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Making Friends With Change: How to Increase Your Resilience

Marilyn’s company is about to be sold to a competitor. Her workgroup is downsizing. To stay with the new organization, she has to move to a new location and significantly increase her commute. In addition, her project is implementing new software that she needs to master quickly.

Work-related changes are just the tip of the iceberg for Marilyn.

Her 82-year-old mother recently took a nasty fall. Marilyn is exploring putting her mother in a nursing home because she cannot cope with the stress of caring for her long-distance. Her teen-age son is failing algebra, and his school was recently emptied for several hours by a bomb threat. She is concerned about his Internet surfing and has trouble communicating with him.

Marilyn could easily become immobilized by all the changes in her life. How can she survive and prosper through all the transitions she is experiencing?

“You can learn to discipline yourself to use the forces of change to your advantage—like learning to turn into a skid rather than succumbing to the natural tendency to turn away from it when driving on an icy road,” says psychologist and consultant Daryl Connor.

Connor specializes in helping people and companies develop the resilience to cope with change. The good news for employees? Resilience can be learned.

Five attributes of resilience

Connor notes these five attributes of resilient people:

  1. Positive: They see life as complex but filled with opportunity.
  2. Focused: They have a clear vision of what they want to achieve.
  3. Flexible: They demonstrate pliability when responding to uncertainty.
  4. Organized: They develop structured approaches to managing ambiguity.
  5. Proactive: They engage with change rather than defending against it.

We can build these traits, increasing our ability to assimilate change and our resistance to its negative effects. People with high resilience can become architects of their own and their company’s future. People with a low resilience quotient, however, will be victims of imposed change. Connor calls these “danger-oriented” or Type D people. Type O people, on the other hand, are “opportunity-oriented.”

So what are some ways to become a more opportunity-aware, Type O employee?

Accentuate the positive

Focusing on the positive is an old but extremely useful bromide for employees in the midst of change. It requires being positive on two fronts: about ourselves, first and foremost, and about the world at large.

“Although the world is full of danger, and bad things, if we dwell only on those, we miss the truth that the world is also filled with opportunity and good things,” says Joan Massola, director of the Career Development Center at Pacific Bell.

One of the biggest challenges for most people is their own negative self-talk. We tend to be very self-critical. Massola, who leads resilience workshops for employees, believes positive self-talk must become a daily habit.

“One of Daryl Conner’s key thoughts about resilience is that problems are temporary, they are usually limited to one area of life, and they are never solely our fault,” she says.

Positive people believe that disruptions are part of the ever-changing landscape of life—they are par for the course, not a major crisis. “If there were no change, there would be no disruptions, but the world continues to change, so we have to expect disruptions,” Massola emphasizes.

Focus on clarifying your goals

“You have to identify what you want out of life. If we go around just flapping in the wind about our goals, we never get very far, unless it’s by accident,” Massola says. She advises using self-assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs or the Rokeach Values Survey to identify who you are and what you want out of life.

“If you are driven to do something, obstacles will not get in your way. For instance, if you really want to buy a boat and you are making $50,000 per year, you will find ways to set aside the money if that is your primary goal this year.”

Be a taker as well as a giver

One of Connor’s five resilience traits is flexibility. He says there are two ways to be more flexible: in your thinking and in your social support system.

“Many adults have a hard time understanding that social flexibility means taking from society as well as giving,” Massola points out. “Many people can give, but old school thinking says you shouldn’t take. In today’s world, you need companionship from the community, from the church, or from the family—you need a support system that will be there for you in the midst of change,” she advises.

Learned optimism

Psychologist Martin Seligman says we learn limitations from parents, families, and our environment, but we can teach ourselves to think more realistically if we:

  • Focus on the positive side of situations.
  • Try to avoid global statements.
  • Catch, dispute, and correct our negative self-talk and thoughts.
  • Make lists of statements that are global, blaming or grandiose and consciously change them.


Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges. Perseus Press, 1991.

Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas by Edward de Bono. Harper Business, 1992.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

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