Reinventing Resilience: Navigating Organizational Change With Paul Thallner
Get ready to unlock the secrets of building resilience in the midst of organizational change as we dive into another virtual campfire conversation. In this episode, Tony Martignetti sits down with Paul Thallner, the author of Reinventing Resilience to delve deep into the profound impact resilience can have, both on a personal and organizational level. Join them as they explore the transformative journey of fostering the courage and confidence to grow through challenges. Discover how this concept is reshaping the way we approach organizational change, offering a fresh perspective on navigating the complexities of the modern workplace. Paul unravels the core elements of resilience, its power in enhancing employee well-being, and the critical role it plays in building adaptive and thriving organizations. Tune in for an engaging conversation that will inspire you to rethink your approach to change, both within yourself and your organization.
Listen to the podcast here
Reinventing Resilience: Comprehensive Guidance On Navigating Organizational Change With Paul Thallner
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Paul Thallner. Paul is the founder of High Peaks Group. Previously, Paul led major culture integration, transformation, and workplace analysis projects as a partner of the Great Place to Work Institute. He has spent over 25 years working with executive teams to identify and implement strategic change initiatives.
In that time, he held leadership positions in nonprofit, government, and private sector organizations. He's also the author of Reinventing Resilience: How Organizations Move Beyond Setbacks to Grow Through Challenges, an amazing and brilliant book. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and son. He has been a foster parent for 41 dogs, and he's a fellow mountain enthusiast. Paul, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you to the show.
Thanks so much. I appreciate it. It's great to be here.
It’s going to be great. We have the fire started. I'm listening. As I read through your intro, I have this sense of this amazing person who's done a lot in your career but also a sense of the impact you're making now through your book and all the things you're doing. It's amazing. I'm looking forward to diving into your story as we do in the show.
One of the things we do on the show is we talk about these so-called flashpoints. These are the points in your journey that have ignited your gifts into the world. I'm going to turn it over to you. I'm going to have you share these flashpoints that have been important to you. You can start wherever you'd like. You share what you're called to share. Along the way, we'll stop, see what themes are showing up, and see where we want to go with that.
That sounds fantastic. My kind of conversation, for sure.
I’m looking forward to it. Paul, please take it away.
When we were talking a little bit about flashpoints, I immediately was thinking about my mom, who passed away and was the inspiration for my book in many ways. My mom was a single parent. She raised four of us on her own and had several jobs at the same time but eventually landed a job at Three Mile Island, which many of you may know as the nuclear power plant. It is famous for its nuclear accident ages ago.
She started working there after the accident. She was not involved in the accident, but she was involved in the cleanup of the damaged reactor building. She is a woman who never went to University later in life. She taught herself all the nuclear physics and other mechanical engineering and other things that she needed to do a job working as a union operator in a nuclear power plant. She was eventually assigned to the team that cleaned up the damaged nuclear reactor building, which involved using specialized equipment to fish out plutonium rods from the floor of this 70-foot-deep pool of radioactive water. Crazy.
She’s been an inspiration not only for those accomplishments but for what she had to go through to get to that point as a person. At that stage of her life, she was a little bit older than her peers. She was the only woman, and she did not come from a background that everybody else came from, which, at that time, was mainly naval nuclear submarine operators. They ended up working nuclear power plants, so it made sense. She was singled out, had a very tough work environment and was toxic.
I would remember her coming home from work exhausted, defeated, and deflated every single day and going back to it the next day. That made me think a lot about what makes a person resilient enough to keep going back. Why would someone have the strength to put themselves through that? Also, more importantly, and this is where my career emerged or took root. Why do organizations create that environment that creates stress for people in the first place and what can we do about it?
All that vivid image of my mom, I remember her being so tired one time. She was so exhausted. We were all young at the time. She made dinner and she took salad dressing and poured it over her spaghetti because she was so out of it from being exhausted. That's a vivid memory for me. I was like, “We can't have workplaces that do that to people.” I have been on a bit of a mission since then to try and change workplaces. That's been my passion for a long time. I think we can do a lot better for people and for people. I would love to see more folks interested in creating workplaces that lengthen life instead of shortening it.
