Thriving on Change: Building Personal and Organisational Resilience at South African Breweries…

Vanessa Fourie, Bridget Woods and Steve Bluen


In an increasingly competitive world we can be our own worst critics. We feel guilty about what we don’t do, aren’t good enough at, or seem to miss out on as our lives race by. We comfort ourselves that when ‘this’ is over, we’ll get round to doing ‘that’, all the while feeling uneasy about our imbalanced and fragmented lifestyles. At times we might see our lives as being more problematic than pleasurable, more mundane than meaningful. Relentless change leads to increasing resentment and a sense of helplessness. As our energy and motivation waver, life seems to become yet more arduous. As the Jewish proverb says “We do not see things as they are, but as we are”. In devaluing ourselves it is easy to devalue our lives, our world around us and the contribution we might have to make to our families, workplaces and communities.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers a very different way of looking at our lives and the world around us. This approach to personal and organisational transformation offers us the chance to look at who we are and what we have, through positive, appreciative eyes; to inquire into what is and has been, meaningful, enriching and inspiring in our lives and to make explicit what we value about ourselves, as family members, working colleagues, community members. Patterns in the stories we tell about when we felt most alive, most creative and most purposeful help us shape a future in which we can explore more fully our passion and potential. Being appreciative leads us to value who we are, what we have to offer, and the small and big things that make the world worthy of our engagement. As a result we are resilient, able to adapt, to surf the waves of change, to thrive.

The Opportunity

Change is something that employees of SAB Ltd, a member of the London based SAB Miller group, the second largest multi-national brewery in the world, are very accustomed to.

Despite an environment of stagnant growth through the 1990’s and enormous socio-political and economic transformation in South Africa, SAB Ltd prides itself in being the lowest cost producer and distributor of beer in the world. This achievement is as a result of extreme and continuous change. Restructuring processes since the early 1990’s have reduced employment levels from around15 000 to 5000. Initiatives as diverse as World Class Manufacturing, Total Productive Maintenance, Best Operating Practice (BOP), Strategic Operating Practice (SOP), the introduction of innovative technology, Adult Literacy Training, HIV Aids Counseling and Competency Acquisition Programmes relentlessly roll-out through the company.

The achievements of these initiatives do not however, come without some kind of cost. Late in 2002 Manufacturing Director, Maurice Egan, was concerned about the symptoms of ‘change fatigue’ evident in the organization. Negativity and cynicism were creeping into the culture. It was clear that people were feeling increasingly disconnected from each other and from any kind of shared corporate purpose.

“We felt we wanted and needed to offer something back to the employees and their families. So the intent was, through a deliberate intervention, to develop self-knowledge; offer insights around personality traits and their impact on leadership; enhance and accelerate wisdom of self and a wisdom of organisation; and assist people’s ability to deal with and accept change”, said Egan.

This was critical not only to deal with tumultuous change that SAB had been through but also to ensure that employees had the right attributes and coping skills to deliver on the new strategy and vision for Manufacturing. So between Steve Bluen, the Human Resources Director and Maurice Egan the idea for an organisation-wide resilience initiative was born and along with it, an opportunity to approach resilience development from ‘the other side’, through an appreciative inquiry.

The capacity for resilience had been demonstrated time and again by SAB people. The best source of learning for resilience lay in the organisation itself. What if people were engaged to uncover and build on their inherent capability to not only survive but in many cases, thrive on change, using the best of their past experience? How might this capability be articulated, valued and shared? What might a workplace that supports and promotes resilience look like? And how could this personal and collective discovery lead to an ‘anchoring’ of these skills and attributes in a operational and organisational context that would sustainably support resilience?

SAB was conscious of the need to find an organisational development philosophy that would not only lead them to the wellspring of resilience in the workplace, and each person to their own source of strength, but also amplify and anchor this learning in every day personal and work life. The synergy needed lay in a powerful conceptual and practical partnership between SAB’s fortigenic, as opposed to a pathogenic, (Strumpfer 2003) construct of resilience and the principles and process of Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciating Resilience

Appreciative Inquiry is grounded in the theory of social constructionism, a formative theory of the post modern era that embraces the ideas of multiple and contextually determined realities. It suggests that through language, interaction and relationship, we are both the product and constructor of our worlds – ‘we do not describe the world that we see’ rather ‘we see the world that we describe’. We therefore can choose how we both create and respond to this world.

