Helping people understand and manage their own responses to change is a very powerful tool for increasing organizational change capability. Many organizations include resilience (and related topics such as agility, nimbleness, change readiness and mindfulness) in their leader and employee development curricula and find it helpful for giving people new perspectives on dealing with challenges and adversity that are useful both on and off the job.
Be careful, though. There are some situations where it’s a really bad idea to invest in resilience training. Here are three of them:
- You are implementing more change than even highly resilient people can absorb. When you are exceeding the change capacity of even the most change-ready people in your organization, you are creating a situation in which everyone is overwhelmed. When people are overwhelmed, they spend their limited supply of energy on those things that are absolutely critical to do. Everything else gets done at a cursory level (if it gets done at all). Although this may seem like the perfect time to help people learn to deal with change more effectively, it’s not. Why? The operative word is learning. People don’t internalize what they learn unless they are able to focus attention on new insights and practice new mindsets and behaviors. This takes time and energy, which overwhelmed people simply do not have. In addition, managers will find it difficult to get people together for the time needed for high-quality training or to engage in the follow-up coaching and reinforcement needed to embed new learning. Creating the space for people to learn is almost impossible in a change-saturated environment. So what can you do? Start by prioritizing change initiatives and stopping or delaying the less critical ones. This can help create some slack—some room for learning. Then, design training that allows a small amount of content to be learned, practiced, and reinforced in a given time period, followed by additional bite-size modules.
- You do a lousy job of change management. Imagine that you are an employee in an organization where changes are routinely implemented badly. Communication is unclear or absent entirely, human needs are not thought through before implementation, leaders are not prepared for their roles, and the whole system is oriented to fighting fires and managing crises rather than thoughtful planning and risk management. Now imagine that you get an email telling you that you have been scheduled to attend resilience training. The message cheerily informs you that this workshop will help you learn and manage your own responses to change. If you’re like me, you would have two basic responses to this. First: Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t need to learn to manage my own responses to change if you guys didn’t do such a lousy job of it in the first place. Second: What’s this really about? There must be some big change coming that they’re not telling me about, and they’re trying to cover their butts by making it my problem if I don’t deal with it well. When change is badly implemented, people become skeptical of just about everything, particularly things said and done by management. So what can you do? Before you can get their attention to help them build resilience, you need to meet them half way by ensuring that you are doing your part. This means taking the time to develop and apply an effective and consistent approach to change implementation in each major change initiative.
- Your culture is toxic. When you teach people to be resilient, they learn to be more open to change, more willing to experiment and take risks, and more likely to say and do things that support their personal health and well-being. In a toxic culture, these signs of health are frequently punished—not just by leaders, but by coworkers who are unhappy and lash out at those who are seeking to change the world they have become familiar with. When someone suggests a new way of doing things, they are likely to be met with cynicism and disdain. When someone seeks to set a healthy personal boundary such as leaving the office in time to exercise on the way home, they may experience negative repercussions and judgment. These responses from bosses and peers have two effects. They encourage the most resilient people to leave and find environments in which they can practice their newly-developed skills, and they cause those who stay to become even more cynical about the value of self-development. In either case, the investment in resilience is lost. So what can you do? Start with senior leaders, educating them about resilience and their role in creating a resilient culture. Ensure that new behaviors are modeled and reinforced throughout the organization. Take the time to create a culture that supports resilience and individual well-being.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m (obviously) a big fan of helping people learn to be more resilient. However, I’m also a big fan of making sure you get the full business results of your investment. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on this topic!