Building Resilience as a Leader: thriving in the face of change

Bill Hefferman will be speaking at the ACMP National Conference, in Las Vegas, NV, on March 27th, 2018. Learn more here.

As a leader, being cognizant of your own emotional reaction to change – and aware of how to build your own resiliency to that change – is like putting your oxygen mask on before helping others. We can make or break a change effort by our attitude. It’s imperative we get ourselves under control and on board as quickly as possible, so we can shepherd our people through their own reaction to the change.

But here’s the deal: we can practice progressive and creative change management until the cows come home, but if we as leaders are in the throes of our own reaction to a change, we’re never going to see those benefits. We all know how important an engaged and prepared leader is; conversely, a leader in the midst of an emotional crisis isn’t in the right head-space to deal with their people’s questions and concerns, isn’t able to effectively allay fears, and most of all isn’t able to turn people’s thoughts into more productive pathways.

But here’s the deal: we can practice progressive and creative change management until the cows come home, but if we as leaders are in the throes of our own reaction to a change, we’re never going to see those benefits.

Depending on who you ask, between a quarter and a third of the population is naturally resilient to change.1 You probably know resilient people like that yourself: they tend to be more positive, tend to quickly shift their focus to how to meet the needs of the future, and tend to naturally focus on the benefits of a change. The good news is that leaders can be trained to react better to change. Or, more to the point, you can train yourself.

Before we get to the how, let’s take a look at the fundamental mental process that happens to people in the face of adversity.

Fight, face, freeze, or fight: below the line behavior that doesn’t show resilience.

To simplify things a little, let’s think of our brains as having two parts. What I’m going to call our “old brain” is our fight, flight, or freeze part – it’s the part of our brain that reacts automatically in response to a stressor, with very little, if any, conscious thought. The oldest part of our mammalian brain, it helps us survive, and has helped us survive for millennia. In contrast is what I’m going to call the “mind”; our executive function, our higher thinking/problem-solving part of the brain. It’s what makes us human; it’s that part that allows us to step back and see things from a broader perspective.

When you’re using your “old brain” — when you’re spun up into fight, flight, or freeze because of some external stress — you have little access to your executive function.2 This means that your very own old brain is preventing you from embracing the change. But you can teach yourself to move out of that old brain and into your thoughtful mind rather than staying stuck in your mammalian fight or flight response.

How? From a brain science perspective, all acts of resilience start with simple awareness and observation: “hmm, what’s going on with me? I seem to be reacting with X response”. The key to resiliency is to catch yourself in that moment, when you’re in that old fight/flight/freeze part of your brain, and access instead your executive function rather than continuing to spin out of control. This enables you to begin to think more strategically, to focus on solutions instead of problems, and to move forward with more optimism. It’s a game we call catch-and-switch.

Think of it as a line across a piece of paper: all the old brain fight/flight/freeze stuff is below the line, and all the resourceful, productive, thoughtful mind creativity and innovation is above the line.3 At any moment in time, you can ask yourself where you are, and what your trajectory is. Are you above the line? Spiraling in place below the line? Below the line, but moving upwards? Ask yourself where you are, and where you want to be. Studies have shown that by simply naming the emotions we are feeling helps lessen their power over us. Assessing our situation with self-empathy and calm appraisal starts us on the path to resilience.

From a brain science perspective, all acts of resilience start with simple awareness and observation.

For those of us not blessed with natural resilience, learning to consciously move above the line when gob-smacked by a stress or change requires training, just like exercising a muscle. I’ve collected a bunch of hacks you can use to train yourself to shift from your old brain to your higher-thinking mind when under stress, and I’ll share a few here (you can download my full list, below). Like any exercise, they work best when you do them regularly and consistently as part of your daily practice. Use them whenever you face a small stressor, so that you’ll be prepared the next time something large looms up at work.

  1. S.O.B.E.R. No, I’m not talking about drinking here. It stands for Stop; Observe what’s going on (I’m mad, can’t think straight, I’m procrastinating, etc), Breathe (yes, really: take deep, slow breaths); Expand your thinking about the situation (ask yourself what are three ways that this can work in you favor, or what’s funny about it, etc); and Respond, (figure out how to proactively contend with the circumstances).
  2. Circle of control. This is a Stephen Covey trick; identify what you really have in your direct control, what is in your more expanded sphere of influence, and what is out of your control.
  3. Have a little self-compassion. When we get below the line, one of the fundamental things that keeps us there is judgement: either with ourselves or with others. Feeling compassion for yourself dampens the fires of self-judgement.
  4. Reach out to your group. Resilience is a team sport. One of the factors that shows up in naturally resilient people is their social support network. Remember that stress tends to make us pull into our shells rather than reach out — which is the polar opposite of what you should do.
  5. PQ exercises. This is borrowed from Sherzad Chamine. Start a practice of taking stock of your body and emotions for 10 seconds, 100 times a day. Focus on the feel of your feet, the weight of your body, your senses. Tune into the here and now. Paying this sort of in-the-moment attention exercises your pre-frontal cortex — the more resourceful, resilient “mind”.6

Be aware that these hacks are also like exercising a muscle in that you’re not going to be very good at them when you first start. By practicing on the little things, however, you can learn how to use these tools to deliberately move yourself above the line when you hit a big thing down the road.

As a leader you have a responsibility to coach your team through the stresses our work world throws at us. But our people can tell if you’re not on board, whether you’re saying all the right things or not. Effectively leading your team through change requires that you do so from an authentically positive place, not a script. The good news is that with just a few tips and some practice, you can be the authentic leader you need to be when a challenging situation calls upon you to step up.

Watch a recording of Bill Hefferman‘s October 26th, 2016 webinar. Click here for more information.

Want more? Download our complete list of resilience practices for leaders.

PeopleFirm's resilience expert, Bill Hefferman, has put together a comprehensive list of mind/body hacks to help you give yourself urgent stress care, manage situational stress, and develop practices to help you thrive under future stress.

About the author:

Bill Hefferman, PeopleFirm
Bill is committed to creating high-performing workplaces where people thrive. He has broad experience in organizational development, change leadership, and human performance improvement, and has led initiatives across a range of companies, countries, and cultures — for more than 25 years. Bill is everyone’s go-to guy for his deep subject matter expertise backed by a positive, creative, and practical approach. An expert facilitator and an engaging, fun instructor, Bill is expert at guiding teams and leaders through tough issues, and helping them find common ground, clarity, and alignment. He also speaks French and Nepali. (The French gets him into trouble. The Nepali gets him out.)

PeopleFirm is a management and HR consulting firm dedicated to helping you achieve that ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. We focus on effective tools, measurable outcomes, real results, and getting your people out of their seats and engaged in your company’s growth. We use people strategy, talent management, organizational performance, and change management to help you partner with your people to build an organization that excels in today’s new world of work. People are your last competitive frontier. Make them count.

Your people = your success.


1. Maddi, Salvatore and Kobasa, Suzanne; Reslience at Work: How to Secceed No Matter What Life Throws at You
2, 6. Chamine, Shirzad; Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours
3. Hickman, Criag, Smith, Tom, Connors, Roger; The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability
4. Emmons, Henry, MD; Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom
5. Covey, Stephen; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change