While some institutional leaders ground talks about resilience in self-help recommendations, resilience is fundamentally about the systems people build. Strong resilience stems from feedback loops that help to restore or rebuild, but the strongest form of resilience is derived from feedback loops that support a system in learning and evolving.
On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to fail, leading to the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The New Yorker commissioned artist Christoph Niemann to create the cover for its magazine issue on the disaster. Described as "beautiful, morose, and symbolic at once," the commissioned art, titled "Dark Spring," captured deep insight into how humans make decisions about how to build systems.Footnote1 In an interview on Fresh Air with Terri Gross about how the idea for the cover art came to him, Niemann explained:
I cannot have an opinion of a tsunami. And The New Yorker cover is really about a statement, when an artist says there's something that happened and here's my take on it. And what can you say about . . . this force of nature that's just purely terrible and absolutely random in its destruction? . . . It was a human decision to put a nuclear power plant there . . . and now these two things of human action and natural disaster are coming together.Footnote2
A decade later, one could readily replace the radioactive symbols in Niemann's image with renderings of the COVID-19 virus. It has been not just one dark spring but a dark stretch for many, with reports of increased mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Amid a prolonged worldwide pandemic and other significant societal changes that are causing people great individual trauma, stress, and fatigue, many institutional policies and newsletters do not reflect a profound understanding of how our human decisions and system designs interact with a natural disaster but instead emphasize shallow self-help recommendations. Instructors, are you stressed about the possibility of getting a deadly disease or exposing your students or your family to the virus while also facing contentious politics over masks and vaccines and your course content, not to mention other stressors, such as changes to post-tenure review? Staff and students, are you worried about required in-person meetings and office presence or in-person courses that may expose you to a virus with known long-term cognitive and physical impacts, not to mention the possibility of passing it along to your loved ones? No worries! You've all read or heard about articles that include "employee, fix thyself" advice: "Deep breathe your way to resilience! "Follow these six steps to better manage your stress!" "Be sure to drink plenty of water and get lots of rest!" "Have friends, be optimistic, and interrupt your stress cycle!"Footnote3 In sharing a spot-on critique of one such article suggesting these sorts of strategies for cultivating resilience, Lyz Lynz observed that "maybe pathologizing resilience is a way of blaming individuals for problems created by a complete societal breakdown."Footnote4
Over the past few years, the term "resilience" has received a lot of abuse, battered to the point that some have argued the term should no longer be used at all. I concur with this sentiment as it is presently used in pop psychology self-help articles. However, as a systems thinker and designer, I cannot give up on the term—or the concept—so easily. Resilience is not actually about individuals, so the hyper-individualization of the concept that Lynz so rightly critiques is as inaccurate an understanding and application of the idea as current misuses of critical race theory.
Resilience is fundamentally a systems concept. In her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows explains that resilience is often misunderstood as resistance or strength in the face of adversity.Footnote5 Resilience stems not from being strong enough to withstand challenging circumstances but rather from flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Rich biodiversity allows a natural system to adjust and adapt through warmer and cooler years. When biodiversity is decreased in a system, it becomes more brittle. Meadows explains that a system gains its resilience from feedback loops within the system, and it acts on that feedback. Strong resilience is a result of well-established feedback loops that help a system (such as an institution or organization) to restore or rebuild, but the strongest resilience stems from feedback loops that support a system in learning and evolving.
Resilience is not simply about rebuilding; it is about creating, inventing, and designing or redesigning to better adapt and devise new solutions. In their book The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity, Michael Murphy and Jeffrey Mansfield provide many examples of this in health care contexts.Footnote6 The following design exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum include more examples of redesigning and adapting systems for evolving values and organizational resilience:
- The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity
- Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics
Architecture may provide a more tangible way to understand how we as humans construct environments and systems. Murphy and Mansfield's book traces the history of hospitals and changes to their designs over time as new medical discoveries, techniques, and specialties created different needs within the hospital structure. They also explore how values like the growing emphasis on patient dignity shaped space design and other systemic considerations, such as ventilation, lighting, and spacing. While adapting systems as we learn and evolve may seem abstract, the work of constructing our spaces and environments often takes very practical and tangible forms, as exemplified by the health care architecture examples.
In higher education, it's unclear just how much learning and evolving is taking shape.Footnote7 Pressures on individuals to "heal thyself" and "manage stress" so the system can "return to normal," even as it is clear the pandemic is ongoing and other significant social stressors are impacting individuals, suggest little adaptation—much less evolution. Exactly what principles or values are being prioritized as our systems are reimagined as part of the "new normal" is also unclear.
Building Better Systems of Care
Geary Rummler and Alan Brache wrote, "If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time."Footnote8 The idea of "employee, fix thyself" has been a common management principle for decades. As part of this management mindset, the go-to form of solutionism is an over-reliance on training to address everything from self-help and mindfulness to sexual harassment to diversity, equity, and inclusion to pedagogical practices to educational technologies to whatever gap du jour management is focused on. However, training is not a systemic solution; it is a specific type of solution targeted at fixing individuals. Because training addresses gaps in an individual's knowledge or skills, it starts with the assumption that a performance issue is rooted in the individual. There are times when individuals do indeed have gaps in knowledge or skills that require development. More often, it's just one dimension of the underlying causes. Other features of the system drive an individual's behavior and performance more than a lack of knowledge and skills do. Everyone has probably experienced this directly. A person may have the skills and knowledge to do something but may be inhibited by a disincentive in the system, institutional policies, or lack of resources. Tenure and promotion expectations and policies are massive drivers in higher education systems, incentivizing certain priorities and behaviors and disincentivizing others.
