Why resilient people are critical to delivering organisational change

Sharon Platts

By Sharon Platts

16 Nov 2016

When was the last time you asked yourself how resilient your employees are, or considered addressing this key requirement to ensure the success of a business change? We take a look at why it's important to support employees to build resilience and what strategies can be used to help organisations develop this key capability.

Rostyslav Savchyn 1199255 Unsplash

Every organisation we visit and work with talks about their business context becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Responding to this working environment requires organisations and their people to be more adaptable and resilient than ever. From breaking new markets to competing more fiercely in existing ones, downsizing to growing at pace – whatever the challenge our clients tell us that they need their workforce to become more fleet of foot, engaged with the change required and taking more ownership and responsibility for success.  

Employees need to adapt to new roles and requirements, to build relationships with new managers and teams, to change the way things are done and meet new expectations. Change is never simple and linear; it often causes ambiguity and uncertainty and can take a long time to happen.  Employees with low resilience can find these changes difficult and if left unprepared this can lead to inability to deliver for the organisation and individual stress.

"Resilience is not a trait that we do or do not have at birth, it is a mindset that we learn and build."Kate Keaney, head of talent & organisation development, Connor

Having too many employees in this situation can lead to low productivity, resistance to change, declines in customer service and people leaving or getting sick.

It is well documented that in big change programmes we often focus on the structural, financial, technological and process aspects of change. Yet we know that the people and communication aspects are most likely to be blockers. Resilience is the hot topic we are regularly being asked to help with. Our clients want to support their employees to develop resilience and enable successful change programmes.

Why is employee resilience so important to organisation performance?

Resilience is defined as "the ability to spring back or recover". Sounds simple - and yet the mindset and management of feelings that enable resilience are often overlooked, underplayed or considered 'soft' and non-business related. Despite being at the heart of shaping employees response to change with the business.

So where do you start? When thinking about the impact resilience has on organisational performance, it is useful to understand the component parts of resilience - how people think, feel and act.

Resilient thinking is about being flexible in the way we think about situations, so that we can become even more effective. Resilience is not a trait that we do or do not have at birth, it is a mindset that we learn and build. Those that build this resilient mindset:

  • Are self-aware – they understand their strengths and weaknesses and where they might need to develop and apply new thinking approaches to get better results
  • Accept their own capability and its limitations and will seek multiple perspectives to balance this
  • Are aligned to the over-arching goal and know how and when to prioritise what they are doing to achieve it
  • Are attentive to the impact of their thinking on themselves and others
  • Are flexible in the way they think about change, pressure and workload.

These aspects of acceptance, attentiveness and flexibility determine the extent to which our thinking is strong and resilient.

Individuals who have not accepted their own capability and who aren’t attentive to or flexible in their own thinking, are likely to become overloaded. Ultimately unable to prioritise tasks or cope effectively in high pressured environments.

We all develop 'thinking patterns' - the ways in which we approach a situation or challenge and go about considering and solving it. We develop these patterns over years of experience. Some of us think big and broad and scan the horizon for patterns and links. Others think in detail and specific structures, and assess risk and threats. There are many different ways of thinking. Developing thinking resilience is about developing many ways to think about something so that you don't get stuck in a rut and have another choice about considering and solving a problem when the going gets tough. If you are only equipped with a limited set of thinking styles you soon run out of options, which is when negative feelings kick in and inhibit us.

Resilient feeling is about having flexibility in our response to situations that trigger emotions. People who lack emotional resilience allow their feelings to cloud their judgement and typically have set responses to situations. This lack of emotional resilience is likely to cause the individual internal pressure and stress and create tension in relationships.

People who are resilient are more aware of their emotions and able to manage their state towards positive attitudes and beliefs even in difficult times. They exercise choice in their emotional response, noticing it for what it is and choosing to take a different position.

Those with emotional resilience are unlikely to be heard saying that 'X caused me to feel Y'. They take responsibility for their feelings and know how to recover their sense of positivity quickly.

