Building Resilience

2 Apr

The first time a significant loss occurs in someone’s life it comes as a shock, and psychologically a person can be left wondering how they are going to cope. Whether this loss is a job, a relationship, an idea which held so much promise, the feeling of uncertainty and damage is severe as an expectancy of the future is destroyed. The reason these initial losses are so damaging is simple- lack of experience. The lack of previous exposure to shocks produces overconfidence in how future events will play out. When this confidence is tested, the lack of previous exposure means lack of alternative options or coping mechanisms- previous expectations had become routine\ custom, so there was never any need for options. The ability to deal and bounce back from something never encountered before is a form of resilience and everyone needs it-no matter how secure circumstances feel, our view of the world has a shelf life, and we need options.

The same holds true for an organisation or a community, when tradition, routine or culture comes under severe challenge due to rapid external or internal changes. In my mind, every person and collective of people need to be able to risk assess, it leads to adaption rather than demise. Whole communities, dependant on a single industry have been destroyed by rapid economic changes and never recovered- this could be defined as risk neglect, and it’s understandable, but counterproductive.

It’s very comforting to hold faith in the present, or believe you have a clear idea of the future; but, as Taleb (2012) observed, risk is in the future, not in the past and you can’t wish it away. Taleb’s comment highlights the fallacy we naturally fall into, that is, rare events always happen somewhere else. This thinking is counter resilient, it narrows focus and places overconfidence in any model, vision, policy or person who claims the future is controllable; communities and organisations cannot fall into this way of thinking, doing so takes on board toxic amounts of hidden risk. In order to avoid this way of thinking, I’ll introduce critical incident scenarios as one means of building risk based resilience, contextualised within a community; but essentially the aim is to increase safe exposure to risk, thereby reducing the negative effects of shock.

A critical incident scenario is effectively a case study, carried out with groups of individuals, which challenges expectations and feelings of security. It achieves this by taking a communal belief or plan and rewriting them as catastrophes. Respondents are asked how they would deal with the fictional catastrophe and the results reveal a) the level of problem solving skills, indicating the richness of mental models people have available when confronted with risks, and b) the resources people perceive they have access to in order to cope with risks. Levels of data are very interesting in these types of exercises. Sometimes small amounts of data (respondents say very little) can be very telling in terms of how people perceive change-the mental models people apply to thinking about the subject are very inexperienced; they literally have nothing to say about it, so broadening the mental model can be an immediate goal.

The above highlights two key themes for dealing with unexpected risks- the ability to problem solve, as oppose to taking a passive stance during enforced change, and the available option to access networks which supply emotional support and resources. There is more to building resilience than what is written here, but it’s a start.

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