This was perhaps the most profound and empowering concept we could offer in our exploration of resilience – that much of what we might find challenging, even stressful in our lives is rooted in our construction of that particular reality. It is often not the event itself but a particular interpretation (or anticipation) of the event that leads to stress. Equally, the power of the mind to create future reality through anticipatory images, values, plans, intentions and beliefs is well researched and documented in widely diverse fields such as medicine, sports, behaviourial science and anthropology. David Cooperrider, thoughtleader of Appreciative Inquiry describes image is ‘a powerful agent in the guidance and determination of action’ and goes on to suggest that the more positive and compelling the image, the more positive the consequence or action (Cooperrider, 1990)

Since the mid-1950s research in Western medical science has confirmed what Eastern cultures have known all along – the power of the mind to heal the body. The well researched placebo response shows us that up to two thirds of all patients show marked physiological and emotional improvement simply through belief in the treatment. Norman Cousins writes of the ability of ‘hope, faith, love, will to live, cheerfulness, humor, creativity, playfulness, confidence and great expectations’ to activate the body’s healing system. (Cousins, 1981).

But it’s not only our own belief systems that are significant; it is the beliefs others hold about us that just as powerfully shape our futures. The Pygmalion studies showed us that teachers provide increased emotional support, clearer more positive feedback and better opportunities to perform, to students of whom they hold very positive images. Whole communities and cultures are brought into being (or decay) by the images and beliefs their members collectively share. ‘The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and full of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not survive long.’ (Polak 1973)

In appreciative inquiry we understand that the seeds of change lie in the questions; that change begins the moment we ask the question. Our most valuable ally in building personal and organisational resilience lay in the interpersonal and organisational dialogue created by powerful, positive questions.

We chose therefore, through the nature and focus of our questions, to shift peoples’ images of themselves, their work, the organisation, and change itself, from the negative and deficit oriented to the positive and possible.

Defining Resilience for SAB

In setting out to define and develop a framework for resilience in SAB, our review of the available literature provoked our need for a more holistic and generative construct within which to understand resilience. The majority of research on resilience appeared to focus on the causes of, and conditions leading to, high levels of stress and even burn out, while SAB was more interested in studying constructs that promoted workplace wellness. Very few definitions recognised resilience as the ability, not only to confront adversity but to also surmount adversity, surpassing previous levels of functioning. As Strumpfer (2003) says, “…in the case of humans, resilience firstly refers to recuperation but could also include constructive and growth-enhancing consequences of challenges or adversity”, and according to Reivich and Shatte (2001) “Resilient people derive meaning from failure and use this information to climb higher than they otherwise would.”

Secondly, as the literature was not able to provide a single resilience framework that captured the ‘wholeness’ of the resilience construct, SAB set out to develop a framework that encapsulated the multiple attributes of resilience including, in particular those that enable people to thrive on change.

Thus we defined personal resilience as the inner strength to live a life in which one is able to find happiness, feel worth, cope with change and respond to adversity strengthened and more resourceful.

Finally, while case studies point to the importance of training and building personal resilience within the workplace, the programme within SAB took it an important step further and focused on creating the right leadership attributes and culture within the organisation to support resilience. We defined this ‘organisational’ resilience as the capacity of an interdependent and supportive working community to respond to change as an opportunity.

Ultimately six key attributes of a resilient individual and supporting organisation were identified, and packaged to create the SAB resilience “6-pack’! (See appendix 1). These attributes became the topics of our appreciative inquiry.

The Resilience Construct
A compelling dream and sense of purpose

To being resilient, is a deep sense of purpose. Resilient people have a vision, a dream that provides focus, commitment to life, and a philosophical structure where personal encounters can be represented with meaning and hope – even at life’s most difficult times. They connect with their inner passions, their life’s dreams and live that passion daily. According to Ruth Tearle (2000) it is when we live from our inner passions that we never have to seek approval from others; that we ‘chart our own course’ and become masters of our own destiny. More importantly our lives feel whole, connected and congruent.

While individuals are driven by a personal dream, critical for any successful organisation is a compelling, collective vision; a deeply shared sense of purpose that generates a reason for people to be working together. This shared sense of purpose creates organisational alignment and gives people a sense of direction, hope, and pride. People thrive when they are inspired by some greater sense of purpose, when they perceive meaning in the work they do and have some sense that they can shape their future. The more employees perceive coherence between their own values and dream and those of the organisation’s, the more they see the workplace as worthy of their engagement.

‘Life always has it’s ups and downs but if we keep focused on our goals, we always win in the end’
Samson Makahle, Supply Chain Management


To live into the image of the future, requires that we have a deep sense of true self – a sense that translates into self knowledge, self mastery and self determination. Hence, resilient people are often described as confident with a high self-esteem. They are more open to healthy self-criticism, and are able to receive compliments better. When we are able to observe that it is our interpretation of the event that has lead to stress and not necessarily the event itself, then we may choose to view the event differently. Our ability to regulate emotions and behaviour and manage impulses, empowers us to shape our future.

