Public Employees and the Path to Resilience

Knowing your organization’s story and why it’s important can go a long way toward helping workers cope with change.

Resilience — the ability to bounce back from a significant challenge — is on many professionals’ minds these days. Schoolteachers, middle managers, psychologists, leaders in homeland security and others are trying to learn where resilience comes from and how to help people develop it. Given the enormous demands on government employees today, it’s no surprise that resilience is on their minds as well.

How does resilience develop? Why is it that a child who demonstrates great resilience has a sibling who shows little or none? Can resilience be learned? Recent research on resilient children offers some clues to these important questions.

In a March 2013 article in the New York Times, Bruce Feiler pointed to studies indicating that children who are taught their family’s story — their ancestors, the family’s strengths, its challenges — tend to be more resilient. They handle stress better and have a stronger sense of control over their lives. The most powerful story, Feiler added, includes examples of a family’s ups and downs and the ways family members have hung together and supported each other. Kids who learn such stories develop an “intergeneration self” — they know that they belong to something larger than themselves.

Research on resilient kids shows that it isn’t the family story itself that builds resilience but rather the process by which kids learn it. In a word, it’s about communications. When kids hear their family’s story repeated during family trips, vacations or social events, they gain a sense of identity and learn that they can rely on others when they need to.

Interesting, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with government agencies and their employees? Many leaders believe it has everything to do with their work. Some police and fire departments, for example, invest considerable time and effort in teaching their new recruits about their profession’s culture and how it developed. At the U.S. Naval Academy, seniors are urged to take plebes on “history-building exercises” by visiting places of historic importance to the Navy and telling stories of those moments and what they meant.

At the National Security agency, new employees are brought on their first day to NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. They learn the history of cryptology (the study and deciphering of codes) and the enormous contribution it has made in warfare and in preventing wars. They also learn the story of how NSA came to be. Then the employees are told that they are needed to help the NSA tackle the huge challenges it faces. Finally, they take their oath to the Constitution and are reminded that the oath is to the nation, giving them a larger sense of purpose.

Veteran employees of an agency can benefit from hearing its story as well. I once consulted with a municipal social-services department that was going through an enormous change: Staff were transitioning from being subject-matter experts in one narrow field to being multi-skilled generalists who had to know something about many areas. Naturally, the agency’s workers were filled with anxiety.

We brought in a respected, recently retired colleague of theirs to talk with the staff. She discussed the conditions that led to their former roles and the many contributions the staff had made. She also reminded them that part of their department’s story was that it had gone through a number of major changes in the past decade or more and had always managed them well. Indeed, she pointed out, staffers had developed a “whatever-it-takes” attitude toward change.

The retiree had the workers talk about what they valued in their former organizational structure and what they would miss. Then she finished by acknowledging the huge challenge facing them, and expressed her confidence that they would rise to that challenge. “I know who you are,” she told them. “I know that you’ll manage this change very well, because it’s right for our clients. And that’s always been our compass, doing what our clients need.” The agency’s staff members accepted the challenge and regained their confidence.

Does your staff know your organization’s story? Do you?

2 comments on “Public Employees and the Path to Resilience

  1. Terry Newell says:

    Your post reminds me of how the Marines use stories to build both resilience and a commitment to Corps values. They call them “sea stories” (the Marines are part of the Navy), and leaders are expected to tell stories to build the Corps. I also think of organizations in which there is an abundance of negative rather than positive stories. Interestingly, to back up your blog, I also find these organizations to lack resilience.

  2. Lillian V. Ney, M.D. says:

    Really good, as usual Russ. Your posts are spot on. Hope all is well. We are fine, busy, and wondering why our summer is going so fast. All the best, L

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