As a business transformation consultant my advice is to organizations as a whole on how to implement, and become resilient to, change. And having done this for many years, I observed that some people deal with change much better than others. Of course this should not be a surprise to anyone, but the roots of this personal change resilience might be. It was enlightening for me.
Even though anxiety is the common thread after an organizational change is announced, some people deal with this anxiety much more effectively. Over time I became curious as to why that is. Here is what I found out, and I thought I would share this with my readers so that you too can better cope with any kind of change. These observations have helped me personally.
The faces of resistance
My first encounter with this phenomenon was on my first major contract with a large retailer. I was working within a project management office (PMO) supporting multiple project managers, working closely with their teams and stakeholders.
The company had to make many of their processes more flexible in order to adapt to a significant competitive threat. Failing to adapt meant significant loss in market share, if not outright bankruptcy.
Many people reacted to this change badly. They did not want to let go of their comfortable ways of doing things. They did not believe that the threat was as big as was communicated. Theirs was a big company that had been around for a long time, and they felt immune. Their heads were deeply in the sand.
Every new piece of information we shared was scrutinized for what it didn’t say. Every rumour that started was weighed more heavily than official messaging. It was mostly emotion, little reason.
Some people were particularly difficult. They dug in and defended the status quo at any cost, even at times personal. Their behaviour seemed as futile as throwing tacks in front of a bulldozer. Theirs was an almost religious belief that this change was not good for the organization. And their pride and ego blinded them to the possibility that they could be misguided.
Getting people to come to education sessions and meetings was tough. And when they did show up some were disruptive and argumentative. Others were silent and apathetic. All in all many people were unhelpful, to say the least.
And then there was Gordon. In some ways he had more to lose than many of his colleagues. Although not that old, he was one of the older guys in this company. He had been there a long time, since high school. He had invested a lot in getting to his position and had worked hard to establish himself.
But Gordon was one of the calmest people I knew there. He was at times almost enthusiastic about this change. It was as if the change did not apply to him. I had to figure out why he was so markedly different.
Since that project I have met many “Gordons”, of all varieties of background, gender, ethnicity and culture. I continued to dig a bit deeper into these individuals’ backgrounds to find out why they were so much more change resilient than many of their colleagues. What I learned from Gordon held true for all the other change resilient people I met before and afterwards.
I observed Gordon for a while before approaching him. I wanted to study him for a while first. If I am being perfectly honest, I was looking for him to crack at some point. I was looking for him to break and expose his deepest angst. I don’t feel proud of myself for this. It’s not that I wanted him to fail, I just didn’t trust that someone so vulnerable could really be so genuinely supportive of this change.
After a time of observing Gordon, he and I had one of our status touchpoints. I brought up the topic that some people were acting out because they felt their jobs were at stake. Gordon said, “This is a big change. All of our jobs are at stake. For all I know, even if the company survives, I myself might not be around.”
This was my ‘in’. I felt that I earned enough of his trust to ask him directly, “Aren’t you personally concerned about that?”
He responded, “Well, of course, who wouldn’t be? But if the company goes under, then I’ll lose my job for sure. This way at least I have a better chance. Besides, the company has been good to me, I have a lot of friends here, and I owe it to them to make sure the company sticks around and as many of us keep their jobs as possible.”
Then he continued, “Besides, if the worst happens and I lose my job, it’s not the end of the world. We’ll tighten our belts at home and I figure I can go for a year before things get really tough for us financially. If I have to, I’ll flip burgers to make ends meet. And in the meantime, I’ll be able to finally spend more time with my kids, go to the gym more often than I have been able to, and maybe take some courses I have been meaning to, but have been too busy to take.
“Besides, I have a lot of friends out there in the retail industry, I am sure one of them will give me a good lead and I’ll find something before things get really dire. Plus, we have a really good community of friends, and we’re pretty good at supporting each other.”
2 Keys to Personal Resilience: Attitude and Actions
Well, there is a lot to unpack in that short speech. But Gabriel hit all of the key points that I have observed in every change-resilient person since then. So let’s look at each one separately. These points fall into two major groups: attitudes and actions.
The first group below has to do with their perspective or attitude. Change resilient people just think differently. They just do. Their attitude plays a big part in their ability to deal with the stress of significant change in their lives.