In a pressurized workplace we find that people may revert to an autocratic and controlling style, which is often inappropriate. However awareness of ourselves and our responses, allows us to effectively change behaviour patterns even under stressful situations. According to Dr Sven Hanson, (2002), leadership excellence demonstrates that the integrated and uninhibited operation of physical vitality, emotional intelligence, cognitive excellence and personal mastery underpins outstanding performance.

In any organisation, the ability to thrive on change is enhanced by people who are competent – people who are skilled in different jobs, able to work well with each other and to coach and mentor others. Resilience in the workplace calls for skills development and enriched jobs in which people feel that they are valued and have an important contribution to make. Allowing space for, and a sense of, personal influence, results in deep levels of workplace engagement.

If you cannot find peace with yourself, you’ll never find it somewhere else’
Lucas Ndabezitha, Storeman, Engineering Stores

Ability to bounce back

Resilient individuals accept that change is part of living, but they have control over how they interpret and respond to life’s challenges. They are aware of the psychological transition they and others go through when faced with change, and realise that through stress relieving techniques, self awareness, and getting the right support, they are able to bounce back from set backs. They accept that certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations, and are able to ‘let go’ of certain dreams and aspirations. Further, resilient persons are aware of and accept the circumstances that cannot be changed, focusing instead on circumstances that they can alter.

In a resilient organisation, competence in working successfully with change is a skill valued not only in leaders but in everyone. Employees are able to take on new challenges within the workplace with a positive outlook and with determination and commitment to make the change successful. Unintended consequences of change are minimised by careful and collective planning and consultation. The human impact of change is explored and support structures put in place to help and assist employees in meeting the challenges, nurturing the possibilities and growing from the experience.

‘Change offers us the opportunity to reflect on and review what’s happening in our lives’
Angie Lottering, Administration

Ability to be flexible and resourceful

Sometimes we get enclosed in boxes that limit our ability to see the bigger picture. Resilient individuals realise that often ‘problems’ that seem too big to handle, need to be viewed from a different angle of observation. In a world that is changing rapidly, multiple perspectives enable creative and resourceful responses. We need to find the possibilities in new relationships, new connections; to see new uses for old systems, machines and resources, or new ways of using those systems to do new things.

A responsive and agile organisation is increasingly important in today’s world. According to Dr Sven Hanson (2002) personal resilience is a critical competency for sustainable high performance as the demand for creative thinking, quick decision-making and focused execution continues to increase. When personal resilience fails, decisions are slow and procrastination follows. A resilient organisation allows space for innovation and creativity. New ideas are embraced and there is a free and fast flow of information. Employees are in control of their working environment and are constantly looking for new, quicker and more resourceful ways of doing things.

‘We are a group of creative thinkers, and with a positive attitude we can collectively overcome any adversity’
Tony Padayachee, Procurement Manager, Finance

A supportive community

Our team has been studying brewing…we are quite competitive, but lately there is a feeling of community. I went away and had not received my results yet; when I came back to the office there was a group waiting to congratulate me on passing – it was great to feel the support.’ Sipho Gumede, BOP Operator, Brewing

In confronting life’s challenges, resilient individuals draw support from positive, supportive relationships. They nurture a network of intimate, fulfilling relationships and see this as their greatest resource in times of change. Resilient individuals engage with people that believe in them and who give unconditional love. They accept help and support from those who listen to them and care about them and in turn, support and care for others.

Employees thrive on change when they feel that they are a valued part of the workplace community. Shared values, relationships and dialogue across boundaries of culture, race, gender, age, function and hierarchy build connectivity and a sense of belonging. People are seen to matter when support systems, such as Employee Assistant Programmes offer counseling, medical support, and HIV/Aids treatment.

rganisations’ that engage with, and contribute to the community in which the organization operates, offer employees an opportunity to find a deeper connection to their work. When we can frame our work as a contribution, either directly or indirectly, to our community, and to our nation, we find a deeper sense of meaning in our everyday worklives. The collective pride, hope and joy accessed in the act of giving are powerful emotions in supporting possibility and change

Ability to thrive

Finally, we observed that truly resilient people have an unshakeable belief in a positive future whilst being optimistic about the present. They embrace change, thriving on the opportunities and possibilities it offers. According to Daniel Goleman (2003), positive emotions are associated with increased capacity for creative problem solving, more effective decision-making and judgement, and increased learning capacity. Resilient individuals appreciate the best in themselves, others and the world around them, celebrating what’s right with the world in everyday moments and using this as a source of energy to move towards a desired future. Resilient individuals are also mindful of the moment and savour pleasant experiences; they stay “present” and in-touch with what brings them inner joy and fulfilment.

Resilient workplaces celebrate success, while leaders recognize and reward ‘valued’ behavior. The culture is one in which diversity is celebrated, change is seen as possibility and set backs are used as opportunities for rich learning. Inquiry is the natural form of communication, inviting widespread participation and engagement in determining the way forward. As we collectively and individually step into our capacity to create our future, we learn live with uncertainty and act with confidence.

