From the bottom up: adaptive social processes for organizational survival

By: Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum and Carmit Rapaport

Planning the Impossible

Being totally prepared for a disaster or an emergency is virtually impossible. As     disasters vary in type, strength, and impact there may be no one appropriate method or preparedness plan that could encompass all potential hazards. Evidence that organizations experience and respond differently to the same non-routine events, according to their size, sector, ownership and managerial risk perceptions, support the notion that pre-designated plans are problematic. As a result, organizations tend to depend on external help of emergency agencies, which may take critical time to arrive and would not necessarily fit the specific organization’s needs. Furthermore, even on the basis of past experience, organizations in general and managers in particular can not rely on previous responses as each event is unique, and the people involved may change. In fact, organizations’ managers do not tend to make long-term decisions quickly during emergencies. Thus, many of them avoid taking any decision, and just follow the event unfolding and its consequences.

If this is the case, it seems that emergency managers are trapped: on one hand, when preparing for the future, preparedness planning is not always effective, while on the other, relying on the past can be problematic. What would be, then, the most appropriate response when handling a case of an emergency? We suggest, based on recent evidence from our research in Israel that you base your response on the present! There is no doubt, as you will see from our study, that existing social relations among employees would enable an adaptive adjustment to the new conditions imposed by an emergency which in turn will lead to organizational resilience.

Misplaced Concreteness

Until now, emergency managers generally subscribed to the conception that during and after emergencies and crisis, an organizations’ mission is to guarantee “business continuity”. In other words, business continuity is the outcome of proper management of an emergency event. We, however, claim that survival is the organization’s main target, while “business continuity” is the process leading to survival. This claim is based on a comprehensive study of economic-based organizations’ response to a continuous emergency situation, namely 33 days of constant missile attack on Israeli population centers during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Our findings clearly support the notion that this process is socially-based and expressed in stronger social connections, intensified information dissemination and enhanced helping behaviors among employees and managers. During disasters people tend to rely on each other and adapt their behavior and actions as a way to assure their survival: calling your family members to consult where to go in case of a coming storm, asking your colleague what to do when the alarm goes off suddenly in the factory, helping a friend in need to find a better shelter, and improvise in order to find the best temporary solution when there is no other way. All these adaptive behaviors were found to save lives and enable routine in the organization, and are all based on social behavior. Neither rules, regulations nor procedures have the impact that cooperation, experience in different situations, and social cohesion have on enhancing adaptive behavior; all of which positively affect continuity.

Social Resources

For organizations experiencing an emergency or crisis, the same social resources should be utilized to achieve resilience.  On the one hand, employees would be naturally adaptive and enhance operational continuity with this adaptation magnified if managers pay special attention for arranging a suitable environment (setting an appropriate administrative framework) for such a social adaptation.  In fact, no strict instructions should be given as to how to act but rather, managers should allocate resources, coordinate and disseminate information that will allow employees to behave adaptively according to the demands of the new situation. This, for example, includes, allowing employees to work partial time shifts, and bring their children to work place.

The model presented here (fig. 1), based on results from questionnaires and interviews with employees and managers (at different levels and positions) from 21 organizations ranging from private manufacturing and service companies to public and governmental agencies), shows how adaptive behavior of employees and managers is based on intensified social relations and information flow. In addition, when managers loosened the work regulations (i.e., allowed working part time, during night shifts when there were less attacks etc.) and invested in improving employees welfare (i.e., arranging transportation to work and back home, special shelters, took care of employees with little children) adaptive behavior came to the forefront. It is also important to note that when employees perceived management functioning as appropriate to the situation, it had an effect only on the perception of routine. However, it had no behavioral consequences leading to enhancing organizational resilience.

The Foundation for Continuity

These results provide the evidence that adaptive behavior is primarily and significantly derived from social factors. We can summarize these findings that indicate three types of core adaptive behaviors characterizing employees and managers during disasters: (1) occupational adaptation, (2) personal adaptation, and (3) social adaptation. .

Picture1Fig. 1: Structural model predicting emergent adaptive behavior

(The numbers indicate the strength and direction of the correlation. *significant at the level of p<0.05, ** significant at the level of p<0.01)



Figure 2 shows how the different types of adaptive behavior can emerge out of the research model’s variables described above. Workers tend to improvise to the new conditions dictated by the emergency situation in a way the enables the continuity of operation, this behavior is based on social based connectiveness with other colleagues as well as supported by helping behavior.

Picture1Figure 2: types of adaptation

Simply, we found that when employees consul with each other whether to go to work or not during the month long attacks, or how exactly to behave, they, in fact, developed a foundation for continuation. Employees who were afraid to come to work, will not come, and other worker, will follow their example and be absent as well. These patterns of social based behavior play a critical role in determining the organizations continuity of operation during disaster; a role that was misperceived until now to be the exclusive role of emergency managers.

Actual Performance

However, although the importance of adaptation is understood, does it actually affect organizational performance during disasters? In the next stage we examined this question and found that adaptive behavior was the best predictor for greater organizational performance during the month long crisis when contrasted with previous periods (table 1).

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 8.01.38 PMThe results show that none of the “managerial” factors which were examined, e.g., managerial decision making (“administrative framework”), or information flow, significantly explained better performance rates during the disaster. Only adaptive behavior, which is, as has already been shown to be based on social mechanisms,   positively and significantly predicted better performance during the disaster.


In this article we suggest an innovative perspective of achieving business continuity. Managers’ attitude towards managing the organization during an emergency should not focus on general preparedness that would not necessarily be effective during an unusual event. Rather, the focus should be on elaborating social relations and learning from past behaviors in various emergency situations that will enable and enhance the adaptive behavior to the latest situation. Employees and managers will naturally adapt their behavior at work, as they are experienced in doing so in other settings in their lives, such as among family, community and social relations. The emergency managers’ role during disasters is to allow the best conditions for workers and managers to adapt their behavior and contribute to the ongoing efforts of stabilizing the organization condition during periods of turbulence and uncertainty. Doing so will enable the employees who deal with “daily incidents” at work to use their knowledge and experience and adapt their behavior in a way the will assure the whole organizational survival. Managers should prior to the disaster invest resources in assuring employees cooperation during crisis. Such actions will allow the organization to be able to count on its employees when they are most in need- at times of crisis and disaster.