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When We're Faced with Change, We Can Either Fence Ourselves in or Make Ourselves More Resilient

Mangroves A few days ago there was a story on NPR's All Things Considered about coral reefs and mangroves and protecting against global warming. One of the environmentalists interviewed on the show pointed out that the typical environmentalist response to danger is to fence it out. But when the enemy is global warming, fences don't work. The only way to deal with this kind of change is to make the species more resilient.

I think it's pretty typical human behavior to build fences as a protection against change that we perceive as danger. Unfortunately, we tend to interpret most change as being potentially dangerous. And in a world that is full of constant change, that's an awful lot of fence-building. Despite our fences, somehow change always finds its way in.

So I started thinking that maybe we should stop planning ways to keep change out and instead focus on ways to make ourselves more resilient in the face of change. Some of the ways I've tried to build my own resilience:

  • Find my personal mission. When life has meaning, you can be remarkably resilient. Ask Viktor Frankl. This is something I'm always searching for, though. It seems to change or maybe I haven't found that core meaning yet. I do know that when I feel a sense of purpose, I'm more willing and able to deal with change.
  • Know my strengths. I think that part of being resilient is understanding my areas of strength and building on those. In particular I always try to find work that maximizes my strengths and minimizes my weaknesses.  Great advice from Marcus Buckingham that I'm always trying to live by.
  • Focus on what's in my control. This is a tough one for me. I seem to believe that just about everything that happens in the world  is somehow responding to some action I've taken. I can spend a lot of time fretting about things over which I really have no control. So I'm always trying to separate out for myself the things that I can do something about and the things that I have to leave behind. Sometimes easier said than done, of course.
  • Look for the opportunities in change. This is one I've gotten pretty good at. Whenever I see a change coming, I try to find a way to take advantage of it. This is also a great way to look at failure.
  • Build my personal capacity to bounce back. Part of resilience is understanding what "fills your well." I've learned that I need a lot of time to myself, I need good food, yoga, friends to talk to, books to read, my journal to write in, time with my husband and daughters, stimulating conversations both on and offline, and this blog. All of these things help me keep my perspective and build my resilience.

To me, we have both personal and organizational responsibility to become more resilient ourselves and to help those around us. Sort of like putting on our own oxygen mask so we can help others find theirs.  This feels particularly true in the human services sector where so much of what we're dealing with is a lack of resilience. Instead, we often see a brittle, fearful response to change that can break our clients (and ourselves) in two if we don't learn how to bend.

So what have you done to become more resilient?

Photo via ERK.


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Interesting overview.

My (so far secret) personal recipe for coping with change is to embrace it and find practical uses for a change that I'm faced with rather than fight it. I notice too that (as you mention) "we tend to interpret most change as being potentially dangerous". (I'm prety sure that there is some subconscious reason for that.) I once heard that in Nature everything tries to achieve a "stable state", which could be the reason for man's resistence to change.

As as child (and well into my teens) I remember having been pretty afraid of any change. However at a certain stage, I actually seeked change, particularly in my jobs and my hobbies. If I look at my initial reaction to computers some 25 years ago and what I have been doing and discovering ever since, I feel I fully have embraced change and completely lost my fear of it.

I thoroughly enjoy learning new things (about almost any subject); I love the Internet and its possibilities, especially what is now commonly called Web 2.0. In my view the Internet is quickly moving towards a worldwide community, instead of just a library of information (which is not bad in itself eihter). Information and thought sharing on a global basis (such as what you do with this blog) is extremely fascinating. Gone are the days when some (non-elected) "authority" on tv told you what to think - you can now read from REAL people and learn and discuss without the intervention of an authority. Love it!

The other bit that very much helps me to accept change is the "what's in my control" thing you mention.

Just my two (euro)cents' worth.

All of these are great suggestions. The last 4 are things that I practice every day (because you can never really achieve them). #1 I'm still working on, although sometimes I think I'm really waiting for my personal mission to find me.

As a software development manager, dealing with resistance to change is one of the biggest challenges of my job. People do not want to change how they do things, even for the better! This experience has helped me develop a more measured view of change, I think. Instead of expecting significant change to come quickly or even worse, trying to force it into happening, I recognize that change is slow, change is inevitable and usually change is good.

It seems kind of silly recommending a science fiction novel to find methods for dealing with change, but Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents really gave me a lot of worthwhile tools for thinking about and coping with change. They're good books regardless.

Excellent post Michele. Dealing with imposed change is also a big issue for entrepreneurs, even though they are in the business of making changes. I often tell the Rudyard Kipling story of the "stick in the mud" that breaks in the storm, where the stalk of BAMBOO bends in the flood waters. Resilience also gets talked about as rebounding from failures, renewing intentions, reviving resourcefulness and recovering from setbacks.