‘Everyday offers possibility…we must appreciate the small things in life and live each day to the fullest.'
Boet du Toit, Brewing Engineer

Discover, Dream, Design and Deliver..

Our first task was to discover, uncover and magnify people’s and the organisation’s well-spring of Resilience. As part of a two day workshop, hundreds of one on one Appreciative Inquiry interviews were held across the organisation in which people shared stories of personal and organisational resilience. The questions encouraged a deeper understanding of what each person valued about themselves, their lives and their workplace and helped them identify their sources for well being and resilience.

The interviews also gave people the space and time to identify their inner passions, dreams and deepest hope for their own futures. As people considered what they valued about themselves and what was truly important to them, they were able to consider how they might best use their innate gifts to make their unique contribution to the world. According to Ruth Tearle (2000), discovering your own unique blueprint of values is a powerful tool to motivate and inspire. If we chose to live according to our unique values we will feel more fulfilled and in control

The workshops also offered practical skills to help build emotional intelligence, assisting people in understanding the internal psychological transition that happens when external environmental change occurs. We emphasised the importance of acknowledging and accepting feelings, reflecting on them and learning from experiences. We exposed employees to a technique called affect regulation where energy-sapping beliefs are disputed. We offered tools to confront limiting patterns that are developed and engrained through our life experiences and ways to replace these with explanatory styles that are objective and real. Very simple, effective and sustainable skills to assist employees in dealing with stress, such as breathing exercises and positive imagery, were practiced.

While the workshops focused on building personal resilience predominantly, our inquiry invited stories from employees about when they had ‘felt most proud to be part of SAB, most connected to the SAB community….’ And what might be ‘SAB’s greatest contribution to South Africa, even to the world’. The themes that emerged reflected pride in SAB’s record as one of the nation’s leading corporate citizens – its role in nation building and significant contributions to social development and environmental concerns - and a desire to take a more active part in this role.

These stories were collated and taken forward to a one-day summit to design the kind of organisational environment in which growth and resilience is nurtured. In each of the 6 breweries, the summit brought together between seventy and one hundred and twenty people from all levels and disciplines, ensuring that multiple perspectives were valued in the process of articulating the ideal workplace. As interviews, dialogue and stories transcended functional, hierarchical, gender-based and cultural boundaries, the organisational network strengthened, building motivation and capacity for action. Our journey into resilience began to ‘look more like an inspired movement than a neatly packaged or engineered plan” (Whitney, 2003).

A resilience charter emerged for each brewery to ensure delivery against the vision. It is in this document that the desired attitudes, behaviours, systems, structures and working practices are outlined. The charter sets in motion a variety of widespread operational improvements. In essence, employees co-created a “blueprint” for the workplace and began creating a community where people could thrive

Anchoring and Valuation

The resilience attributes are integrated into the performance management process with management given upward feedback on their capability to create conditions conducive to growth and resilience. An interactive website offers access to the resilience material, and an induction course is run for all new employees to assimilate them into the organizational culture as quickly as possible. The resilience iconography, stories and charters form part of an ongoing communications strategy while the resilience champions are key in leading by example.

The Resilience programme has been regarded as hugely successful both from the view of the organisation as well as the individual.

A series of questionnaires were collaborated and assessed for validity and reliability. This served as our key indicator for assessing improvement in individual’s Resilience. The Resilience questionnaire was administered before the start of the programme, and then afterwards. The analysis found a statistically significant difference between the scores of the pre-workshop questionnaires and the post-workshop questionnaires. This further confirmed the hypothesis that Resilience is an attribute that can be developed.

The workshop assessment form as well as unsolicited feedback emphasised the personal and emotional impact of the programme. Employees realised the benefits of the programme not only in their work life but in their home life as well. In the working environment people felt more connected and part of a community aligned to an inspiring vision. In people’s personal lives, specific examples were given where employees practically applied their skills that they had learnt within the training to moments of adversity.

From an organisational perspective, the Resilience programme has been correlated with key business measures. The brewery in which organisational resilience was piloted, soon after achieved its highest SAB Organisational Effectiveness rating – a key indicator of morale. Further, since the implementation of Resilience in SAB, factory efficiency - key measurement of efficiency in Manufacturing - has improved by 5%, and the organisation was the first South African company to receive Investor in People (IIP) accreditation and has for the third year running been ranked as one of the top South African Best Companies to Work For.

While Egan credits SAB’s continuing world class achievements in part to innovative technology and best operating practices, he is adamant that people, and people’s ability to not only to respond positively to change, but to collectively create the future is the organisation’s greatest asset.