Note that I did not say "employee, fix thyself" is an effective management principle. Quite the contrary, a good half a century of evidence says that focusing on fixing individuals misses about 80 to 90 percent of the root causes of performance issues. Don Triner, Andre Greenberry, and Ryan Watkins note that "a training intervention is only required in one out of five performance problems," a number that is corroborated by other organizational performance researchers.Footnote9 The remaining 80-plus percent of the time, systemic features function as barriers to or enablers of performance, leading to the conclusion about performers in systems quoted at the beginning of this section.Footnote10 If individuals are being told nearly 100 percent of the time to fix themselves by subscribing to email newsletters, reading articles, and joining book clubs focused on self-help and meditation, then at least 80 percent of the problem space is being overlooked.
So, if you pit a good performer against a bad system, and the system wins almost every time, then the real question is not how do individuals fix themselves, but how do we build better systems?
Understanding the other 80 percent is a good place to start. Research on organizational and human performance improvement has repeatedly identified several common system features. These features can serve either as drivers or as barriers.Footnote11 The common systemic features that support or impede individual performance include reward and incentive structures, resources and support tools (usually a big one), policies (also a big one), job or task expectations and clarifications, communication and feedback loops, and skills and knowledge (the only things that are about the individual) (see figure 1). This framework is a good starting point when looking for specific ways to build support systems within higher education institutions. A systems framework like this is scalable, too, so it can be used for systems within a course, department, or program, at an institution, or at state or federal levels.
Policy: Institutional, state, or other policies are often among the largest drivers of individual behavior and performance. Reviewing policies can help higher education leaders pinpoint where opportunities for care exist within the system. For example, policies that require educators to be in-person regardless of their health conditions or risk losing income create conditions for stress and fatigue. During a pandemic or other local or social disruptions, already-stressed individuals can become even more physically, psychologically, and emotionally depleted. Providing individuals flexibility in managing the situation with more adaptive policies can go a long way toward helping them restore their reserves. Policies are human constructs, and we can always choose to get rid of them, revise them, or add new ones to improve a system as we learn their impacts.
Rewards & Incentives: Incentives encourage people to engage in certain behaviors, while disincentives encourage people to avoid certain behaviors. A policy that pits self-care against employment creates a serious disincentive for self-care and well-being. Policies restricting time off for illness or involving loss of income due to health care leave, for example, all contribute to poor health and well-being because they create disincentives for individuals to engage in the very sort of self-care promoted in newsletters and pamphlets. It's easy to understand how the calls to "fix thyself" are fundamentally cynical where disincentives for self-care exist.
Resources / Support Tools: Time and again, new initiatives go awry because a mandate or policy is not sufficiently resourced. While tools or devices may be among the first resources that come to mind (and for some initiatives, these are important), time is a critical resource in nearly every effort. In this context, time for individuals to renew and recharge is essential. One strategy that some K-12 school districts are using to help teachers take time for self-care and decompression is more half-days throughout the year.Footnote12 A similar effort is being undertaken by Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario. The university recently announced that all administrative support personnel would be moving to a four-day work week. This four-month pilot project to rethink employee time and the structure of work is aimed at reducing "fatigue and pressure on mental health."Footnote13 While certainly not fixes on their own, these are excellent examples of trying to create systemic conditions for individual resilience.
Job/Task Expectations & Clarifications: Often, change means that the nature of one's job is altered in some way. Tending to this by clarifying expectations can go a long way toward facilitating quality communication and feedback loops in a system. During the pandemic, many people learned that their work did not require them to be physically present on campus for some or most of the time. Many institutions are presently renegotiating the nature of job or task expectations, especially as they relate to on-site presence and remote or hybrid work. Other aspects of the job may be impacted as well. For example, how much external service is truly required, and what other job and task expectations might be adjusted to allow individuals either more flexibility or more time to prioritize certain tasks or expectations over others?
Consequences & Feedback: Communication consequences and feedback loops are about how information is relayed through the system and how (or whether) that information is acted upon. Poor feedback loops that result in problems such as confusion or delayed responses can cause a system to get bogged down or overloaded, create situations where problems go unchecked, and lead different parts of the system to inadvertently work against each other, not to mention other forms of organizational dysfunction. Feedback loops are complicated. To learn more about them, I recommend Meadows's book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. You can also start by asking these questions: What is the status quo? How is the status quo perpetuated or supported? Who seems to benefit from it, and who appears to be harmed by it? What seems to be worsening over time (reinforcing feedback loop)? Who is being hurt by the reinforcing feedback loop, and how? How can that loop be disrupted? Disrupting the feedback loop is one way that "care" goes from being PR or messaging to being leadership and action.