I have a problem with the Marcus Buckingham's well-intentioned advice about strengths. I agree we can easily get mired down by dwelling on our shortcomings. We give ourselves inferiority complexes, insecurities and inhibitions when we do that. The quick fix is to dwell on our strengths. Yet "nothing fails like assured success" and "a show of strength is a sign of weakness". "Sticks in the mud" rely on strengths that are rigid, prideful, idealized and fixated. The issue of strengths is two sided and they insist it's not. What I've done to become more resilient is to find strengths in my weaknesses and weaknesses in my strengths.

Our weaknesses become our greatest strengths and the source of our resilience. Our strengths can be our undoing when they avoid our weaknesses, pass up the hidden strengths in them (your post yesterday) and "make a thing of being strong". Our weaknesses give us humility, vulnerability and flexibility. Our weaknesses give us a taste for what is hidden, subtle and indirect about ourselves and others.

A shy person cannot be outgoing (obvious weakness), but can be very observant, attentive and insightful (hidden strength). A boisterous person (obvious strength) cannot be insightful, observant, and attentive (inherent weakness). An empathic person cannot be competitive or aggressive (obvious weakness) but can be understanding, collaborative and cooperative (hidden strength). A successful competitor cannot cooperate, concede or confide with rivals and enemies (inherent weakness).

Wow! Lots to chew on here!

Frank, I agree with you that one of the best ways to deal with change is to embrace it. I'm like you where I've begun to actually seek change. I tend to get bored if things are too constant. At the same time, I do have my little rituals that stay the same and that give me a little stability within the changing world. I think that if someone told me I couldn't have coffee in the morning, that would definitely be a change I'd fight tooth and nail! :-)

Shannon--thanks for the book suggestions. I'll definitely check those out. I hear what you're saying about needing to take change slowly at times. I really hate that I have to do that, though. I become very impatient, which obviously doesn't help anyone make adjustments to change. It just makes them more resistant. I try to let go and realize that each person has to come to change in their own time, but boy that's hard! You seem to have mastered that a little better than I have.

Tom--as always, lots to think about in your comment. I hear what you're saying re: the issue of weaknesses, and finding the hidden strengths in them. I think where I'm coming from on this one is that I find that we spend a lot of time trying to "fix" people or make people fit into molds for which they aren't really suited. I see this a lot in work environments where managers don't take full advantage of the strengths that people bring to the table and instead focus on fixing their weaknesses. It can get really depressing for all involved.

If we were able to look at weaknesses as you describe, then I'd feel better about that and I can see what you mean about how they contribute to our resilience. One thing that I've repeatedly seen, though, is that people aren't really aware of their strengths and how they can build on those talents because we spend so much time on what's "wrong." Maybe where I want to land here is on people having a sense of what they can rely on in themselves, whether it's from strengths or from the hidden strengths of their weaknesses.

Not sure I'm making sense here. . . a long day of driving and meetings. . . Thanks for all the great comments and ideas here!

The problem of profiling staff members occurs even in intensely creative design firms. Individuals get typecast by their initial contributions and ignored as having other potentials, contributions and growth possibilities. It takes a conscious effort to explore other options, as you're suggesting. Thinking about "what-if" this person was given a different__, challenged by a __, put in a situation with __ or teamed up with ___ works much better than thinking about "what-is" this person's weaknesses, shortcomings, proven abilities, traits, and past history.

I think there is a big connection between the framing of mistakes and those problems you mention of dwelling on weaknesses, fixing other people, neglecting hidden talents, etc. If mistakes are unquestionably bad, the atmosphere is oppressive and people are always in deep trouble. If mistakes can be measured and compared for how bad they are, the culture is competitive, controlling and divisive. In either case, weaknesses are framed as problems, threats and embarrassments. The urge to fix people will be strong.

If mistakes are "useful, essential to growth and components of trial & error learning", then weaknesses are opportunities, clues to hidden strengths and one side of a coin. The urge to develop, mentor and coach people will overtake the mechanistic urge to fix them. If mistakes get framed as perfect, they are seen as indicators of the larger system: imbalances, short circuits, disconnects - that will reproduce the problem until the inter-dependencies are realigned. No one is blamed, all is forgiven and work is focused on changing the connections that create the mistake.

This change begins with us, not them. We naturally see mistakes as useful when we are in roles as outsiders, consultants, advisors and mentors. We need to see the "dwelling on weaknesses, fixing others, etc" as valuable mistakes. By framing the way mistakes are perceived, other changes will fall into place.

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