Paul, you're started off with a bang here. The story is amazing on so many levels because it is something that shapes your journey through life, having this early childhood memory of your mother. Something that we can all remember if we've been in the United States or maybe not even just the United States but in the world, at that time, and understand that this was a devastating occurrence.
For people to want to show up to those workplaces or to a place like this and do the work, you'd have to have a strong reason to want to do that work. I love that it turned into this mission for you. That was all about how can we make this better. How can we make this workplace that doesn't have to be “toxic.” That's not what we want any longer. We've come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to be done. That’s a great mission.
There is a lot of work to be done. There are lots of positive signs out there in the world that people are starting to tune into the opportunities to create different kinds of workplaces. Certainly, we all know that workforce and workers are more insistent now than ever on thinking about what their life's going to be like when they join an organization.
There's something that came to mind when you were describing your mother. She sounded superhuman. I'm like, “This is not average for people to be able to do what she was doing.” What we need is to look at the fact that she was a superhuman. She was a person who was a human being who was trying to do the best she could in the world. What was probably driving her most was this idea that she wanted to do the best she could to serve the world because, ultimately, at the core of all this is how can we fix this atrocious situation?
I think so. When you're in survival mode, you end up doing heroic things sometimes or at least things that push you beyond your limits. She certainly was that person at that time when she would show remarkable strength, persistence and perseverance through that challenge. I'm going to go back to this point. Why must people be superhumans in order to go to work and earn a living? That should not be a requirement for going to work every day and providing for your family.
When you're in survival mode, you end up doing heroic things. But why must people be superhumans in order to work and earn a living?
Most people aren't superhumans or can't be for very long. You end up paying a huge price on the other end. I would guess most CEOs wouldn't want that for their people. There's a confluence of circumstances and decisions that end up creating that environment. A lot of CEOs would be shocked and disappointed if they saw their own organizations doing that to people.
Not only that, but when you have these people who are working so hard to try and be that super person, ultimately, that's what leads to accidents. It’s because they oversee the things that are more simple because they're working so hard to be on top of everything.
Later in my career, one of my clients was a large global gas and oil company that had a very serious accident that ended up being an environmental disaster. That was part of the problem in their organization. People were not feeling comfortable enough to speak up about some of the safety issues that they were seeing because they were burnt out and overburdened with fear.
They didn't feel like they could say what they needed to say to the right people. Ultimately, there was an accident, and we see that all the time in organizations when people are so tapped out mentally and physically that they don't have the wherewithal to ask challenging questions or confront authority or send things up the ladder.
I want to turn this back to your story, your journey and see what happened next as you were moving into the world of work or moving through your experience in your life. Were there any other flashpoints that defined who you are and made you move into this place?
Every moment feels like a decision that led me to where I am, which it is. My first job out of college was working at the national office of my fraternity. I don't know if you have a big international audience, but a fraternity is basically a social club at a university. You get invited to join and you pay money and drink beer, basically.
These organizations are actual organizations with the central headquarters. It's like a franchise model thing. I worked for the national office of my fraternity after I graduated from college and had the responsibility to go from one college campus to another to talk to the kids about risk management and appropriate behavior and the values that the organization was trying to espouse and all that stuff.
One thing that I noticed in my travels is going to these different universities, some of which were very affluent in universities, high reputations, Ivy League type schools, then other very tiny, rural and technical schools. Some are universities, all different types of kids, different socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds and things. All were in the fraternities that these different campuses that I would visit.
One thing I noticed was that no matter where I went, it seemed like there is the same cast of characters. There was always the very eager kid, the kids who wanted to cause trouble, smart kids, and kids who needed a lot of help. The organizations they created, these mini-organizations, all had similar problems no matter how smart the kids worked. It was all human dynamics and human organizational and group behavior stuff that I found super fascinating.
I think that was yet another seed that was planted in my head, which ended up becoming my curiosity about why groups and organizations do what they do. Even when the wisest among them thinks whatever it is they're doing doesn't make sense. They still end up doing these very strange and bizarre things. The idea of organizational inertia group think, the momentum that carries on or the way we do things around here.
