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Building a resilient organization

September 18, 2012
by David J. Powell, PhD
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 By any measure, these are stressful times for helping organizations. Budgets are being cut, we are operating short-staffed, and more clients need intensive services. Increasing pressure on addiction treatment programs to serve more people with fewer resources means an epidemic of burnout, staff turnover, dissatisfaction and internal conflict. In 2009, organizational psychology expert Lillian Eby, PhD, found in Project MERITS that the majority of staff in addiction treatment systems intended to quit their jobs in the next year but were not optimistic about finding another job in the field.

The key to survival in the coming years will be to develop resilient organizations. Individuals in the workplace vary in how resilient they are, but it is their collective resilience that should be of concern here. Collective resilience occurs when those in caregiving organizations join together in meaningful ways to share information, solve problems, make sense of what they are going through, and support one another. This collaboration and support will determine which organizations thrive and which barely survive.

What is needed now is not simply strategic leadership, although that surely helps. Effective managers enable staff to join together to reflect on their experiences in their roles, to express rather than act out, to protect against strong negative emotions and anxiety, and to develop productive mechanisms for managing stressors.

Management through engagement


The first step is to create the conditions for engagement. Ask yourself: How safe is my workplace? Stephen Covey’s 2005 book The Speed of Trust emphasizes the importance of safety and trust in a workplace. Is yours a high- or low-trust organization?


Resilience is created when individuals absorb, express, reflect on and learn from their emotions at work. A sense of safety allows people to be vulnerable and to take risks in exploring their emotions.


Engagement happens in various forums: clinical supervision, team meetings, management staffing, case management, etc. Three conditions are required to have an engaged staff: clear task assignments, appropriate roles and use of authority, and boundary setting. When these conditions are met, staff will engage with one another in examining the emotional undercurrents at work and in rendering negative emotions ineffective.


Defining roles


In the second step, supervisors and managers need to monitor the staff’s primary tasks, consistently examining the extent to which members’ efforts are on task. This is a time, as never before, for clinical supervisors’ direct observation of counselors in action with clients. Supervisors need to teach staff about the reasonable limits to what the agency might accomplish with the populations served, while still retaining hope on clients’ behalf.


Roles need to be clearly delineated. A first-rate supervisor hires first-rate people and lets them do their job. A second-rate supervisor hires third-rate people and micromanages them. Rather than blame staff when they are off task, an effective leader examines why this is occurring and how the agency was unable to remain on task.