Rethinking Change Resilience

by Aug 21, 2018

  • Conventional wisdom has us building change resilience to help employees cope with change
  • Resilience may be the wrong word to use — it infers the employee needs to brace for change
  • Renewal may be more useful – it encourages employees to embrace change and grow



The need to build Change Resilience


Recently I’ve been working a fair bit in the field of change resilience. It feels like the right thing to do – the pace and volume of change is not slowing, and I think that formal change management programs whether community driven and agile or top down and structured can only do so much. The best frame-work I have found in this space is Lois Kelly’s ‘Change Muscles’. Kelly advocates a holy trinity of 1) strengths based work, 2) appreciation and 3) psychological safety as a way of developing people’s capacity and resilience to change. I like to add some future proofing / growth mindset concepts as well to the mix. If I must be *really* honest, in some ways I’m hedging my bets a bit: if organisations feel they are too busy to do change well, then we need to build change resilience in the troops. It’s not an overly optimistic view. Pragmatic yes, optimistic no.


Brace for change or embrace change?


And interestingly, this was picked up and challenged recently in a workshop. My challenger is Gary Thomson  – one of the incredible change agents in the wild. Relentlessly curious and optimistic. I’ll let Gary share his provocation.


“For me, change resilience conjures secondary meanings of “hold on tight”, “toughen up” and “brace yourself” as if somehow, we only want to change the organisational environmental state but not the employee state. Organisational change is often done to release new opportunities and we therefore need employees to be open to seeing these opportunities with their head up and not head down in the brace position.


Working with technology, particularly in a cutting-edge team in Sportsbet means that we must continually learn and adapt our skills. We need to renew ourselves for the next challenge which is always different from the last. In my time with the company I’ve introduced Cloud, DevOps, and Big Data technologies and of course Agile ways of working to my teams. If I prioritised resilience through these changes then we’d have spent time enduring change and missed the opportunity to look up and change ourselves for the new world that we were creating.


Focussing on resilience seems like a defensive mindset and missed opportunity when employers are always looking for their teams to grab the opportunities that their changes are meant to be delivering. Focussing on renewal helps the employee adapt and prepare to look for the next opportunity.”




It was a great provocation and caution to the implications of the ‘brace yourself’ resilience thinking. I *think* though that Gary and I are talking the same concept (eg helping employees build capability for renewal though strengths based work, appreciation, and psychological safety, growth mindsets). But the word “resilience” has a distinct flavour of blame the employee for NOT being more resilient, rather than a useful quality for people in context of change.


Same. Same. Different.


We unpacked it further in the table below to clarify what was the same and what was different.


Characteristics Renewal Resilience
View of change Change is natural and continuing, lifecycle Change is a hardship to be withstood and adapted to, bounce back
Core mechanisms Learning Future scanning for opportunities Growth mindset Psych safety Emotional management / regulation Future scanning for threats Growth Mindset Psych safety
Knowledge base Positive psychology Positive psychology
Leadership intent We ‘create’ organisational conditions for We ‘make’ employees more resilient
Focus of activities Subject – individual changes themselves Object – we change others to be more resilient
© Thomson and Frahm 2018


And for those of you who are more visual, There’s an infographic at the end of the post to prompt some team discussions!


Not there yet


Neither of us think we’ve got it completely right yet, there’s stuff that niggles at us in this. But we thought it worthwhile to open up to broader inspection and debate. When you look at some of the popular management literature you see support for Gary’s observations. Steven Snyder in his 2013 article “Why is resilience so hard?” in the Harvard Business Review, ends the article with “Only then will you be able to react with the resilience necessary to overcome your struggle” supporting Gary’s concern about the need for ‘resilience’ being a defensive ploy. Perhaps more telling is Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan’s 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review ‘Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure’. They challenge the conventional celebration of endurance as the epitome of resilience and note the importance of recharging, time out and rest as part of creating resilience. These concepts fit with Gary’s thinking on renewal.This of course challenges the very convention of continuously changing organisations and supports why we introduce mindfulness practices as part of resilience work. If organisations will not build in the stops and time to rebalance, recharge then we must do it ourselves.

We put our first draft of the infographic out to the Twitterverse to help us with our thinking. There was a strong theme of resilience AND renewal, rather than an either or and some counsel to consider the reasons ‘why’ change resilience is important. 

 @LoisKellyPeople and orgs bounce back from setbacks by learning from what happened (resilience) and growing from experience (renewal). Both are a choice, but org. conditions, habits help.

@JoeGergen: In my natural state I am a an obstacle is the path person as well as a we make people more resilient person. But since I know there is not a one size fits all approach, being aware of these differences would help me find an option that might gain traction.

 @BruceMcTaguemy cent & 1/2. its almost a ying/yang. renewal is proactive internal energy enabling the fact change is natural. resilience is a reactive force necessary to withstand the challenges of change. i could argue with effective former, don’t need latter as much.

@justsitthere: Missing context…. What immediately comes to mind: beware of the narcissistim of small differences

@HelenMPal: I just spent 3 day retreat with Cynefin people exploring the Resilience topic. It became clear that there are many useful definitions for different contexts. Bounce back, bounce forward, flexible at the margins.

@justsitthere: Not sure about right hand side. Instead of “we make employees more resilient” how about we create / nurture / catalyze conditions for employees / teams to be more resilient.

@HelenMPal: One key question for me: Who is requiring who (or what) to be resilient, or to renew? The entity doing the requiring, has an ‘agenda’ that they want served by the presence of resilience. What is their motivation?

@justsitthere: Same for new row. We create conditions for….

@LoisKelly: Exactly. Leaders can’t make people do anything. What they can do is create conditions, model, inspire, acknowledge resilient and learning behaviors.

@HelenMPal: It bothers me that conversations about Change Resilience (for a person) seem to assume that none already exists. Is it rather that current levels of Change Resilience are insufficient to the next situation to be dealt with? Maybe will always grow into sufficiency for that moment.

Of course on reading these, our change-agent-in-the-wild, Gary, wryly inquired “do you think these people may be resistant to change?”  


As the table shows, I think the differences between the two concepts are quite subtle – witness Andy’s reference to the narcissism of small difference. I’m not sure it changes the mechanics of the work we do, but if I take the lens of renewal I might introduce the concepts differently and add to them, the yin and yang. And Gary has been instrumental in prompting me to consider what the prevailing definition of change resilience is, within the organisation. It’s been a really useful discussion for me to have.

What say you? How many of you are doing change resilience (or renewal) work and what are the core elements that work for you? Is there a difference between the terms for you? We’d love to hear.


With thanks to Andy Cleff, Lois Kelly, Helen Palmer, Joe Gergen and Bruce McTague for generously responding to our call for further thought.


A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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