.
When employees perceive their leaders are nimbly resilient, the odds they will see their organization as such increase 1,460%.
Nimbly resilient leaders plan ahead and pivot when challenges come their way. They give employees flexibility, solicit feedback, and provide a voice in change. With autonomy, resources, and support, they and their teams can innovate and overcome setbacks.
3. Recognize and reward
After communicating and modeling the attributes of nimble resilience, be sure to recognize the employees who practice them. Give frequent, meaningful recognition to those who collaborate, adopt new thinking, persevere through change, or find a new way of doing something.
Also, share the recognition and stories companywide so other employees can learn what it means to be nimbly resilient themselves. Organizations that recognize employees for important core behaviors often see these practices quickly become an integral part of the workplace culture. Note the impact of regular recognition on the increased probability of several outcomes when employees see themselves or leaders as nimbly resilient:
Nimble Resilience—Key Takeaways
Traditional approaches to resilience center on endurance, making them reactionary and unsustainable.
Nimble resilience is based on adaptability, proactivity, and perseverance, which reframe change as an opportunity to innovate and grow rather than a challenge to overcome.
Organizations must champion nimbly resilient leaders and practices like open communication, collaboration, flexibility, and autonomy.
Recognizing and rewarding employees who demonstrate nimble resilience improves cultural and business outcomes.
Nimble Resilience Sources
- “Why Resilient Executives Are Better Leaders,” Susan Ladika, SHRM, March 25, 2023.
- “Bridge across uncertainty: How crisis leadership with a human focus can support business resilience,” Jen Fisher, Brenna Sniderman, Nicole Nodi, Deloitte Insights, August 18, 2020.
- “Building Resilience: Helping Workers Handle Stress for the Long Haul,” Kathleen Doheny, SHRM, January 12, 2021.
- “Your Workforce Is More Adaptable Than You Think,” Joseph Fuller, Judith K. Wallenstein, Manjari Raman, and Alice de Chalendar, Harvard Business Review, May–June 2019.
- Jill Dark, VP, Talent Futures, Steelcase, LinkedIn profile, 2023.
- “Teams,” 2020 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “Listening,” 2020 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “How Tata and Intuit turn failures into successes,” Amantha Imber, Financial Review, May 3, 2016.
- Culture and Diversity, Tata Communications website, 2023.
Case Study—Proactively Preparing and Improving
Office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, embraces uncertainty and change with its Strategic Workforce Architecture and Transformation (SWAT) team. The group tracks emerging trends and then conducts experimental projects to decide how to respond before any big changes arrive.
Using an internal platform called Loop, the company asks employees to volunteer for these projects that are typically outside their job role so they can gain experience and skills they might not in their day-to-day work. Jill Dark, VP of Talent Futures, says, “If you give people the opportunity to learn something new or to show their craft, they will give you their best work. The magic is in providing the opportunity.”
Steelcase believes transformation is the new status quo, and SWAT helps improve existing ways of working, identify and seize opportunities for change, and co-design solutions that grow business and employees.4,5
Case Study—Recognizing Attempts, Not Just Achievements
The Indian multinational, Tata Group, has a corporate philosophy that includes ambition, collaboration, and transformation. It dares people to question the status quo, take risks, and be curious and passionate about learning. Innovation is so important to Tata, it rewards employees for trying new ideas, even if they fail.
Case in point: The company’s InnoVista awards celebrate employee innovations, attracting over 2,000 entries from around the world, to help build its culture of sustainable, collaborative improvement. Categories include both implemented and piloted technologies, but there’s also a category called “Dare to Try” that honors employees for great concepts that didn’t completely work. The prize is more about what goes into an idea than what comes out of it. According to Natarajan Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons, “I know innovation is about winning, but more importantly it’s about trying.”8, 9