All of these things become these unspoken rules that everybody implicitly agrees to follow, and it becomes interesting. I found that to be super fascinating. It was a weird experience for sure, sleeping on couches and floors and things, trying to talk about values and respecting women and not drinking to the point where you pass out and having a working smoke alarm in the house and things like that.
Trying to convince people to do the selling. One of my co-workers called it selling ideas on a street corner because you're basically trying to convince people that they would rather not think about it at all. That is a lot of what organizational work is, trying to help people and help groups recognize when they are thinking about things for themselves versus thinking about things as an organization or as an entity. Where does one draw the line, where can one find one's own identity in those groups and what can be done about it? Those roots are strong for me and helped shape a lot of why I do what I do now.
I love what you shared. There are so many parts of what you shared which are interesting. That's great training because when you're working with people who don't want to change or listen, you have to build your influence chops in that arena, which is powerful. This idea of individualistic versus collective thinking has been coming up a lot in my world lately.
I don't know if it's a sign from the universe telling me this is something to focus more on. It's important to think about how do I make sure that I keep my idea of what is important to me but what's also important for the group in mind. Making sure that we don't lose ourselves in the service of others, in the collective of others, but also that we have a sense of connection to our group. Understand that I'm not going to be persuaded by others to go along with something that's not right for me. Also, at the same time, I'm not completely self-absorbed in my own interests, if you know what I mean.
This is why all change efforts with self. You need to understand who you are and what you stand for first in order to make some determinations about how aligned the organization is to your own values. You can then feel like, “What am I willing to compromise on? What are my non-negotiables? Can I feel good about being part of this thing?” knowing what's not going to change is who I am and my values. It's hard because a lot of people, sadly, defer to the group values in lieu because they haven't thought about their own or put work into defining what it is they're all about. The group tends to have a lot of influence on folks that way.
It’s so amazing that you bring this up because it's important, especially nowadays. As a society, when you think about it, a lot of us have come from backgrounds or societies, let's say, a lot of the European societies that were very collective in nature. It was all about how we serve the community and how we serve each other. It was all about the group and then we started to go more individualistic in general.
Now, with social media and a lot of the ways that we are working virtually, it's driving us towards a more individualistic approach. We need to be mindful of who we are, but we also have to make sure we understand that we're part of a collective. We have to keep the interests of others in mind.
I got back from a vacation where we were in Europe for a little bit. The little things that signal hope for me that we still want this is in the small acts of generosity you see like people getting out of their seats on the bus to allow an older person or someone with a cane or something to sit down. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That's a social contract with implicit expectation that we can give up something for someone else. “It's not about me. It's about us.”
Little things like that, how we walk down the street, helping people pick things up if they drop things. There are lots of little, tiny things out there that I think give me a lot of hope. Even my son, very polite, has that sense of other that I think people have. It's not that evident, and there's a lot of momentum pushing us in that other direction, like you said, in social media and things like that. At the end of the day, people want connection and they want to feel seen, heard and part of something a little bit bigger than themselves.
At the end of the day, people want connection. They want to feel seen. They want to feel heard. They want to be part of something a little bit bigger than themselves.
I want to take us back on track.
Am I taking us off track?
This conversation is beautiful because some of these things are powerful for people to learn and to lean into. It's very present for what we're going through at this moment. I want to get into the story of Reinventing Resilience in your book. Before we get there, I want to lead up to that and see what other moments brought you to that work and drove you to say, “I need to write this book.”
Everybody's got a pandemic story and thank God, that's over. During the pandemic, I was, like many people, feeling very disconnected from the world and very isolated. We couldn't go anywhere and couldn’t do anything. As with a lot of people, I was searching the internet for answers. What I would see was a constant drumbeat of advice and tips for how I can make myself more resilient, which I resented, honestly. It felt to me like all of this was my problem, and I had to fix it for myself.
It felt further isolating, almost pushing me even further away from humanity and the group. It's like, “Here are five things you can do on your own to make yourself more resilient.” It's like, “I still have to wake up tomorrow. We're still in the pandemic. It's just Groundhog Day.” That thought was the premise or the originating thought for why I wanted to write a book because, to me, it seemed like we were barking up the wrong tree.
