Cultivating Resilience

Cultivating Resilience

safety resilienceWhen I think of resilience one of the metaphors I would never associate with it would be engineering. Resilience is a human (social psychological), evolutionary and organic ‘way of being’. The idea of imposing a mechanistic mindset on resilience just doesn’t make sense. Humans create systems as a process of organizing and it seems odd that the safety industry so often speaks about how humans serve systems. Humans create systems to manage change, uncertainty, equivocality and ambiguity and when turbulence comes, it’s not the system that adapts but rather humans that adapt the system. The idea that resilience is about systems or engineering is simply strange. Machines can be replaced and systems can be changed but when humans and communities fall apart recovery is often slow, painful and scars remain. Why is it that the safety industry turns to these mechanistic mindsets to try an understand safety and humans?

The study of resilience is fairly new. In the 1970s pioneering researchers in developmental psychology began to take interest in: positive outcomes in the face of high risk, stress, failure, trauma and maturation in children. However, psychology has been interested in resilience since Freud. Freud noted the remarkable capacity of humans to triumph over adversity, even on the way to their execution. He witnessed ‘gallows humour’ and described it as the ‘victorious assertion of human vulnerability’. We know that Ned Kelly accepted his death when he stated ‘such is life’. In the early publications on resilience the focus was on adaptation in the process of development particularly when children were exposed to shock, distress and vulnerability. The study of children from war zones and refugees became a strong interest and revealed fascinating results on the nature of resilience.

Resilience is best defined as the capability for positive adaptation.

If risk is to make sense then resilience elevates the probability of a positive outcome in the face of uncertainty. Resilience (and learning) is the flip side of risk.

In the engineering mindset resilience is perceived as a form of ‘control’ but in the social psychology of risk, resilience is perceived as the capability for learning and adjustment. The idea of control maintains the delusion that one knows what’s coming next, those who are resilient know they don’t know what is coming next but know how to adapt to it. If safety engineering and safety systems thinking continue to impose a mechanistic assumption on the safety industry then risk will continue to focus on ‘resilience as control’ rather than ‘resilience as positive adaptation’. The outcome will be the continuation of paperwork and the expansion of systems in search of rationalist control.

The key to understanding resilience is to look at how people adapt in the face of adversity moreso, how social arrangements assist the adaptation process. Humans are fundamentally social beings, this is how we get our meaning, belonging and identity, there is no ‘I’ only ‘i-thou’.

A number of models of resilience come to mind, these are: additive, interactive and indirect models of resilience. The additive model of resilience understands the ‘more is good less is bad’ and understands ‘compensatory effects’ on resilience. This model looks at boosting positive contributing factors to resilience and reducing negative risk factors to manipulate a more positive outcome. The interactive model understands resilience as moderated through ‘protective and vulnerability factors’. This model has a focus on the enduring qualities of the individual and community in which they are situated. A healthy loving community is the moderating factor despite the volume of turbulence the individual has to face. Interventions that attempt to improve how communities respond to threat are based on this model. The indirect model tends to operate more on faith, understanding that adjustment and ‘bricolage’ (Weick) in itself ‘enacts’ (Weick) new environments that cannot predict outcomes. That is, the environment itself creates unforeseen dynamics that foster resilience. These three models tend to foster three approaches to fostering resilience: risk aversion, asset increase and process facilitation.

At the height of the Canberra Bushfires in 2003, when all systems were down, most communications were down and there were insufficient resources (police, fire trucks etc), people just came together. In the face of adversity, people who didn’t know each other, cared for each other, it was a remarkable Canberra experience. People in the weeks after the event remarked just how amazing it was that this sometimes ‘cold’, politics-focused and designed city came together. At the evacuation center where I was located no one had done this before, this was never an expectation or a drill. We didn’t become resilient by measurement, mechanization or predictive risk assessment exercises. We saw each other and offered comfort, care and mutual understanding. This kind of stuff isn’t ‘engineered’ or ‘manufactured’, it ‘grows organically’ in the face of normal drivers towards individualism, indifference and insular asset-focused living. When your assets are destroyed, you tend to put life into some perspective, the fortress doesn’t look that strong anymore and the vulnerabilities of human fallibility and frailty come clearly into view. In the middle of the bushfires, even if all assets were returned to you, this would not have taken away your sense of vulnerability and fragility.

It was Weick that stated that people in organising should be far more focused on resilience than controls in safety. Commitment to resilience is one of Weick’s 5 factors for Collective Mindfulness. This is why a fixation on zero, perfectionism and absolutes is so dangerous, creating a mindset focused on control and infallibility. Rather than focus on improvisation and imagination, the zero paradigm has its focus on control and counting, then when a surprise comes along things fall apart and the capability for adaptability is weak, zero has been looking in the wrong place for resilience.

A commitment to resilience is based on the assumption that the unexpected is unpredictable and random. Anything that drives learning (through weak reporting) underground, like the demand for zero, limits the cultivation of resilience. How much does your organisation talk about adaptability, imagination and learning?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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