Researchers have uncovered a key component of organizational agility, and it’s not what you might expect. A study by Elaine Pulakos and Rob Kaiser published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research (2019) reveals stability as an essential part of agility. This finding seems counterintuitive—isn’t agility all about change? Yes, but organizations need a solid foundation of stability upon which change can occur — especially during challenging times.
Agility and Stability
The topic of agility, an organization’s ability to adapt and respond to environmental changes and evolving needs, is extremely timely. During this article’s writing, the world faces a global pandemic, and no sector is immune to its effects on staff, clients, finances, and daily operations. COVID-19 has turned our organizations upside down and shaken them out.
For many, the situation feels anything but stable. However, agile leaders are always looking for the opportunity hidden in adversity. In that spirit, we should consider that the fallout from COVID presents a chance for organizational leaders to look closely at the pieces on the floor and figure out how to put everything back together to equip us for challenging times and opportunities during “normal” times. One way to do that is by focusing on establishing stability now in our organizations to be more agile in the future.
Four ways to create stability for agility in challenging times
Pulakos’ and Kaiser’s research shows that stability creates a solid foundation upon which change can occur. In this sense, stability refers to a psychological state where employees trust their leadership and the organization and feel safe in their jobs. The research indicates that there are specific measures leaders can take to instill stability in their organizations. Four of them are: developing and communicating concrete plans, ensuring that adequate resources are available, reassuring staff about the security of their jobs, and letting employees experiment.
1. Develop and share clear plans for the path forward.
When leadership isn’t communicating plans in disruptive times, employees tend to assume the worst. To combat this, Pulakos & Kaiser suggest consistent, frequent communication of status, goals, and progress. Doing so will instill faith that managers are competently leading everyone toward a light at the end of the uncertainty tunnel.
2. Get everyone what they need to do their jobs.
When employees are already stressed out and overwhelmed, a lack of adequate resources adds fuel to the fire. The researchers recommend decreasing staff demands and increasing resources (time, energy, stuff, and money) wherever possible. This one might not seem likely for nonprofits that regularly struggle with resources. However, replacing burned-out nonprofit staff will be costlier in the end than finding creative ways to cut costs and direct more resources to employees.
3. Reassure your staff that their jobs are safe (but be honest).
Leaders can’t expect employees to focus on hitting their performance measures if they’re unsure they’ll have a paycheck soon. Pulakos and Kaiser say to affirm job security during uncertain times when you can but to be realistic. Managers must dance between telling the truth and encouraging optimism about the future. If leaders overpromise and underdeliver, trust—an essential aspect of stability—will diminish. Hard truths are more stabilizing than false promises, and over-communication is better than saying nothing at all.
4. Let employees experiment—and even fail.
Finally, leaders would benefit from a bit more flexibility amid uncertainty. During challenging times, the inclination might be to become more rigid and constricted—to go into survival mode. On the contrary, trying times are a chance to let employees exercise a little creative freedom and try some things. The innovation that results might help the organization level up out of a rough patch. On the other hand, the experiment might fail too, and managers need to be okay with that. Employees feel safe to take intentional risks when they know they won’t be punished if it doesn’t work out.
COVID will end, but nonprofits will always face pressures. We are, after all, attempting to solve many of society’s most significant problems. So, rather than resisting challenging times, we can aim to be more agile in preparation for them. Research published in a 2018 McKinsey Quarterly Report shows that when agile organizations experience pressure, performance not only sustains but improves. Even during challenging times, striving for stability is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor for nonprofit leaders and their organizations’ future.
Pulakos, E. D., Kantrowitz, T., & Schneider, B. (2019). What leads to organizational agility: It’s not what you think. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 71(4), 305-320. doi:10.1037/cpb0000150