It's not sufficient to expect everybody to be resilient and then everything gets better. The real problem is the circumstance or the system that we've created that creates that stress for people in the first place. I started digging into all this research and everything. I found some unbelievable statistics. One of them was a statistic from Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer. He’s a Stanford professor and wrote a book called Dying for a Paycheck.
His marquee stat for that book is that the workplace is the 5th leading cause of death in the United States, more than many diseases. As an organizational change person, the wheel started turning. No amount of meditation or self-help apps are going to make people better if they have to go back into their toxic or challenging workplace every single day. It becomes what I call these Gap Closing Cycles. It's like, “I feel like I've been knocked down. I need to crawl back up to where I was before and then I go back to where this trauma or this experience happened. I get knocked back down again and I crawl back up.”
It's this endless loop. The solution is you go fix yourself. I couldn't handle that, so I decided to write a book arguing that what we needed to do is we can't simply fill our organization with resilient people and expect the organizations to be resilient. We need to change the system and the environment so that people don't have to work so hard at being resilient.
We can't just simply fill our organization with the resilient people and expect the organization to be resilient. We need to create a system where people don't have to work so hard at being resilient.
In doing that, the organization gets stronger. The organization itself can thrive. It becomes resilient as an entity and gets better results as a business, etc. That's the idea behind Reinventing Resilience. It stemmed from this head-scratching moment where I'm like, “Why am I looking at all this ridiculous stuff on Instagram trying to tell me that I'm the problem?”
I'm totally blown away because one of my favorite quotes is from Deming. It's like, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” At some point, you have to think about your system and say, “How do I resent the system?” You get different results. Your book hits on that and it's beautiful.
Also, to drop the name of another book, Upstream. It is a brilliant book that tells us a story about if you want to fix a problem, don't fix it where it exists. Go upstream, figure out where it started, and fix it at the source. That's what you're tapping into. It’s a sense of like, “We can't be fixing ourselves. We have to fix the system that creates the problem,” because otherwise, we're throwing a lot of money and effort at this thing that is not necessarily the problem. It's the result of the problem.
Where we are is we've got a bunch of self-aware people who are clear because they've worked on themselves through the pandemic. They've done all this enlightenment stuff. They're clear about the fact that their workplace sucks, and they're all leaving. We've done this to ourselves. It's a big problem.
First of all, thank you so much for sharing about your book. This idea is so amazing. What happened as you put the book out into the world? Did you have people come back to say, “This is crazy. I think you're nuts. We can't do that here.” What was the reaction people had? Whenever you put an idea out of the world that is maybe potentially controversial or different, there's usually a lot of pushback.
Interesting reaction to the book. There was a couple of them. One was like, “I've never thought of it quite that way before.” People thank me for saying, “I'm only doing half the work. I'm working on myself,” which I think everybody should do. It's helpful to ground and understand yourself and work on your own mental well-being, for sure.
There's another mountain to climb, speaking of mountain metaphors. We have to work on our organizations, too, in order to create a great workplace for everybody else around us, speaking of building a community and also, so that you don't end up hitting the wall yourself. Ultimately, the self-awareness stuff is great and we all have our moments where we simply slip a little bit.
The reason we slip sometimes is because there are all these forces acting on us all the time. We can't just be people of steel forever. We are going to eventually buckle if this pressure keeps on us. That was one reaction. The other reaction was like all these new definitions of resilience kept coming up for me. Originally, I was like, “Resilience typically is defined as bouncing back from adversity.”
Everybody gets that and I said, “We should reinvent resilience and have a new definition.” I'm waving the flag, saying, “It's the courage and confidence to grow through challenges. That's my definition of resilience.” I built this model around it and everything. I thought for organizations to look at how to create a resilient organization, then interesting things happen.
People were like, “I'm in the resilience field. I never thought about resilience this way.” People in the cybersecurity world or the business continuity world, risk management and compliance, all these folks who think about the defensive aspects of business or how we protect our business from different things or organizations. It doesn't have to be a business. It could be a nonprofit or a government organization, how we protect our business from all these things that could threaten us. When they do that, they often say we're trying to build a resilient organization to withstand some of that assaults.
