Building Resilience Through Organizational Habits: Dispatches from the Bellagio Center Thematic Month on Human Behavior

Oct 24, 2016 | By Saugato Datta and Nicki Cohen in Blog

During the Thematic Month on Human Behavior at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, the Foundation and ideas42 brought together 13 academics, artists, and practitioners to apply a behavioral lens to the broader exploration of resilience and inclusive economies, the Foundation’s two strategic goals. Leading a month-long residency that gathered the best and brightest to specifically focus on exploring human behavior was particularly interesting to us at ideas42. We know from our own work in behavioral science that individual habits can mean the difference between struggle and dramatic success in all aspects of our lives, from getting good grades to keeping physically fit and healthy, to thriving at work and being ‘highly effective’ in any number of areas. We also know that context is important in understanding human behavior, so as you might expect given the residents’ diverse backgrounds, conversation throughout the month often led to deep debate and new discovery. We were particularly intrigued by discussions about what happens when individual habits come together to form organizational habits—and how that is a key factor in building resilience.

All organizations have cultures—norms, routines, or sets of practices they regularly engage in, from use (or disuse) of the company vacation policy to protocols related to the patient hand-off process in a hospital. Just as with individual tendencies, understanding these sorts of organizational habits presents opportunities to promote positive behaviors, improve outcomes, and build resilience. Of course, at the heart of organizational habits are individual ones, and research suggests that actively nurturing several key habits among employees at the individual and group level, like giving voice to concerns, proactively seeking alternative perspectives, and building organizational mindfulness, can increase an organization’s resilience, improving its ability to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of both shocks and chronic stresses.

It’s important to note that resilience isn’t only about the ability to recover after crisis or adversity; it also means agility and adaptability to unexpected twists in daily life. A perfect example of an occupation for which this is especially critical is wildland firefighting. Firefighters work in a risky and constantly unpredictable environment where the ability to change course instantly based on small cues is paramount to success, and can also mean the difference between life and death.

The habits and culture of firefighting teams influence whether they reevaluate the situation and change course when needed. For example, you might think that if several members of the team notice a warning sign, the group will adjust their course of action to suit it. But research conducted by Bellagio Resident Kathleen Sutcliffe suggests that noticing these small cues isn’t enough – teams were far more likely to have good outcomes if a member articulated their concern and its possible implications (even when everyone else already saw the same signs). Teams where members voice concerns and actively seek alternative perspectives have more successful outcomes than teams that do not because they are more likely to redirect ongoing action in a beneficial way.

Another instance where habits make a big difference is during the patient hand-off process between doctors on rounds in a hospital, where the patient’s health depends both on a successful transfer of information and on a shared understanding of hypothetical emerging concerns. The STICC (Situation, Task, Intent, Concern, Calibrate) framework is a communication tool that aims to ensure that the hand-off team fully understands the patient’s needs and potential issues—in a sense, building the organizational mindfulness of the team. Researchers have found that using more elements of STICC is associated with significantly better health outcomes for patients, such as shorter stays and lower rates of complications.

Kathleen’s work that was explored in the Bellagio residency month shows some of the ways organizational practices can help prepare workers on the ground for unpredictable and high-risk environments, and this perspective was an invaluable addition to the conversations surrounding resilience at the Bellagio Center. Inspired by artists and fellow residents during the Thematic Month like Ruby Rumie and Vibha Galhotra, who base much of their work on creating meaning from rituals, Kathleen re-affirmed her belief that future research should explore the emotional and relational aspects of building resilience rather than focusing only on cognitive aspects. As she noted, most work on system and organizational resilience is anchored in processes for retaining and building knowledge, learning, problem solving capabilities, and repertoires of action. But underlying the cognitive processes associated with resilience are relational systems—patterns of relating and interacting with one another that influence how actions are carried out. These relational patterns involve varying degrees of care, empathy, respect, and encouragement. Because the process of becoming more resilient consists of interdependent coordinative work, it matters how people involved relate to and connect with one another. Adversity and the distress it triggers can disrupt and weaken these connections. That is why relational systems must be fortified. The types of rituals designed by Ruby and Vibha shift the collective focus from what we are doing to how we are relating; they create a space for people to develop stronger attachments and resilient patterns of relating.

The role of relational systems in building resilience in organizations was one of many insights to come out of the Thematic Month on Human Behavior. This type of realization demonstrates the value created by bringing together academics, artists, and practitioners to share their work and challenge one another’s thinking. As the residents continue to advance their own work and collaborate with one another, we look forward to the additional insights to come.