Culture, Risk, and Resilience

Guy Sapirstein, PhD

Recently (in the middle of a cold January), while conducting a vulnerability assessment at a housing development, I noticed a door being propped open. The maintenance manager explained that the door (which was supposed to be kept closed) was being kept open to allow warm air to flow into the stairwell. Due to a mechanical problem, the stairwell had not been receiving heat. Overall, I was not particularly worried about that specific issue: the facility was in good shape and he assured me that a contractor would be coming in to repair the problem. 

A few days later, we met with the owner of the property management company and reviewed the assessment.  I mentioned the above finding towards the end, since I did not want it to be forgotten.  The reaction of the owner gave me pause for thought, and put this issue into a whole new perspective.  He began to ask the maintenance manager about the specific details, clearly wanting to understand what the problem was.  He then insisted that the contractor be called that afternoon rather than waiting for the regularly scheduled maintenance call a week or two later.

Clearly, the perspectives of the owner and the maintenance manager were different. Those different perspectives resulted in a different sense of urgency leading to different courses of action. Those two perspectives reflected the difference in value systems between the owner and the maintenance manager. The owner was valuing a proactive approach and his insistence on not waiting was his way of communicating that value to his employee.  The maintenance manager was operating in a reactive approach and while not neglecting the problem did not experience the urgency the owner had.

Regardless of the specific details of this issue, those two approaches are quite common and typical.  Successful organizational leaders tend to be proactive.  Whether by experience or intuition, they know that risks come in many forms. Middle managers are often more reactive. Since middle managers operate under many constraints (financial/budget, competing priorities, dealing with senior managers and employees) they are often trying to keep many balls in the air and resort to being reactive.

This difference in approaches, illustrates how within one organization there are differences in values and cultural norms between senior management and the rest of the organization. In this case, the differences illustrated the two classic approaches to dealing with risk: being proactive versus being reactive. In addition, there are many other cultural elements in organizations that affect its ability to deal with risk. Information flow is one major category: How effectively is information communicated between (and within) levels in the organization? What is the culture around communicating negative (or bad) information? Are there known “blockages” or “black holes” where information is lost, or not followed up on?

These cultural issues, while often known, are rarely addressed systemically by organizations. It is not enough for senior management to believe in a certain cultural norm and/or insist that people should act in a certain way. The cultural norms and expectations need to be reinforced and rewarded as well as systemically (i.e. throughout the entire organization) and systematically (i.e. in a thorough and comprehensive way) implemented.

We know from research, that proactive organizations tend to do better than reactive organizations in coping with crisis and change. In other words, we know that certain cultural norms and values increase the organizations’ resilience. They do so through broadening everyone’s understanding of risk.  Those risks can be isolated like a blocked pipe or malfunctioning circuit, or more far-reaching, like poor collaboration, inconsistent information flow, or divergent expectations. Addressing those risks requires careful and deliberate implementation along with providing role models, allowing employees to be heard, and supporting middle management in the process of change.

Resilience and preparedness do not only apply to fires or other catastrophic events. To the contrary, resilient organizations have preparedness and crisis management already as part of the organizational culture.

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