I was like, “That's fascinating. That's a very defense-oriented positioning for resilience.” Maybe complementing my definition could almost breathe new life into that world by talking about this notion that you can create all the systems you want. All the technical systems create redundant systems for your computers and networks and things like that, but then people still have to run them.
If they're having a terrible work experience, then that's a risk to your organization. You could have a fantastic system with people who are completely stressed out or upset or have twenty things going on at home. Eventually, that could play a role in some of the holes in the defense. I’ve been involved in some cool debates about how we can modify and change the definition of resilience to be more people and systems or people and processes. It's been fun.
What you described is, first of all, the beauty of writing a book. You open the important dialogue that has to happen, which is to say it's the start of a journey. It is not the end of a journey when you write the book. You start to see that it resonates or doesn't resonate and then you start to see where we can take this idea.
One that came up for me and connects the dots to some of the things we said earlier is that it starts from the inside out, then the outside in, like you start with the individual and you go to the collective. You have to start from the inside and say, “What do we need to do to be resilient from the inside, then move to the outside?” An organization needs to be thinking, “How do we make sure that we're building the foundation and the structure on the inside?” Also, being mindful of what's happening on the outside. Inside out and outside in is the pathway to make sure you're building resilience throughout.
You’re teeing up this conversation about the model that I created for organizational resilience. It is all about inside out and outside in, at the same time, working in a perpetual cycle. I believe internally, an organization that I would define as resilient is one that has the courage and confidence to grow through challenges. That was my definition, but what is the core of that? It’s this idea of organizations that have what I call stoned realism or, basically, the awareness of the situation around them.
They're clear about the environment that they're in and the circumstances that they're facing. They're not Pollyanna about it and sugarcoating. They're very aware and very clear, so staunch realism and then collective efficacy, which is belief. If an organization believes it can win or overcome something, even when it doesn't, even though they may not know how to do it, if there's enough belief in the system, they can get through anything.
Those are the two things that the core, awareness and belief or staunch realism and collective efficacy, together create that courage and confidence. When organizations work on that, great things happen. That's the inside-out version, but from the outside in, they can build staunch realism and collective efficacy through a number of different channels by understanding their own organization’s blockers. Where have they gotten stuck before? What are the patterns?
Study that thing. Do some work to understand the reality that they're facing. What is the situation? How can we have honest conversations about what's going on and get alignment and shared understanding about that stuff? Another is accessing resources. A lot of times, as an individual, when we're stuck, we forget that we've done hard things before. We lose access to the resources that we always relied on to get us through things.
That same thing happens with organizations. When they get stuck, they forget that they've got great talent, great systems, great track record and intellectual property. All these things are great resources that can be tapped into. Resilient organizations assess those things easily. The last outside in idea is having a good understanding and a good ability to discover possibilities. By that, not like some 500 Post-It notes on the wall with every conceivable idea out there, which I think is a good exercise, but 90% of those things are never going to happen.
Getting into a disciplined process to understand what are the possibilities from here that are both reachable and a stretch. You were talking about Kilimanjaro earlier. There’s some assessment you have to do, like, “Can I make it up there?” You take into account the weather, gear and all the stuff like the slope and everything.
You make a good judgment call based on what's possible, given the reality of your situation. Organizations have to do the same thing. They have to figure out how they can get there and what's possible for them. That takes a lot of work and a lot of discipline because you end up leaving a lot of good ideas on the cutting room floor when you pick a direction and head that way.
I feel like I teed you up for this amazing insight, but it was beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing that. I have to ask, what is one thing that you've learned about yourself and this journey? I feel like we skated past a lot of the big parts of your journey to get to where you are. What is one thing you've learned about yourself that you haven't shared already that you want to share?
One thing I've learned about myself in this process is that resilience is a quality. I was on this quest, like, “Am I resilient? Am I not resilient? Do I have the energy and perseverance and all this other stuff? How do I get it? How do I get resilient?”
It's like driving a destination.
