Two Lessons for Building a Resilient Organization

When the first U.S. patient to contract Ebola was admitted to a Texas hospital in 2014, the hospital had no idea it needed to be on alert to respond to something happening a world away. When Thomas Duncan reported he felt better, they sent him home. Sadly, he returned to the hospital in a rapid state of decline, and his case ultimately proved fatal. Two nurses contracted Ebola during treatment, and the hospital mass tested everyone immediately. The nurses recovered, and the virus was contained. Luckily, Ebola didn’t spread as readily as COVID-19.

In a 2017 article from University of Houston’s Business School, Dr.’s Elizabeth Anderson-Fletcher and Dusya Vera set out to examine the hospital’s response from start to finish. Though their findings did not prevent the outbreak of COVID-19, they do provide important lessons for organizations facing the threat of a sudden change. The actions of the medical team and the hospital were the types all employees and businesses make, especially in a time of crisis, and we can learn a lot by taking a closer look at the lessons learned. Resilience requires being on alert, making decisions quickly and acting fast through ongoing adversity.  Here are two important lessons that will help keep all our organizations and staff surviving.

Lesson 1: Resilience Requires Attention + Awareness.

Even though Ebola had been a significant global crisis for ten months, the doctors and nurses overlooked Duncan’s case as a possibility because there hadn’t yet been one in the United States. A brief note from a nurse mentioned Duncan’s travel, but there wasn’t a sufficient red flag system to ensure the medical team would attend to it or that the hospital was aware to implement a hold policy for patients traveling from Ebola hotspots.

What We Can Learn: Our tendency is to move fast and rely on habits and past experiences. In Thinking, Fast And Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about the importance of habits to preserve mental energy. Mental energy is finite and it’s not possible to deliberate over everything. This can cause us to overlook things that are important and directly in front of us. By paying more attention and being more broadly aware, people can minimize letting auto-pilot win over significant new information.

Attention + Awareness in Action: Though we’ve all learned this lesson again with COVID-19, some organizations are demonstrating attention and awareness early enough. At the outset of the pandemic, the cycling gym Cyclebar East Cob, like all gyms, faced layoffs and total shutdown. Unlike other gyms, Cyclebar looked deliberately at the responses of companies beyond gyms, and they devised a new plan. They reached out to gym members and rented their stationary bikes and equipment directly to them, delivering the sterilized machines by hand.

Lesson 2: Resilience Requires Group Accountability.

Once the US Ebola case was spotted by the media, the organization went on the defensive and publicly blamed the nursing staff.  It took the nursing union stepping in swiftly and severely for the key stakeholders to apologize and get back to the problem solving at hand. Had the Ebola outbreak worsened, the hospital and key professions would have been at odds with each other as they faced a heightening crisis.

What We Can Learn: Placing blame creates an “us versus them” mentality within organization walls and focuses attention unhealthily on the past rather than how to proceed now.  A resilient culture would encourage doctors, and nurses to notice and talk about errors safely, quickly, and openly, and empower supervisors to assist frontline staff to solve problems together and in the moment. Suspending traditional hierarchy during a crisis allows from direct counsel with those who offer expertise regardless of official title. Group accountability builds trust, communication, and respect across teams and various levels of expertise, and shifts everyone’s focus to the entire situation going forward.

Group Accountability in Action: Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity, a company that processes payments for small businesses, found his company in dire straits these last two months as their small business customers suffered. Price held an all-company meeting in which he openly shared company finances and the kind of cuts necessary to survive without layoffs. Then, he met with employees one at a time for a week straight to discuss potential solutions. As a company, they developed a private form where each employee wrote down what they would feasibly be able to sacrifice in terms of a pay cut in order to help save the company. The system worked. Gravity didn’t lay anyone off, and they made cuts on each employee’s terms. By emphasizing group accountability, Price ensured a unanimous company solution.

Resilience Into Action:  Attention + Awareness + Accountability.

The 2014 Ebola crisis lessons each share a kind of tunnel vision and hastiness that ultimately led to bad decisions at key moments. We are all in our Zoom tunnels making hasty decisions, and we don’t yet know their ultimate impact. Next time you find yourself on autopilot or ready to cast blame, try stepping back instead of plunging in. Go for a walk, take a deep breath and consider your situation more broadly, more creatively, and together.

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