Barton Sutcliffe


‘Struggling well’: Lessons for the business world from adventure racing

Why it matters:

To understand how resilience unfolds during adversity, Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe, examine adventure racing for insights into the world of business.

For employees in many businesses and corporations today, adversity and unexpected challenges are increasingly a part of their everyday work experience. This makes it more important than ever for managers to identify and adopt strategies for fostering resilience in order to ensure peak team performance, notes Michelle Barton, associate professor of practice at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

“Much of the research on organizational resilience until now has focused on recovery — what happens after a crisis,” says Barton. “But today’s business world is so tumultuous; there is constant upheaval. We need a different framing.”

To better understand how resilience unfolds during adversity, Barton and colleague Kathleen Sutcliffe, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Carey Business School, looked outside the world of business — to adventure racing. The adrenaline-pumping sport pits teams of two to four against each other as they navigate through the wilderness, often for days and hundreds of miles, transitioning between trekking, biking, and paddling, all without any specified route. In this extreme sport, the researchers note, “adversity is prevalent and ongoing” in the form of sleeplessness, pain, hunger, and the mental strain of navigation, and is punctuated by discrete shocks, such as injury or severe weather.

In their recent study published in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Barton and Sutcliffe analyzed interview data from 103 members of 53 adventure racing teams. Then the duo made some key observations that they believe could help enable more effective resilience in today’s business world.

“The steps we take can make our roads harder or easier to manage and can make our organizations more adaptable or less adaptable,” notes Sutcliffe, co-author of Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, whose research has long been devoted to investigating how organizations cope with uncertainty and how they can be designed to be more reliable and resilient.

“What’s so empowering about this research,” says Barton, “is that we found there are definite things you can do to be more resilient, both as an individual and as an organization.”

Shifting on the fly

For adventure racing teams, Barton and Sutcliffe say it’s imperative to stay on top of current conditions and to be mindful of every detail to make sure nothing goes overlooked.  Typically, that takes the form of assigning formal roles. The navigator manages the maps, for example, while someone else is tasked with constantly tracking team members’ health, and a third person focuses on boosting morale.

“But as conditions change, as exhaustion hits one team member or another gets hurt, roles often need to shift on the fly,” says Barton. “The most resilient teams got very good at making sure that someone was always attending to every critical role. If one person started to wane, another stepped in.” By consistently “redistributing the strain,” and by adeptly “recombining their resources” and “reframing adversity” as the situation warranted, these teams performed better than their less resilient counterparts, the researchers report.

Engagement also proved crucial. Racers who were clear on their roles stayed attuned to their areas of accountability (“Hey, keep drinking your water!”) and were more prepared to discern a change in conditions that might require new action. Engaged teams also experienced a near constant flow of communication. By contrast, when racers became disengaged, either because they were mentally or physically depleted or because they felt they had no important role to play, communication waned, and they would miss important environmental cues. In many instances, that led to their teams becoming lost.

But critically, these behaviors were all grounded in relational patterns — the ways that members treated each other and worked together—or didn't—in the face of adversity. Resilient teams were connected teams. They framed any adverse situation — even if only one of their members was affected — as “belonging” to the team as a whole, note Barton and Sutcliffe.

“It was not his or her problem. It was their problem,” says Barton. “In the face of adversity, they turned toward one another, rather than away, and coped in ways that both built and reinforced their connections to one another.”

The researchers found these relational patterns created cycles of resilience or vulnerability. “The very act of coming together to compile resources, redistribute strain or reframe adverse situations built or reinforced communicating and connecting behaviors, that were then helpful to mitigating ongoing strain,” they write. “In contrast, cycles of vulnerability were marked by silence and separation.” The result: “Racers made poor decisions and mistakes, problems escalated and often, they found themselves facing more adversity.”

Sutcliffe further notes the importance of having “an impermanence mindset.”

“The best teams weren’t focused on what they had lost, they were focusing on what was left and how they could use what was left to perform well to the finish line.”

Resilience is relational

So what are the takeaways for business leaders? 

First, businesses need to pay attention to helping employees stay resilient in the midst of a crisis or stressful period, not wait until after the damage is done and then attempt to help workers “bounce back,” say Barton and Sutcliffe.

“Organizations can’t always avoid crises,” says Sutcliffe. “The world in which we live today is extraordinarily complex, particularly with respect to technology. We have to think about designing organizations to be more capable of minimizing the possibility of an adverse event and managing adverse events more effectively when they do occur.”

Equally key, the researchers note, is recognizing that resilience is relational. “It’s not enough to say to individual employees, ‘Here’s a mindfulness app, go learn to be resilient on your own,’” says Barton. “In the face of ongoing strain, organizations need to help people connect more with one another and to develop authentic relationships, where colleagues are there for each another.”

In this post-COVID era of remote work arrangements, the researchers concede fostering interpersonal work relationships may be harder than ever for managers. But the potential payoff makes the effort worth it, they say.

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“People need to be given the space to talk about the emotional reality of their work; to say, ‘This is what I’m feeling,’ and to have others share their own emotional experiences. If organizations can create space for talking like this, employees start to see each other in richer, more nuanced ways,” says Barton. Then, in the face of sustained stress it becomes much easier to shoulder, and share, the load — for one employee to step up when another might be flagging.

By communicating better, engaging together, and confronting adverse events head-on, Barton and Sutcliffe believe that successful workplace teams will be able to operate more dynamically, adeptly rising to meet waves of ever-shifting challenges.

“Resilience is not just something we have, but something we do together,” says Barton. “It’s a process of struggling well.”


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