What dawned on me through the process and what I learned about myself was like, “I already am.” I think we all are and we get surprised sometimes by how simple an idea of resilience can be if we take a minute to think about how we got to where we are now because no path is straight and easy. If we give ourselves credit for getting to where we are now, it gives us a little bit of a lift. It puts a spring in your step and makes a weight a little bit less to carry in their backpack, going more about the mountain. That was grounding and a good discovery because, in those moments when things look challenging, it's easy to say, “I need to start from scratch or it's too far gone,” or something like that. Getting reconnected to the fact that maybe I already am resilient helped a lot and became this supportive mantra as I wrote the book.
No path is straight. No path is easy. If we give ourselves credit for getting to where we are right now, it gives us a little bit of a lift and a little less weight on our backs.
It's brilliant what you shared because it also leans against this thought that oftentimes, the things that we look outside for, like, “We need this. We're missing this thing in our organization or in ourselves,” we have already. We just don't recognize it yet. It's about that inner journey to say, “We already have that. We don't see it yet.”
I'm more convinced than ever that people and organizations have the capability to change in a way they want to and when they're asking for help, they've lost sight of the fact that they've got capacity. I love helping organizations tap into that notion of like, “You can do this.” You have to do the work because I'm not going to come in and fix you because I can't. I don't live there. I don't work in your organization, but this idea of unleashing this awareness that we can do this feels good. It feels great in the organizations, too. They love getting energized in that way.
We have one last question for you. This one takes a little bit of a different path. One or two books that have had an impact on you and why?
Many. Two books from completely different fields. One is Ulysses by James Joyce. One of my favorite as an English major. What's great about that book is that it's a giant tome. It's the day in the life of one person in Dublin, on June 16th, whatever year it was. What I love about that is the beauty and the mundane because everything is explained. Every little detail about every little thing going on in one particular day is expanded on and shared in the most amazing writing style. It's very creative. If you can find the beauty in the mundane and all around you, then I think there's hope in the world. That's one that I love.
A real, super practical one, the other book, is called Helping People Change by Dr. Richard Boyatzis and Melvin Smith. It's about coaching with compassion, like how can I be a great coach to other people. This is more for bosses and managers who are coaching their team members than it is for professional coaches, although professional coaches could use this, too.
There are two things that coaches or one thing coaches do wrong that is difficult is they try to get compliance from their coachees. “I want you to do this. This is what you need to do.” The coach becomes the source of all solutions. They become dependent on the coach and I don't think that's healthy.
Rather, if you're coaching with compassion, you seek to understand what this person is bringing to the conversation and you have them unpack it, work on it and come to their own conclusions. You're not there to dictate. You're there to support and more managers need to do that. If they do, we can take a strong step forward to reducing or eliminating the workplace stress epidemic that's in the world now.
I have to say that was brilliant. Well said. That's the first time that book has been mentioned on the show, which I'm surprised by. It has me thinking that, for some reason, compassion is still like a dirty word in the world of work. We need a book all about compassion and why we need to embrace more compassion. Many people think compassion is weak. They maybe fully don't understand what it means, but what you described is the approach we need to take.
You still have to make business decisions, give people feedback and take corrective action sometimes. You can do it as a human being in a human-to-human way. That's where people get stuck. It's like, “How can I let go of my formal role, simply talk to this person and give them the information or feedback they need to perform well in their job? The alternative is you become a robot. You're like, “I need you to do this,” and enforce compliance. No one wants to be on the other end of that conversation.
To be superhuman. I can talk with you all day. This has been brilliant, but I want to respect your time, so I'll start by saying thank you so much for all that you brought to this space. This has been an amazing conversation.
Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I loved it. It was fun.
Before I let you go, I want to make sure that readers have a chance to find out where they can learn more about you.
Thank you so much for sharing that. Thanks for reading and for going on the journey. I know you're leaving completely blown away by all the insights.
- Great Place to Work Institute
- High Peaks Group
- Reinventing Resilience: How Organizations Move Beyond Setbacks to Grow Through Challenges
- Dying for a Paycheck
- Helping People Change
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! https://www.inspiredpurposecoach.com/virtualcampfire