Skills & Knowledge: As mentioned earlier, skills and knowledge relate to training and focus on the individual. Certainly, providing classes or support services for individuals is an important element to building systems of care. While I want to emphasize the other systemic elements that can make a real difference for individual and institutional resilience, addressing individual skills and knowledge still plays an essential role as part of a solution set.
No Single Solution
If it wasn't clear already, I am not suggesting that one solution will solve this problem. Indeed, that is another lesson from systems thinking and design. All of these solutions work together as a solution set, each doing its small part to contribute to a more flexible and supportive system. One example of this more systemic approach is detailed in an article on an array of initiatives aimed at addressing mental health at California State University, Long Beach.Footnote14 Ideally, leaders and decision-makers are also tracking the efficacy of their decisions, identifying ways to make system improvements, and continually iterating toward better systems of care and support.
In Conclusion: Moving Past Self-Help Baloney
Before the pandemic, I was working with a colleague on a research project focused on new teacher induction and retention. When we presented the initial data from our study, we started with the performance improvement framework and concepts and covered the same principles that are shared in this article. At some point during our presentation, my colleague and I both felt a palpable energy shift in the room. When we finished talking, the room was silent for a moment. Then there was an outpouring of relief from those in attendance. Without intending to, we had sent the message: "It's not you. It's the system." That message generated some immediate relief and healing. The conversation from there on was more energetic, focusing on the myriad ways in which various systemic features—such as certain district- and state-level policies, reward and incentive structures, feedback loops (especially broken ones), and lack of resources—contribute to performance gaps—and on what to do about the gaps. The systems that impact us are human-shaped systems, after all.
Much of our agency lies not solely in fixing ourselves but in fixing our systems. Even in circumstances like a pandemic or a tsunami that are "purely terrible and absolutely random," one crucial response we have is to better understand how our human systems are interacting with forces outside our control to exacerbate their effects and then identify ways we can iterate on our system designs to arc them toward more desirable impacts—both on the people within the system and on the people and communities affected by our institutions.Footnote15 Not doing so is precisely the point at which leadership capacity within our various institutions and organizations may be failing us as individuals in this historic moment. However, redesigning and adapting system designs to be more effective is also precisely how leaders can positively impact individuals' well-being and other long-term consequences of a persistent pandemic.
A recent survey of provosts at U.S. higher education institutions indicated that only 4 percent of provosts strongly agree and another 33 percent somewhat agree with the statement that their institutions have formal plans to address the mental health needs of faculty and staff.Footnote16 With a new academic year upon us, now is a good time for college and university leaders to develop systemic plans for addressing mental health, burnout, and well-being among faculty, staff, and students.
- Caroline Shin, "The Artist Behind This Week's Heartbreaking New Yorker Japan Cover Explains How It Came About," Insider, March 22, 2011. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Christoph Neimann, Interview by Terry Gross, "That's How Christoph Niemann Explains It," Fresh Air, CPR News, National Public Radio, June 22, 2011. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Emily Sohn, "4 Ways to Cultivate Resilience in 2022," The New York Times, December 9, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Lyz Lynz, "Dingus of the Week," Men Yell at Me (blog), The New York Times, December 17, 2021. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Michael Murphy and Jeffrey Mansfield, The Architecture of Health: Hospital Design and the Construction of Dignity (New York, NY: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2021). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Stephanie Moore, et al., "One Year Later . . . and Counting: Reflections on Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, November 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart, 2nd ed., (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 13. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Don Triner, Andre Greenberry, and Ryan Watkins, "Training Needs Assessment: A Contradiction in Terms?" Educational Technology 36, no. 6, (November-December 1996): 51–55; W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986); Ruth Colvin Clark, "Hang Up Your Training Hat," Training & Development 48 no. 9, (September 1994): 61; Dean R. Spitzer, "Confessions of a Performance Technologist," Educational Technology 30, no 5, (May 1990): 12–15. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
- Rummler and Brache, Improving Performance, 13. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
- Summarized nicely in Stephen W. Villachica, Deborah L. Stone, and John Endicott, "Performance Support Systems," in Handbook of Human Performance Technology, 3rd ed., ed. J.A. Pershing (Hoboken, NJ: Pfeiffer, 2006): 539–566; and Ryan Watkins, Performance by Design: The Systematic Selection, Design, and Development of Performance Technologies that Produce Useful Results (Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2007). Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
- Donna St. George, "A Pandemic Fix for Teacher Stress: More Half Days of School," The Washington Post, December 12, 2021. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
- Saint Paul University, "Four-Day Work Week at Saint Paul University," June 28, 2022. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
- Maria Carrasco, "Overhauling Mental Health," Inside Higher Ed, July 1, 2022. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.
- Neimann, Interview by Terry Gross, "That's How Christoph Neimann Explains It," June 22, 2011. Jump back to footnote 15 in the text.
- Scott Jaschik, "Provosts Stand Firm in Annual Survey," May 11, 2022, Inside Higher Ed. Jump back to footnote 16 in the text.
Stephanie Moore is an Assistant Professor at University of New Mexico.
© 2022 Stephanie Moore. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.