Johns Hopkins Study Finds ‘Resilience-in-Action’ Is Key to Team Success, Whether in Backwoods or Business

The backwoods and business offices seem worlds apart. But a sport in which competing teams navigate wilderness courses on hiking boots, mountain bikes, and boats has provided a Johns Hopkins University researcher with a context for studying how organizations handle adversity.

Whether in the wild or a corporate tower, teams that practice “resilience-in-action” – not just bearing the shocks of extreme situations but also finding ways to persevere and even improve – are poised to emerge as winners, says Kathleen Sutcliffe, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor who specializes in organization theory and holds appointments at JHU’s Carey Business School and School of Medicine.

Resilience has become even more critical to professional organizations, Sutcliffe adds, in light of threats posed by terrorism, computer hacking, climate change, social media firestorms, and other modern-day calamities.

The sport of expedition racing (also known as adventure racing) afforded Sutcliffe and co-author Michelle Barton, an assistant professor at Boston University, a framework for assessing in detail “how teams of people absorb adversity and maintain functioning within a dynamic and challenging context. Adversity in expedition racing is ongoing, and resilient organizing is required for success,” explains Sutcliffe, who also has conducted research on the organizational lessons to be learned from teams that fight wildfires.

The authors say their paper explores new ground by regarding crisis less in the traditional research view, which sees it as a singular event whose causes and aftermath are most worth examining. Rather, they looked at a crisis as a continuous disruption during which organization members’ responses can lead to success or failure.

For their study, the authors conducted post-race interviews of about an hour with each of 103 athletes. The participants constituted 53 teams that took part in six expedition races lasting from one to three days. Sutcliffe and Barton gathered additional data by observing four of the races and reading race websites and logs.

They found that the more successful teams developed resilience through the processes of “drift management” and “meaning management.”

Teams that managed drift well paid close attention to changes in the race course. Just as…

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