They also know how to renew and refresh themselves and create opportunities for this to restore emotional balance.

Resilient behaviour results from thinking and feeling resiliently. People with low resilience can act and communicate in a way that has a negative impact on the thinking and feeling of themselves and others. Lack of resilient behaviour is often associated with fixed patterns and responses.

People who develop resilience are flexible to situations, adapting how they think and feel as change happens around them. They are socially aware and mindful of how their behaviour affects others. They communicate with authenticity and encourage others to communicate openly and honestly. Resilient people involve and trust others, valuing their contributions. If they get bad news, they don’t shoot the messenger. They are constantly learning and encouraging others to learn and to create new ways of doing things.  They embody resilient attitudes and that shows up in how they communicate, organise, direct, enable and set-up their work for success.   

In summary, employees who have developed their resilience and are equipped to think, feel and act resiliently are able to cope with change. They are equipped to survive and thrive through ambiguity because they are flexible and can identify options to stay on track. They communicate with others in a way that energises and engages them - instilling hope and positivity by sharing stories and painting pictures that enable those around them to be successful too.

If you want to build a resilient workforce, where do you start?

Leaders can start be asking themselves four key questions:

  • How stretching are the goals and strategy of the organisation?
  • How far away is the organisation from those goals and therefore how much work is needed to achieve them?
  • What market is the organisation operating in, is it changing, competitive or complex?
  • Does a combination of these stretch our employees, requiring a high level of flexibility and engagement?

If the answer to that final question is yes, then consider how resilient your workforce is. Highly complex, stretching and long term strategies tend to require a lot of discretionary effort from employees, and as the organisation changes to meet its goals so does the environment surrounding its people.

You can assess how resilient your people are. Determining this isn't an exact science so consider key data points, carry out internal interviews and use your experience of organisational life and the stories at large within it. Some questions to consider are:

  • How engaged are your employees? Specifically consider workload, objectives, work and home life balance, priorities and line management support
  • What is your current rate of turnover and sickness?
  • Do these vary across different teams with varying levels of pressure?
  • Are more grievance cases being logged as conflict rises?
  • How much training and development have leaders and managers received to support people with change?
  • Have these data points changed year on year?

Completing an assessment and getting insight into employee resilience is critical to determining the level of support and development needed. An understanding of resilience across the organisation will allow you to build an effective, fit for purpose, development programme which may be organisation wide, or may be targeted to specific roles or teams identified as having the greatest need.

What development programmes work best to develop resilience? 

Resilient behaviour comes from flexibility in our thinking and emotions. Connor focuses on providing robust core content in these areas followed by 'embedding' interventions that focus on the application of learning to change mind set and behaviour in the workplace.

Developing flexibility in thinking requires iterative learning over time with space to implement learning and reflect on progress. We work with organisations to create workshops for teams and provide coaching for individuals, with support back in the workplace through learning groups or buddies. We encourage open dialogue with line management and role modelling from senior leaders. This provides a mix of experiential, social and formal learning that increases the likelihood of embedding observable behavioural change.

The content needs to fit the context that individuals are operating in and allow for plenty of discussion and debate. This creates the critical thinking space that is often missing for people to explore, accept and make changes. Typical topics include: 

  • Self-awareness and acceptance
  • Flexibility in thinking
  • Attentiveness
  • Outcome thinking
  • Emotional intelligence and management
  • Attitudes and beliefs
  • Influencing and inspiring
  • Leadership of people through change.

We have found that organisations who commit to behaviour change through leading by example, sharing empowering stories and ultimately holding people to their commitments, see the most effective results.

A few parting words

Every day the world of work becomes more complex, with the growing digital environment leading to an integration of work and home lives – meaning more of us find it harder to 'switch off'. Combined with stretching organisational goals, and a competitive market – we are asking a lot more of employees. As an organisation, being mindful of this growing pressure, and implementing a programme to support and develop your people shows empathy. It is likely to engage them and build an organisation culture able to be flexible and successful during times of high pressure and change.

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