Canary in a tree.Update: 09/09/2019

I’ve just attended a two day course on mindful self-compassion with Christopher Germer PhD and Tina Gibson . See the end of the post for how I think the concept integrates.

This post is a bit of a sobering one. It’s the culmination of a series of conversations over the last couple of years.

I think we, as change practitioners, have hit a really precarious time. 

Although this post is probably addressed to more experienced change practitioners – it should also serve as a caution to practitioners in their early career, and those about to embark on their mid-career.

Another key takeaway is this: I definitely think this is an area that professional associations need to play in (eg CMI, ACMP)  

Because the precariousness is a consequence of time in the game.

See, here’s why.

Water on rock.

Good change practitioners have difficult conversations. These conversations often anger people. The abrupt shift in difficult emotions is often necessary for creating change.

Good change practitioners are often on the receiving end of responses to change by leaders and employees.

Good change practitioners are often brave. They take risks.

And part of being brave and taking risks is the being on the receiving end of some pretty bad behaviour. We get beaten up a fair bit. It’s an occupational hazard.

After five years, you know it goes with the territory, and after ten years you probably have some savviness about choosing work that limits your exposure and you’ve likely gained some strong coping skills. But spend 20 plus years in such an environment and, like water on rock, the constancy of being brave, being exposed to bad behaviours, and getting beaten up, can wear you down.

It’s not just an overload of emotional toxic handling, it is a daunting and necessary aspect of our work that sees us continue to find new clients and new organisations to go to.

Additionally, it sometimes feels like the work we do does not make a dent – particularly when we see managers and leaders continue to come up through the ranks while making the same mistakes as their predecessors. What I am suggesting here is that we are not facing into sophisticated or evolving change problems. It’s all low hanging fruit. And it makes for bad change hygiene.

Profit over people? Perhaps. But it can make the most resilient practitioner jaded.

The Canary dies

John Cutler raises some excellent points in his masterful piece: The Canary Dies 

“Change agents need to remember self-care … and cultivating an identity beyond whether a particular situation goes the way you’d like it to go. It is ok to just smile and watch things unravel sometimes. Assess your needs and move on”

While written more for the change agents in fast-moving technology companies, I can still certainly relate. You might, too – read it again and see if you breathe a little “Amen to that” at the end.

Here are some other gems from Cutler:

It is easy to assume that you’re helping a cause by becoming a spokesperson for a cause – Not always true. Often we hasten our demise by taking on the work our leaders should be doing.

You have to be OK with the long game – Especially true when you encounter companies allergic to change. This takes a very specific character strength. Many of us go into change because we do enjoy the speed, the volatility, the drama.

Talking in back-channels does not always equate to a willingness to advocate in public – There’s a curious chemical response to finding out that your sponsors love your thinking but won’t back it in public, and it is especially wearing – you peak with dopamine and then crash.

There’s little debate on continuous improvement. Rather, there’s a debate on who should own it – Oy. The exhaustion of finding someone to be accountable.

It isn’t simply about making people “aware” of the problem. Or “being right” or “logical” – Again, the fatigue that sets in while trying to navigate complex logics and agendas playing out. Great change practitioners are very good political manoeuvering. Doesn’t mean it’s not a cost though.

Be crystal clear about your own needs – Ego can be a self-serving b*tch. Am I in service to me, or the organisation?

Assess your needs and move on.

In the discipline of change, I don’t think we have assessed our needs and moved on –  because we have only just got to the point where there are considerably more practitioners who have been in the game for over 20 years. Practitioners who now have the hard-earned experience to be able to have conversations with peers about burnout, exhaustion, resilience and what comes next.

It literally is a time-based problem. Other “caring” professions have institutional structures in place – like supervision for social workers and psychologists.

But, we don’t. Yet.

Wine, cheese, and yoga seem to be the default, with some meditation occasionally thrown in. But it’s all very random and self-initiated, usually from a position of exhaustion and last resort.  

There are a few things I think we could be doing to improve this situation. What you don’t want is senior change practitioners burning out – because the person loses their health and humour, and the industry loses the knowledge and the energy.

  1. There is a need for a professional association response to this. Professional associations have done really well in identifying skills and capability development programs for each stage of practitioner, perhaps now it’s time to turn the lens to self-care needs at each stage.
  2. Partnering with other psychology disciplines to offer discounts for members on ‘supervision’.
  3. Restorative retreats as regular touch points – preventive in approach.
  4. The inclusion of the risk/reward and sustainability of career in change management accreditation processes (know what you’re getting into).
  5. I found Daryl Conner’s Raising Your Game really valuable in gaining clarity on my value and approach – and found my resilience was bolstered because of it.
  6. Building our knowledge and toolkit with positive psychology and NLP approaches, this helps in our way to frame and receive feedback that can erode.
  7. Finally, being really clear that we have agency. The canary dies. We can exit. We can move on.



So I have just come back from a 2 day Mindful Core Skills training program in Brisbane. It came straight after a conversation at the CMI event on burnout and self-care of the profession.


It was terrific. I’m not sure that I acquired new skills as such – but being immersed in conversations, theory, models and research on mindful self-compassion for two days was a magical top-up. And it has fundamentally changed my view of the topic above.


As a profession we need to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy is still critical for design of programs and change interventions. No two ways about it. But what I think we have been doing is carrying empathy into the delivery of our change.  And the research shows that empathy depletes energy, compassion bolsters energy. It’s a subtle variation that makes a big difference.


How might it be different if we design with empathy and deliver with compassion?


So now the challenge is out to the professional associations – how might you partner with Mindful Self Compassion practitioners to provide similar core skills training for practitioners?


Further reading:

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