About religion, science and superstition: Agility and resilience for managers

Posted on 07-02-2018

Agility and Resilience for Managers Bram Doolaege StreetwiZe

Nowadays, raising religion as a discussion topic at a party doesn’t exactly seem to be the most effective means of winning the hearts, let alone the souls, of your company. We see churches emptying all over Europe and the influence of the Catholic doctrine on its members rapidly waning. Since religion has disappeared, we as human beings are, of course, diligently looking for alternative explanations for the questions and difficulties of life such as insecurity, injustice and suffering. 

Avoiding black cats

The first possibility is that we strengthen our belief in science to reduce the uncertainties regarding life. Science links a phenomenon to an explanation by following a well-defined process. That takes a lot of effort and therefore some people resort to superstition. Unlike science, superstition is based on inexplicable ’hidden forces’, such as misfortune, which are difficult to control, except by performing certain acts such as avoiding black cats. Two Gallup studies and a survey by CBS news from 2012 show that about 50% of the American population is superstitious. For example, 17% of Americans believe in wearing a lucky cap and 10% ask for a different floor when their booked room appears to be on the 13th floor. This shows that human behaviour often arises from the interpretation of a situation.  Unfortunately, it is not just a question of avoiding ladders and black cats.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Also in our everyday lives, as a group and individual, our behaviour is often influenced positively or negatively by assumptions and interpretations. ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ is the starting point of the Thomas Theorem sociological theory.  Psychological research into the self-fulfilling prophecy has repeatedly shown that the assumptions on which we base ourselves, lead to positive as well as negative behavioural changes, both at school and in the workplace. This is illustrated by the well-known ‘Pygmalion effect’: when someone has high expectations of a particular group – for example, a class teacher – this will result in a better performance of that group.  The opposite unfortunately is also true, and we know it as the ‘Golem effect’. When a manager has low expectations of an employee, he or she will unconsciously change his or her behaviour and thus negatively affect that employee’s behaviour.  Unfortunately we are too often guilty of having a conformity bias. For example, we actively search for information that validates our assumptions, while ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs. 

Rapidly changing and disruptive times

It is this predictable irrationality, as Dan Ariely describes so beautifully, which is already the key challenge for organisations and the managers who work in them.  We assume that we live in rapidly changing and disruptive times and therefore we take action that can help us deal with that high speed.
However when we look at the figures, it actually turns out better than expected with those rapidly changing and disruptive times. There are no more newcomers than there were three years ago, the classic companies continue to exist, product portfolios do not change more quickly and the number of years that people work for different companies remains quite constant. Furthermore, the irony is that 25 years ago, the end of a long career with the same employer was predicted in a similar discourse, while the research does not (entirely)  support this assumption. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, we are avoiding information that contradicts the prevailing view. So we all share the story of the rapidly changing, unpredictable and uncontrollable professional world. In this way, we are unconsciously maintaining a climate of fear.

Agility and Resilience

As a remedy, various organisations introduced two concepts in their strategic objectives: agility and resilience. And this is where the second sticking point arises, because from our negative assumptions about the professional environment, these concepts are usually interpreted as ‘the quick reaction to changes’. We will therefore continue to invest a great deal of energy in reactive actions that will maintain the illusion of an ever-changing and uncontrollable world.

Two initiatives to not become paralysed

Of course, there are challenges today. Under the guise of efficiency, we literally give up our sleep, we seem to be fused with our mobile phones, which means we don’t find peace and the number of burn-outs is increasing noticeably. Instead of becoming paralysed by these problems, we should learn to deal with them in an efficient way, so let us launch two initiatives.
The first is to use a framework of critical thinking so we can challenge and adjust our assumptions in a more pro-active way. This is one of the components of agility. Agility can be defined as ‘the knowledge and ability to respond efficiently and accurately to both expected and unexpected changes in needs’. Or even larger than this: ‘organisational agility’ is the ability of a company to detect changes in its environment and to respond to them efficiently and effectively by, among other things, dealing intelligently with information. Sound knowledge acquisition and processing are therefore important antecedents of agility.
Secondly, we must work towards a solid, well-founded and, above all, pragmatic understanding of our ability to deal with real challenges and difficulties. This is the starting point of resilience, which we can define as ‘the ability to provide an appropriate response to setbacks’. After all, research has shown that resilience reduces the impact of stress feelings and burn-out.
How we can work with these two initiatives, as an organisation or as an individual, is discussed in the next article. Hopefully this text will inspire you to refine your critical thinking.

By Bram Doolaege