Today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – also referred to as VUCA – environment is accelerating at a pace that threatens to overwhelm. However, according to the 2019 Change Lab Workplace Survey, it is the quality of change leadership, rather than the quantity of change, that drains or sustains. In the face of fluctuating regulations, disruptive competitors and emergent client requirements, learning professionals and people leaders can employ five strategies to build resilience.
The Resilience Remedy
Resilience is the ability to adapt well in the face of threat, adversity or significant stress. A critical survival element to assimilate to ongoing change, resilience allows oneself to bounce back after hardship.
- Steward your mind and emotions
Change is a journey to a place you and your peers have never been before. This is risky business. Rather than moving straight from current state to goal state, the path of change curves with emotional dips, including fear and anger, as employees leave the status quo behind for the great unknown. People often take change personally. Fueling this emotional dip, per the NeuroLeadership Institute, is a sense of social threat — fear of how the change will impact oneself and their interactions with others. Without a growth mindset, new and uncharted paths increase that sense of threat.
The growth mindset, characterized by Dr. Carol Dweck as a bent toward true learning, includes a willingness to embrace challenge and persist through adversity – qualities essential for successfully navigating change. As you travel through the change curve, allow for progress rather than perfection. Individuals with growth mindsets stretch themselves, accept feedback and take the long view. An openness to hard work, risk and even the prospect of failure provide foundational aspects for cultivating change resilience.
To develop a growth mindset, become aware of the personal narrative in your head. If you notice that you quickly approach on problems with fixed answers or solutions, open yourself up to alternatives. During times of challenge, speak statements that make room for growth. For example, if a new opportunity is bungled, rather than remarking, “Wow, that was really bad,” try saying, “Guess I am not there quite yet. I need more practice.” Allowing for growth relieves pressure and enables you to set appropriate expectations.
Through their words and actions, leaders either communicate a sense of hope for the future or foster stress and fear. The most effective leaders of change develop their emotional intelligence in order to leverage the power of positivity as they move their people through change. Emotions are contagious, so be careful what you spread!
- Exert agency by taking action
Agency, as defined by the social sciences, is the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Taking self-directed action, or exerting agency, can lower one’s threat meter.
When experiencing change, start by asking yourself what you can control in the present situation. For example, in the case of a reorganization, you might familiarize yourself with new org charts, meet your new boss and discover their vision, recall how your personal strengths have served you through past changes, and tailor your experience to align with the new environment.
Even in situations where you have little or no control, you can find actions that move you toward small wins. At the very least, determine to control your response to change by beginning with your attitude. Do you need to come to terms with the change by practicing acceptance? Aim to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Comfortable is nice, but it’s not a necessity.
As a learning leader, help employees exert their agency by giving them opportunities to weigh in on strategies for managing the change at hand. Give team members options when possible, and invite them to think creatively and take ownership of the change journey.
- Clarify the why and create a way
Understanding the why behind a change helps secure a sense of purpose and set a shared strategy. It is important to know the organizational rationale for change and be able to share it with your team. On a personal level, discover how the organizational why aligns with your personal why — your vision, values and purpose. This enables you to honor yourself and your principles in a world of change.
Beyond why, you need a way. The way is not a detailed how-to but a broad overview of where you are heading and how you plan to get there. The Heath brothers call this a “destination postcard.” You don’t need to know all the turns, but you do need to know you are going to California – not New York or Chicago. As a learning leader, this means identifying the most important actions while leaving room to work through the details later. Having a sense of where you are going and why you are moving in that direction combats concerns that escalate change fatigue.
By way of illustration, as part of a global training project sponsored by the Department of State, a group of international government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders from a developing country worked together with experts in the U.S. to expand their understanding of governance, transparency and citizen participation. The intent was that, upon their return home, these leaders would further develop these capacities in their country. Trust between government and the new NGO entity was fledgling, so they began to identify the rationale for working together that made sense to both groups, illustrating the value of NGO work and the benefit of government partnership. The U.S. team provided guiding principles like collaboration, minimal force, and checks and balances. Then they identified some critical actions to get them on their way. With access to local programs, the global leaders saw firsthand how police, the legal system and nonprofits collaborate to address issues such as domestic violence.
A year after the project, the team learned that a training program for an entire division of their federal police force was rewritten to implement these principles in the participants’ home country. This solution could not have been prescribed initially. By clarifying the why and creating a way that provided a general direction and identified critical moves, the international leaders could do the rest.
- Coach by leaning in
Reframe resistance. Resistance – the refusal to accept or comply with someone or something — is normal, and it is not necessarily negative. It indicates that people need more time, information or support to process the change. That’s where your role as coach comes in. Rather than trying to avoid or squelch resistance, leaders who foster change resilience lean in and investigate the reasons for resistance.
Consider your reaction when a team member expresses uncertainty or a lack of support to change. Are you quick to defend, or do you explore their reluctance? Often, what looks like resistance is an expression of concern rising from their commitment. In order to coach your team through the change, you must first understand where they are coming from.
Ask more questions, and make fewer statements. Have transparent, one-on-one conversations. Be curious, and adopt an attitude of openness – contributing to a sense of equity. As The Change Lab recommends, ask employees about their best experiences with the change at hand, collect their ideas of what success looks like and gather suggestions on how this might be actualized.
- Create a culture of caring
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, create a culture of caring. What is the biggest drain on resilience at work? A Harvard Business Review article reported that 75% of the British employees surveyed feel the biggest workplace drain is not the speed of change but managing difficult workplace relationships and politics.
Similarly, research by Dr. Rebecca Erickson demonstrates that the emotional context of the workplace correlates with burnout. Employees working in environments with low trust and high levels of agitation, frustration and futility report stress levels and burnout rates nearly three times higher than employees who work in positive emotional environments. Positive, stable emotional work environments serve as an inoculation against burnout caused by workplace stress.
To foster change resilience, create a space where it is safe to voice opinions, share ideas and make mistakes. Practically speaking, one of the most powerful things you can do for your team is create personal connections and a psychologically safe work environment. A culture of caring that says, “We are in this together,” strengthens change resilience in yourself and among others. Ask the magic question: “What do you need and how can I help?” Become intentional about investing in relationships with your co-workers.
The speed of change continues to accelerate, but it is the quality of change leadership that drains or sustains. By employing these five strategies, L&D teams and people leaders can foster the ability to bounce back from change quickly, implement change readily and sustain ongoing resilience continually.