Chapter V: Building Organizational Immunity (OI)

9 Lessons the COVID-19 Crisis Taught Leaders about Organizational Immunity

Written by Dr Antoine Eid

The COVID-19 Crisis caused sudden and severe operational and financial complexities to businesses across the world. The inability to cope for millions of businesses has led to their detriment. Understanding the immune systems of the Human and Organizational bodies reinforces our perception of individual and business adaptation mechanisms.

Human and Organizational Immune Systems

The Human and Organizational immune systems are similar in many ways.

Human and Organizational Immunity Systems

The Human immune system has the following characteristics:

  1. The human body consists of many subsystems (muscular, respiratory, etc.) that must function in harmony.
  2. The best and healthiest systems are those that are capable of recognizing and responding to change in a prompt manner.
  3. Designed to protect the body by recognizing and destroying threats that are responsible for disease (viruses, bacteria, and other external threats), and recognizing the body’s own cells growing abnormally (cancer cells and other internal threats).
  4. A local response to threat can be either local like an inflammation, infection, clot or tumor or it could be more systemic where the body as a whole reacts.
  5. When the immune system fails or misapprehends a threat the results can be disastrous, including infection, illness, or eventually death.

The Organizational immune system has very similar characteristics:

  1. Organizations also consist of multiple levels, departments, and functions that create a complex network of people and operations.
  2. An Organizational healthy immune system also has mechanisms to recognize and respond to change (Leadership plays an important role there).
  3. Designed to protect from change and instill a culture (so basically, when you are in stability mode, you want people to conform and commit faster which is more convenient for the business, but creates rigidity that is not healthy in times of crisis and uncertainty).
  4. Threat response in an organization is affected by people’s resistance to change, the rigidity of the existing policies, structures and culture.
  5. And of course, immune failure can lead to an eventual termination of the business as we have seen millions of businesses close through COVID-19.

Why are People and Organizations so resistant to Change?
The answer might be in their Immunity System

Change threatens comfort and security, and People and Organizations tend to naturally resist the pain it causes. The inability to deal with uncertainty the world has witnessed during the Coronavirus crisis led to a global syndrome of Freezing Behavior, which only adaptable organizations were able to overcome. It is the same immune system which was made for protection and survival, that has stood in the way of quick adaptation.

Through this crisis we observed a lot of different behaviors, some showed more resistance to change than others. Although we found some positively surprising Resilience in some, we also observed signs of Withdrawal and Protective Behavior in others. This can relate to people’s mindset and mental health on one hand and also the effort Leadership had put in getting them ready for change – and this time change happened and it was unexpected. This rapid series of events made Leaders appreciate the importance of finding the Vaccine and raising Organizational immunity.

Finding the Vaccine

Virus Destroyed

“A vaccine works by training the immune system to recognize and defend against threats coming from inside or outside the body. By injecting Antigens into the body through vaccination, the immune system can safely learn to recognize the threats as hostile, and produce Antibodies, to use them in a future case of threat”.

Does your Organization
recognize and anticipate
future threats?

Below is a compiled table of potential threats out of many to come, all affecting Organizations at different levels. Some of these threats are already affecting businesses and we will see the impact of others in the not-so-far future.

Potential Threats to Organizations

If the process starts by recognizing threats,
do you know what they are?

Although there seems to be a lot of opportunities in the different facets of mankind evolution, one can also project the upcoming dangers. The Coronavirus outbreak was the most recent example.

  • What have you learned from the experience?
  • How adaptable was your thinking and business model?

Defending and Managing the Transition

Research studies and imagination helps us forecast potential threats, but now comes the more challenging task of defending against them. The Leadership lessons here are:

  1. Provide and share Purpose: Create a Moral Purpose.
  2. Be Empathetic: Deal with Feelings not only Tasks.
  3. Involve Employees and Listen to new Ideas: Make them adopt your decisions to increase commitment.
  4. Communicate (CCC: Calmly, Clearly and Confidently).
  5. Reward Adaptability efforts: Make these rewards clear and public.
  6. Be Resilient and Inspiring: Setbacks will happen; Stay resilient.
  7. Deal with remissions of Trauma: You will need to deal with these remissions over a long period of time; Be patient.
  8. Inject your Organization with simulated scenarios (the Vaccine effect) and create contingency plans: Use Scenarios Planning and a Mix of short-term and long-term Strategy.
  9. Identify and Nurture Talents and Skills emerging through Change: Observe, Assess and Nurture; Use the right assessment tools.

Assessing and Nurturing Skills and Personality traits emerging through change is a key factor in the future success of the Organization

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts You have a big responsibility now as Leaders to think ahead of what can happen and prepare for the unexpected. The Coronavirus crisis taught us the importance of anticipation and flexibility and fast adaptation. Keep that in mind as we transition to the new era.

Remember to assess both Behavioral Skills and Brain Preferences. Together they give you clear indicators on the change in behavior and the expected performance during and after the crisis. Contact me for advice on the proper tools and interventions to adopt.


Email me at: – or message me on LinkedIn.

Watch how to integrate the above advice into your Strategy in my next webinar.

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