- Sober realism. There is no whiff of denial in Gordon’s comment. He is fully aware of and realistic about what could happen to his company and him. There are no “maybe’s” or “I hope’s”.
- Team mindset. Change resilient people are driven by a team mindset and loyalty to their colleagues in their company. That helps them come around quickly and decide early whether or not to support the change. If they feel it is a wrong decision (for them and the company), I have observed them leave. If they feel the change makes sense, however difficult, they will put in their heart and soul to try and make it succeed.
- Gratitude. People like Gordon weigh what they have more highly than what they don’t, or what they might lose. You can hear it throughout Gordon’s brief monologue, all the things he is grateful for: his kids and family, his friends and business colleagues, his community. Plus, he has a healthy attitude toward his finances. They are a means to an end, rather than a symbol of his status. He understands deeply that financial downturns are temporary and not reflective of personal character. As Mike Todd, producer of the film Around the World in Eighty Days, and no stranger to financial adversity himself, so famously once said,
“I’ve never been poor, only broke. Being poor is a frame of mind. Being broke is a temporary situation.”
- Opportunity minded. Change resilient people like Gordon look for ways they can benefit, either way. Throughout the project, rather than just saying “no” and putting up roadblocks, they will negotiate and try to influence decisions and actions. They focus on what they can win, not on the fear of what they can lose. And that helps their judgement in terms of when to fight hard for some outcomes, and give up on others.
- Solution focused. People like Gordon look for problems with an eye on how these can be solved. The arguments I have seen change resilient people get into is about which solution is the best, not why the problem is there in the first place.
The second group of points below has to do with actions change resilient people take as a result of any crisis. They act to structure their lives differently. What they do outside of work helps them put the stress of change in a different light.
- Striving for Personal Growth. Change resilient people are always looking to advance themselves personally in some way, outside of work. They could be pursuing certifications, or simply taking courses as in Gordon’s case. Or they may be actively participating in a community or professional organization, or seriously pursuing a meaningful hobby. You may be surprised that one of them is a guitarist in a band, a scratch golfer, or a ranked chess player. Basically, they live at the edge of their comfort zone, so any change at work becomes incremental, rather than a shock to their system.
- Financial House in Order. Change resilient people do not live paycheque-to-paycheque. They tend to be more modest and talk much less about their homes, cars and vacations. Financial peace of mind is more important to them than what you think about their toys. They could go 6 months or more without a salary. Losing a job would make their lives uncomfortable, to be sure, and they do care about keeping their jobs, but they are not instantly desperate.
- Well Networked. People like Gordon nurture their networks outside of their company. Their best friends outside of work are not called Netflix and YouTube. They go for coffees and lunches with their colleagues and friends who work in other companies. They interact with them through social media. Plus, they are always probing for other potential opportunities, even when they’re happy with their jobs. They have a good handle on the job market and a good sense of their personal market value.
- Physically Active. People like Gordon stay in shape, or at least try to. This could be though semi-organized ‘beer-leagues’ or having an individual, personal training routine. They may not have the bodies of Adonis or Aphrodite any more, but their hearts and muscles are reasonably toned, and they have a regular, natural, “organic” endorphin boost.
- Family and Community Oriented. Change resilient people have a strong identity outside of work. Sure they are managers, or mechanics, or lawyers, or whatever, but they are not defined by these titles. They are also fathers and mothers, coaches, team managers, handymen, community organizers, bloggers, and so on. If they lose their job they don’t lose their identity.
Resilience: it takes work, but it’s worth it
What I have learned is this: to become change resilient is not effortless. You have to take personal responsibility and work at it. You need to train your mind to think differently from “the herd”. And, you have to take some initiatives that reduce your empty relaxation time. But frankly, nothing worth in life is free and effortless.
However, the benefits are enormous when the hard times come. One thing that strikes me whenever there is a more severe market downturn, is how suicide rates spike. It’s tragic how some people lose their identity, social circle, optimism, and energy when they lose their jobs. Their life becomes devoid of meaning. I feel bad for them.
Others survive, but they become severely depressed and incapacitated for long periods of time. Far from bouncing back up after adversity, they flop on the canvas and stay there long after the referee and even spectators have left the building.
When I first started out as a change management consultant, I never expected it would help me become more personally change resilient as much as it did. But for me this has become the biggest side benefit of doing the job that I love. I hope it benefits you too.
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