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Hormesis: an evolutionary “predict and prepare” survival mechanism

Richard J. Pech (Graduate School of Management, Faculty of Law and Management, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)
Katherine E. Oakley (Graduate School of Management, Faculty of Law and Management, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 1 December 2005




Can managers prepare their organisations for the unexpected and unforeseeable? The purpose of this paper is to argue that organisations that endure and survive a serious disruption to homeostasis may as a consequence be better equipped to survive further and more devastating attacks.


This hypothesis is based on a naturally occurring biological survival mechanism termed hormesis. Hormesis describes a controversial biological phenomenon where the organism overcompensates and adaptation occurs after exposure to low doses of toxins. Hormesis protects the organism against subsequent repeat exposure to more lethal doses.


Hormetic effects may occur in an organisation just as it does in a biological entity following exposure to a life‐threatening disruption, inoculating it against potentially more lethal recurrences. Disruption in an organisational context may include negative environmental impacts, incidences of management incompetence, or consequences of competitive hostilities. It is argued that lessons can be applied from examples of biological hormesis, particularly lessons related to the hormetic recovery stages of overcompensation and adaptation as part of an evolutionary survival mechanism for organisations.

Practical implications

Organisational hormesis may have the potential to produce growth and advancement that would not normally occur under ordinary circumstances. Hormesis demonstrates more than a step in an organisational learning process as it conveys an adaptive response designed to prevent future disruptions. Hormesis is a healing process with foresight, “designed” with the intent of increasing organisational fitness within a rapidly changing environment. It has been “designed” with the knowledge that the environment may yet dispense an even greater challenge, still to be met. In this respect the hormetic process defies evolutionary dogma which claims that evolutionary processes are blind that evolution can only react to and compensate for past pressure rather than being able to predict and prepare for future threats. After recovery from disruption, managers may, for cost cutting and other expedient purposes, cease recovery or restructuring activities. This action may unwittingly interfere with the hormetic overcompensation stage, thereby interfering with evolutionary adaptation processes. As a consequence, the organisation's ability to repel more severe disruptions may be compromised. Some firms are prematurely liquidated or downsized before they can develop hormetic response mechanisms. As demonstrated by the Xerox example, liquidation in 2000 would have been a catastrophic mistake.


Provides a post‐mortem examination searching for possible explanations for organisational phenomena that have as yet been adequately explained.



Pech, R.J. and Oakley, K.E. (2005), "Hormesis: an evolutionary “predict and prepare” survival mechanism", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 26 No. 8, pp. 673-687.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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