How Leaders Can Maintain Their Resilience During Major Change

By Heather Campbell

Are you leading major change right now? I’ll bet you are.

The mantra ‘if you aren’t going forwards, you’re going backwards’ is familiar to leaders around the globe, and it’s a rare individual that isn’t responding.

And yet, even as you start out with the change, you know the odds are already stacked against you. Research suggests up to 70% of all change programmes fail.

Feel disheartened? That’s not surprising – leading change is tough and there’ll be plenty of times that you think wading through the treacle isn’t worth it.

Here are the top tips we share with leaders that help them to maintain their resilience at those times when it just seems like a pointless waste of effort.

1. Measure progress, not perfection

Focussing on perfection is demoralising because, quite frankly, it doesn’t exist.

The picture you have in your head of how perfect everything will be when this change is implemented will no longer look like perfection as you approach it.

That’s because you’ll have peeled back more layers of the onion and found more problems that have to be fixed.

In contrast, measuring progress motivates and builds resilience. When I’m working with leaders during change, they’re inevitably surprised by just how much progress is being made when they stop to focus on it.

They just don’t notice it because they are so busy getting frustrated that perfection doesn’t look like perfection after all.

2. Expect the change to be far more complex to implement than you initially anticipate

It’s a rare change that turns out to be easier to implement than anyone anticipated at the beginning. Instead those onion layers reveal more and more complexity at every turn.

So, even as you set off on the change, expect complexity not simplicity.

Leaders who see this complexity as an opportunity to learn and develop their organisations even further can even find the complexity exciting.

But I know that, on those days when your resilience is at a low ebb, excitement isn’t really the first word that expresses how you’re feeling. So, let’s not get carried away here.

3. Set meaningful goals

There’s been so much written around goal-setting over the years and yet it continues to be something that leaders struggle with.

I find that there’s a tendency to write down an aspiration and call it a goal – they’re not the same thing.

An aspiration is to have a strong safety culture, or increase sales by 25%, or have zero errors in a process. Just like working towards perfection, working towards aspirations really undermines our resilience. That’s because aspirations don’t include the route map of how to achieve them.

The route map is the series of goals that need to be realised in order to, ultimately, make the aspiration a reality.

Here are some specific goals that one client identified needed to be achieved to make progress towards a high-safety working environment.

  • Identify the most common safety breaches
  • Train relevant staff on the procedures related to these safety breaches
  • Measure adherence to these procedures following training
  • Design and implement process to provide managers with information regarding safety breaches in their Division

While there will still be plenty of challenges in achieving these goals, they are much easier to realise than the higher-level aspiration. Focussing on these is far more tangible and measurable.

4. Remember that, in the middle of it, all change looks like failure

This piece of advice from Rosabeth Moss Kanter resonates with me in everything from report-writing to research to leading change.

Unless the task is simple – and changes that test our resilience rarely are – there comes that point when you don’t know if you’re going forwards, backwards or sideways. And no matter which way you look, the barriers seem insurmountable.

Good! That shows that something is moving. When everything seems simple, it most likely means you haven’t really got to grips with the change at all.

5. And, in the same way, when staff are resisting, it means that mindsets are being challenged

You know that great feeling you get when you brief staff about a major change and you expect significant push-back, but everybody seems to accept your message quite happily?

Well, you know that, at that point, this apparent acceptance means that people haven’t really understood the message or don’t believe it will impact them.

In the same way, when you start to get resistance, it shows that the message has hit home and people are responding to it. Resistance is a natural part of the human response to change – and especially those that require personal change on our part.

I know that overcoming resistance can feel like an unnecessary barrier to change and can be a serious drain on our resilience as leaders. But look at it instead as an inevitable part of the change process and a sign that mindsets are at least being challenged, if not yet aligning with your direction.


So there you have it. Five top tips for maintaining your own resilience when you’re leading major change.

  1. Measure progress, not perfection
  2. Expect the change to be far more complex to implement than you initially anticipate
  3. Set meaningful goals
  4. Remember that, in the middle of it, all change looks like failure
  5. When staff are resisting, it means that mindsets are being challenged

There’s no doubt about it, leading change is a tough gig – but implementing one or more of these can ease some of that pressure. They can help you maintain the resilience you need to keep on leading and make it more likely that you get into that 30% of change initiatives that are a success.

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