Avoiding the resilience trap: How NOT to Change Series, Part 1

By Sonia Tallarida

Avoiding the Resilience Trap is Part 1, in my new series of articles on ‘How NOT to change’. This series is a collection of 10 articles filled with tips and strategies, for individuals and teams, on what traps you’ll need to avoid to achieve successful change. 

We hear all sorts of buzzwords about change ready people – they are resilient, optimistic, action-oriented, independent thinkers and have a predisposition to action. These are all really useful traits that we mostly strive for, however even positive traits, when overdone or misused, can push you off the change path.   

When we work with people to help them to take big leaps forward, we’ve noticed some similarities in the ways they accidentally block their own success. Some of these success blockers may surprise you. Are you sabotaging your own success simply by doing what you thought was right? Follow this series and learn which tried and tested strategies you should avoid and which you should engage. 

The surprising downside of resilience… 

TIP 1: Avoid being too resilient:

So many success stories start with tales of resilience. Think about your favourite superhero, and I bet you they have risen from the ashes of more than challenging beginnings. Resilience is vital. It plays a key role in enabling us to change, flex, overcome challenges and to take on real growth.

However, sometimes being too resilient can hold you back from the change you need to make to grow and succeed. So, while a level of resilience is essential, when this positive trait is overused it can seriously limit you from achieving your potential.

I was watching a cringe-worthy movie the other day called ‘Creed’ –yes… it was one of the gems of the Rocky Balboa franchise that follows the tale of the son of a boxer who strives, against incredible odds, to win an unwinnable fight. Watching him stick it out in the ring and just keep coping hit after hit, was like watching a replay of his difficult childhood – where he was constantly bullied by the bigger boys, and resiliently fought his way out of every situation.

I was intrigued at how proud he was of his fighting skills – so much so that he gave up a ‘good job’ and a stunning home he’s shared with a person who loved him, to live in closer to the ghetto all in order to seek out more fights he wasn’t trained to win.

It’s a typical “underdog” storyline – done well, as we didn’t feel pity for him – here was a go-get-‘em winner, who took on whatever the world dished out, flipped it to his advantage and went right back at the world, with the aim of coming out on top.

Great narrative, right? Sure.  But he took a lot of punches.  A lot of terribly risky blows to the head and the kidneys, and nasty hits that could have resulted in things much worse than a black eye or split lip.  And, frankly, his motivation for putting himself through all of it seemed to be simply, “because I can take it”.

I remember my own version of this one.  When I was a couple of years into my banking career and working for a senior executive, one step away from CEO, I prepared a change plan for an upcoming culture change.  This had been a big promotion for me. I was in my first week on the job and I was keen to impress.  We were sitting together in the open plan area of the executive floor, and I was nervously waiting as my boss read my paper, across the table.  When he finished it, he looked up and without a word ripped it in half, threw it on the table and sat back in his chair. Far out…I blinked…breathed a single breath…and used all I had to stop myself from running out of the room screaming. I was mortified as my eyes darted across the room to check who else might have been watching. Another breath and I composed myself and tried to salvage my dignity, saying “So…I guess that’s back to the drawing board then?  Let’s grab a whiteboard and start over”.  The exec laughed and said, “No, no need, I actually thought it was great – I just wanted to see how you would respond”.

Clearly, this was some sort of ‘psycho boss test’, which apparently I had passed.  I felt a flush of pride in my capacity to deal with it. Then leant forward and said: “You know, it’s perfectly fine for you to behave that way with me… however, most people in my position would have run screaming for the door”.   Notice that statement.  Why didn’t I just say “Sure, keep smashing me in the head with a blunt instrument – I can take it, I’m strong and proud”?   Well, I may as well have, because the next year in that role was turned out to be a living nightmare.  Even so, I grinned and smiled and worked through it in the most professional way I could – after all, I COULD HANDLE IT.  I figured this was part of working at senior levels.

In case you are wondering, this is NOT how I would handle that situation nowadays. I now understand my response as passive avoidance and hope for change.  I should have been clear about the real impact on me and laid out my expectations for future interactions.

Sometimes, when we are accustomed to “bouncing back” from a difficult situation – perhaps a working environment where poor behaviours are an everyday occurrence  – we can get so used to getting up and getting on with it, we almost forget that the situation should not be happening in the first place. Our skill, of being able to deal with it, actually holds us back from making a change or speaking up.

Just because you CAN take it… doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  Being resilient can sometimes hold us to a pattern of behaviour where we don’t speak up, or were we all too easily accept the “that’s just the way things work around here” line.

So how do you know the difference between helpful resilience and hyper resilience? Is your resilience helping you to grow, flex or move forward? Or is your resilient behaviour in overdrive, reinforcing the very situation you want to resolve?

The difference is in what you are feeling post your moment of resilience. After a “flexible” resilience move, you’ll notice you feel better about yourself and proud that you’ve overcome or addressed the difficult situation.  Following a hyper-resilient experience, you’ll notice a loss of energy or morale; you might feel exhausted immediately before or after the situation.  This is a great indicator to watch for.  If this is happening you’ll know that your way of ‘dealing with it’ is flawed and is actually not helping you to deal with it, at all.

So how do you avoid being caught in the hyper-resilience trap?

My tip is to strive to be adaptive, rather than resilient. Adaptive behaviours are much more powerful than resilient actions.

An adaptive mindset is one where you:

  1. OBSERVE: Ensure you are aware of the situation, complications, and connected factors.
  2. CLARIFY: Be clear about your own thinking, feelings, motives, rights and expectations.  Consider and challenge the assumptions or beliefs that hold you back from dealing with the situation.
  3. BE ACCOUNTABLE: Assess your own role in developing the situation and prepare to take accountability it. Identify what is NOT yours to own and who should own it instead.
  4. ACT HONESTLY: Deal with the situation honestly, graciously and fearlessly.  Say what need to be said. Be clear about your expectations and the implications of no change.
  5. EXPERIMENT:  Change what needs changing, within you and the environment. If you have stated a consequence for inaction – make sure you follow through.  If the first experiment doesn’t work try something else until you find a way through it… or out of it.
  6. INTEGRATE: Embed your new approach to thinking, feeling and acting into your environment to create a new “way we do things around here”.

There are of course no guarantees that your first adaptive response will generate change – true adaptation is often the result of several attempts.

Next time you catch yourself in a situation where you feel you need to be more resilient, just take a second to check-in and ask yourself, “What type of action do I need to take to best get through this…resilient or adaptive?”

Stay tuned for our next article in the How NOT to Change series on ‘independence’.


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