Resilience is the ability to adapt to high levels of disruptive change while maintaining high levels of well-being and productivity. It is the result of applying a set of change muscles that help you use your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy most effectively when you encounter challenges. Understanding what resilience is and how it works is a very helpful tool for change leaders, change agents, and anyone going through change. (Hmmm…that might be everybody!)
Let’s start by looking at the nature of the challenges we face inside and outside of the workplace. To understand this, you first need to know that our human brains build models of the world that allow us to anticipate the future. Based on our past experiences, on various sources of external information, and on our own creative thinking, we create pictures of how we expect things to unfold. These mental models help us maintain a sense of control and enable us to function effectively inside and outside of the workplace.
However, we frequently encounter situations that are different from what we thought or hoped would happen. Sometimes these situations are momentary—another driver changes lanes in traffic suddenly and we need to swerve to avoid them—but quickly return to our predictable flow. Sometimes the situations are longer-lasting—we wake up with the flu on a day when we are scheduled to be at an important meeting, or we find that a close friend has taken a job in another city. Sometimes these situations are self-created—we decide to have or adopt a child and find that we had not fully anticipated the lack of sleep we would encounter; sometimes they are the result of someone else’s actions or of natural processes—a neighbor decides to mow the lawn very early in the morning, or a thunderstorm knocks out the power.
Organizational changes create challenges as well. When leaders make the decision to implement a new process or pursue a new goal, it often disrupts the expectations of people who must adjust their mindsets and behaviors, take on new roles, and learn how to do different things. If a change requires that people leave the organization, or move to a new location, it presents even larger challenges.
Hidden within the nature of challenges is the secret to overcoming them. The goal is to realign our mental models of the world with the real-life situations we are facing. We have two main levers we can use to do this.
- We can change the situation we’re in. Sometimes it is within our power to change what is happening so it better matches our mental models. For example, if I find a flat tire on my car, I can likely change it and be back on the road very quickly.
- We can change our expectations. When we’re not able to change what’s happening in a situation, we can often build an updated mental model that incorporates the new information and allows us to operate effectively. For example, if someone learns that his mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he can do research to learn more about this, talk to others who have encountered this situation, and begin to envision what will happen in the months and years ahead.
Much of the time we use a combination of these strategies. For example, if an organization decides to implement new technology, it often creates challenges for individuals who are not experienced with the new system. They can change the situation by taking a course to increase their knowledge, but they may also have to adjust to the fact that they must do things differently in their work.
We can say that someone has successfully adapted to change when he or she has created a match between expectations and reality. During organizational change, part of the agent’s role is to anticipate the challenges that people will face and help them adapt so they can operate with high levels of productivity and quality and achieve the goals of the change.
Some people seem to be able to adapt more quickly and effectively than others. And each of us has times when we adapt easily and times when we struggle to deal with a challenge. By observing patterns in how people respond to change, my colleagues and I (along with quite a few other researchers) have identified a set of change muscles that people can use to help them adapt. As with physical muscles, we each can use these elements to some extent—there may be people who are stronger than we are, and people who are weaker, and we may be able to use some of the muscles better than others. We can also strengthen each of these muscles through practice. Here is a summary of the change muscles and how they help in the process of adaptation:
- Positive: The World Resilient individuals effectively identify opportunities in turbulent environments. This helps them stay motivated to deal with the challenge rather than giving up.
- Positive: Yourself Resilient individuals have the personal confidence to believe they can succeed in the face of uncertainty. This helps them persist in the face of obstacles and difficulties.
- Focused Resilient individuals have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and use this as a guide when they become disoriented. This helps them direct energy toward the most important outcomes rather than getting distracted and drained.
- Flexible: Thoughts Resilient individuals generate a wide range of ideas and approaches for responding to change. This helps them open up new possibilities and options rather than getting stuck in old ways of thinking.
- Flexible: Social Resilient individuals draw readily on others’ resources for assistance and support during change. This helps them expand their options and draw on others for emotional and practical support.
- Organized Resilient individuals effectively develop and apply systems, processes, and structures when dealing with change. This helps them use their energy efficiently.
- Proactive Resilient individuals initiate action in the face of uncertainty, taking calculated risks rather than seeking the comfort of the status quo. This allows them to experiment with new ways of thinking and acting.
Each of these seven change muscles is important by itself, but they are most effective when combined in action. Every situation calls on a different mix of characteristics. An organizational change that has a negative impact on people’s jobs may require people to deeply engage their Positive muscles, while a change that is driven by the need to respond to new competition in the marketplace may require more of the Flexible and Proactive muscles.
In this entry I have provided an overview of challenges, adaptation, and resilience. In the next post I will discuss in more detail how people in various roles can use this information to help create organizational success during change.
Dr. Linda Hoopes is the founder and President of Resilience Alliance. For more than twenty years she has studied the role that personal resilience plays in successfully navigating both personal and organizational change.