Ama Marston FRSA argues that the recent scandals facing Facebook and Save the Children are just two examples that highlight the growing need for skills that can turn disruptive change into opportunities for growth and innovation.
Save the Children, one of the largest recipients of British aid, will forego Government funding while the Charity Commission conducts its investigation into allegations of misconduct and harassment against some senior staff. As yet, it is unclear what impact this will have on the charity’s programs in various countries. Meanwhile, dissatisfied by the quality of answers provided by the Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer to the digital, culture, media, and sport select committee on the collection and misuse of user data, MPs have threatened to summon CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to attend a hearing the next time he sets foot on British soil. Some of those MPs have now called Facebook a “morality free zone”.
These cases highlight serious systemic problems. Yet, having undertaken extensive research on ‘Type Rs’ – the resilient businesses and organisations, as well as individuals, leaders and communities – that turn challenges into opportunities, I believe they hold the possibility for positive change.
Type Rs cultivate transformative resilience in themselves and others. They adopt a mindset that, while firmly rooted to core purpose, is able to listen to dissenters and continually learn. These are all critical factors in not only navigating crises and disruptions but in creating innovation and next iterations of organisations. A collective Type R mindset unites a group of people in their shared ability to reframe adversity and use it as an opportunity to learn, grow and innovate. This provides organisations with the confidence to accept the changes and problems they face. It allows them to collaborate, reframe, and acquire new skills and knowledge, as well as taking action to strengthen their internal culture and their approaches to external-facing challenges in the wider world.
Tim Vogus of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University has researched high-pressure yet highly reliable organisations: hospitals, fire stations, and nuclear power plants. He found that the key to resilience and growth was not technocratic responses but an organisation’s overarching culture; one that displayed confidence that together they would weather challenges. A collective belief – among a business, a community, or even a nation – that you can withstand a challenge allows you to not just survive hardship, but to thrive in the face of it and use it to create new possibilities.
In the face of crises and upheaval it is often the voices from the perimeters of organisations – the dissenters, questioners, or those most confronted with inequity – who if listened to can help organisations to evolve and avoid some of the kinds of challenges we see today. For example, the National Health Service (NHS), which faces monumental challenges as well as opportunities has stressed the need to look to the ‘edge’ of organisations for leadership to increase diversity of thought, radical thinking, faster change, and better outcomes.
In contrast, for several years Facebook’s security experts reportedly tried to raise data protection issues. They apparently went unheeded and ultimately left the company. Even when the data breach issue came to light in 2015 these issues were not appropriately addressed. Likewise, the inadequate response of Save the Children’s leadership to allegations of sexual harassment over a period of several years, has resulted in the issue snowballing and threatening its credibility and financial stability
In a world that requires open, creative thinking in the face of increasing disruptions, leaders who create organisational cultures where conflict, dissent, and alternative narratives or perspectives are not welcome, are likely to see groups conform in ways that cripple them with uncritical thinking or that allow for bias or abuse. Whereas, people and organisations with a strong sense of purpose use their values as their compass to keep them on course regardless of the chaos, confusion, or challenges they face. Type R organisations maintain a vision of what truly matters and a clear focus on what their work is about. Perhaps most importantly, they make a larger contribution and serve a broader social purpose.
It is not lost on analysts and tech leaders that while Facebook’s stated purpose is to connect people, its users (or rather their data) have become its product. Equally troubling is the fact that a charity with a mission to protect children has had systemic abuse of women. Both these organisations show clear signs of a crisis of purpose and a need to realign their mission and the daily realities of their operations.
Researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Washington business schools recently found that one of the most important factors differentiating companies that thrived in the midst of crisis from those that didn’t was a focus on the greater good. The researchers surveyed 140 businesses across a range of industries. Those that engaged with their wider community and took action that benefitted a group beyond their own during hardship showed better growth rates over a five-year period, including during the 2008 financial crisis.
It is too early to tell what Facebook and Save the Children will become and if they will choose a path of purpose, integrity and transformative resilience but the future they create very much depends on the choices they make at this critical juncture. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you cannot fix a problem with the same thinking that created it.
Ama Marston (FRSA) is a strategy and leadership expert and author of Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World.