Human energy is the currency of change. Mental, emotional, and physical energy are required to shift minds, hearts, and bodies into new patterns. Resilience—thriving in the midst of turbulence—ultimately comes down to how people use their energy when they encounter disruption.
In this series I’m going to take this basic premise and look at it from three different directions: What can individuals do to manage their own energy effectively during change? What can leaders do to create an environment that supports resilience? What can change agents do to execute initiatives in a way that optimizes resilience? So here we go with Part 1.
People are fundamentally resilient. One way or another, we pick up and carry on after just about anything—natural disasters, broken hearts, even the Holocaust. Most organizational change is relatively small in comparison to the challenges that people have overcome in other arenas of life. Why, then, do we sometimes struggle with it so?
In many ways, organizational change creates the same dynamics that life crises do. When people make decisions that affect us, we experience a loss of control. When those decisions require us to change established patterns of thinking and behaving, we grieve the loss of the familiar and we get frustrated when our mental models of how to operate no longer work. We expend energy to help us work through the emotions and build new mental models that enable us to succeed. We adapt. But sometimes we thrash around a lot in the process and burn up energy that we could be using more productively.
Some people seem to go through this process of adaptation more easily than others. In other words, they get better results with less wasted energy. There’s no big mystery to it…research and experience point to a set of elements that help them do this. Let me briefly describe each of them.
Positive This one is the cornerstone. When you are able to see hope and possibility in dark corners, you have a reason to engage your energy in dealing with the challenges. If all you see are dangers, your energy goes into worrying, defending, and protecting.
Focused By definition, change brings confusion and ambiguity. It’s not always clear what you should be doing with that limited supply of energy. If you’ve done the work of thinking about what’s important to you, and you’ve practiced saying “no” to anything that’s not, you can direct your energy wisely. If you’re responding to others’ needs and demands without a compass, you will scatter your energy all over the place and end up burned out and drained.
Flexible Most change involves solving unfamiliar problems and generating new approaches. There are two things that can help you here. First, being good at coming up with a lot of ideas. Not only is this fun, which means it usually increases your energy level, but it also helps you identify possibilities and options. When you only stick with familiar ways of thinking, and look for “the one right answer” too soon, you usually get frustrated and drain your energy trying to make old answers fit new questions.
The second part of being flexible is recognizing that other people have energy too. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Drawing on others’ mental capacity, emotional support, and physical assistance boosts your available resources. When you try to go it alone, you use more of your energy than you need to.
Organized In the midst of turbulence, order and stability play a critical role. You need to be able to establish zones of predictability by creating effective structures and plans, and using them with disciplined attention. Otherwise your energy gets drained in chaos and clutter.
Proactive If you wait for certainty before doing anything to respond to the challenges of change, you will wait a long time and miss a lot of departing trains. This last element of resilience is about taking risks; moving out of your comfort zone; experimenting and learning. You can waste an awful lot of energy trying to create a perfect solution. Sometimes you just have to move, see what happens, and adjust from there.
So the next obvious question is: Can people learn to do these things better, or are we born with a level of resilience we can’t change? My answer: These characteristics are like muscles. Some people start with more than others, but through regular practice, we can all get stronger. It’s not necessarily easy, and you don’t do it in one training class. Instead, you take time every day to do the resilience equivalent of push ups and biceps curls, so that when the challenges hit, your responses come easily and you apply your energy efficiently and effectively to adapt to the changes you face.