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Increase Your Resilience in the Face of Change

MAY 2001

By Dr. Carol McCoy

Have you ever been laid off from work or had to deal with the possibility of losing your job? Ever taken on new responsibilities that you weren't sure you could handle? Ever been through a merger where the company changed so significantly you didn't feel like it was the same place anymore? Ever been married or divorced? Ever had children or inherited children through an extended family?

We deal with constant change in our daily lives. Resilience -- the ability to bounce back and thrive during change -- may be the most important competency of the 21st century. How can we become more resilient? There are ways to develop this critical skill.

Think of the resilient people you have known. What were they like? My role model for resilience was my grandmother, Connie, who lived to be just shy of 99. She had a wonderful sense of humor and perspective. Whenever people complained about a terrible storm, she would say, "It wasn't as bad as the blizzard of 1888."

She appreciated her life even though when she was in her 90's her husband of 60 years and nearly all her friends had passed away. In spite of these losses, when people asked her how she was, she would answer, "Not bad, when you consider the alternative." Sometimes she would apologize for not being "scintillating". With her optimism and humor, she couldn't help but scintillate.

Daryl Conner has studied resilient people, and found that they have five key characteristics. The first is a positive outlook, which includes both an optimistic view of the world as well a positive view of oneself. The Chinese symbol for “crisis” includes the symbols for both “opportunity” and “danger.” People who can see the opportunities in any situation are able to appreciate the positive aspects of any change and to make the best of a situation.

My world as a consultant is exciting and unpredictable. The loss of a possible assignment is offset by the possibility of other desirable activities. Positive view of oneself refers to the confidence that you can get through change, challenge, and unknown situations. Every one of us has had to deal with change in one way or another. Learning to appreciate your own strengths and developing additional ones are keys to a positive self-concept.

The second characteristic is focus. People who know their own values and goals can maintain a constant focus on what's important to them despite the swirl of constant change around them. Focusing on your own values serves as an important anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

A colleague of mine who decided to change her career to psychology after reaching 50 provides a great example of this. While working full-time at a high-powered job in Portland, she commuted to a college in Boston to pursue her master’s. Despite the grueling commute and demanding schedule, she completed her degree in 14 months. Afterwards, she marveled at her accomplishment given all the challenge and all the change.

A third quality is being flexible, both in terms of your thinking and your ability to deal with a variety of people. When faced with obstacles, do you look at a range of approaches you can take, do you insist on your own way, or do you give up at the first sign of serious difficulty?

There are many ways to increase your flexibility. One of the best ways is to learn new skills that are completely different from the ones you possess now. For those of us who are "left-brained" and somewhat analytical, we can learn a lot from "right-brained" activities. For example, learning to sky dive, do t’ai chi, cook, paint, act, or play a musical instrument can help give you a deeper appreciation for intuitive solutions.

Another part of flexibility is the ability to deal with people who are not like you and the ability to draw on a wide social network of people for support during challenging times. Do you welcome new people into your group or are you suspicious of newcomers who have different ideas? Learning to appreciate the strengths of people who are not like you can help you cope with change.

Every group benefits from having diverse individuals, or it can easily suffer from "group think.” All groups need to have people, who see the big picture and those who notice the details, those who readily speak their minds and those who reflect before speaking, those who want to explore issues fully and those who want to reach closure.

Taking a workshop on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can help you learn to understand your style and how to work with those with different preferences.

A fourth characteristic of resilient people is the ability to remain organized in the face of ambiguity. We never have all the information about any change, even if we are senior managers. Yet there are always constructive actions that we can take despite incomplete information.

For example, if you learn that your company may experience layoffs you can help to prepare yourself. Keep your resume up to date. Check the company's job postings or look on the web for job opportunities. See a career counselor. Start to network with other people. Learn about other jobs that might be interesting to you.

The final characteristic is being proactive, embracing a change versus defending against it. Our natural tendency when change is thrust upon us is to try to preserve the status quo. Yet the more we put energy into resisting a change, the less energy we have to make positive things happen.

How can you identify the potential opportunities within the change? What are ways that you can influence the change positively? Who can you ask to find out about the change? Are there still decisions that you can influence? Can you volunteer to be on various committees which lead the change?

Spencer Johnson's little book “Who Moved My Cheese?” provides a powerful allegory that describes how we respond to change. If someone has moved your cheese, you need to move to where there is new cheese, not look in the place where the cheese used to be.

Dr. Carol P. McCoy is president of McCoy Training and Development Resources, a consulting firm in Falmouth, Maine. The mission of MTDR is to help individuals and organizations find solutions that help them meet their goals by increasing their effectiveness and resilience in a constantly changing world. She serves clients throughout the Northeast.

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