From a culture of resilience to a superhero culture

Understanding the long term impact of the pandemic on organisational culture

Little did we all know at the start of the Covid pandemic how much our leadership resilience would be tested in the years to come. Overnight, many businesses across the planet had to rethink their strategy and approach, which took stamina and continued resilience to stay ahead of the game in extremely challenging circumstances.

Resilience can be defined as “the ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress and adversity.”¹ This means that stressful life events such as a global pandemic, trauma, and chronic adversity can have a substantial impact on brain function and structure which can result in the creation of new neural circuits and pathways. Basically, it helps you to adapt more quickly and hopefully get smarter over time.

So, it is no wonder that resilience has been the focus of so much leadership development and executive coaching before the pandemic as we all stumbled along in our understanding of what it takes to successfully navigate the VUCA world.

In my work over the past two years, I saw how executives took on this unforeseen challenge by exercising their resilience, and by working long hours and weekends to keep their businesses afloat. This period was undeniable proof that resilience is a highly useful and necessary skill for navigating and surviving uncertainty.

But, what happens when we overuse our resilience? What I’ve seen time and again as an executive coach is that the very thing that catapulted someone forward and helped them succeed in the face of adversity, then ends up becoming a hindrance or limitation for what comes next.

The overuse of resilience is what I see as the growing trend of the super-hero work culture. A culture where you get rewarded for the 16 hour days, where you gain a badge of honour for being someone who is willing to give up their vacation time for the sake of the latest business crisis. A culture that is expecting more and more from its executives and employees, where everything is urgent and nothing gets de-prioritised. Where expectations of what is possible, based on the herculean efforts seen during the pandemic, are now the new normal, and no one seems to be questioning this ever-increasing pressure or expressing concern about the impact it may be having.

Repeated stress and adversity can help create new neural pathways in the brain, but it can also lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other psychiatric disorders. I am personally concerned about the long-term impact this new trend is having in our workplaces.

When will we start to slow down again and give ourselves the break that our bodies and minds need to function healthily in the world? According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology², it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit, and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. So, after more than 2 years of being in a reactionary mode to the pandemic, and all working like superheroes, are we too late?

My hope, which I have started to see the early signs of happening, is that as the smoke starts to clear and we all continue to meet in person, it will be strikingly obvious that we all look completely worn out, totally spent, and in need of some serious recovery time. That people realise it is time to start to celebrate our achievements of the past few years, honour all of the hard work and dedication everyone has put in, and collectively take a foot off the gas, just a little. Admit to each other that we aren’t all superheroes, that we are vulnerable, fragile humans who have just been through one of the biggest global challenges we have faced in our lifetime, and that it has taken its toll on us all. Maybe then, we can turn our super-hero work cultures into super-real work cultures and all stop pretending that everything is fine.

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Batman in the citySources:
¹Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim, J. J., Calderon, S., Charney, D. S., et al. (2013). Understanding resilience

² Lally, P., van Jaarself, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., Wardle, J (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world