From Resistance to Resilience in Healthcare Leadership: More Than Just Growing a “Thick Skin”!

Posted by Joel Bennett on

By Kelli Oberndorf

Management and Organizational Coach • Group Facilitator • Life Coach


As I started my first job in the healthcare field, I had high hopes for applying my ‘progressive’ style of leadership. I was young, ready, and eager to make a positive impact on the world. But then just like that…a roadblock occurred! In that very first year, I experienced a rude awakening, thereby setting off a chain reaction that would last for over 13 years until deciding to leave in 2019. I started out as a sensitive person: great when I was a massage therapist, but not so great in an environment that was unkind and hostile.

I remember driving to work with tears running down my face, trying to pump myself up before I walked into the building. Resilient I was not! My approach was so foreign to them, and so poorly received, that they ran me out of the company after only a year-and-a-half. I thought to myself, “Maybe that was just them…and it will be different at the next company.”

I learned very quickly that if I was going to be successful in a healthcare career, I needed to grow a thick skin. While my armor did allow me to be less triggered when I continued to meet resistance, it unfortunately also created complacency and then an apathy that chipped away at not only my happiness, but my original passion for making a positive contribution as well.

However, as I worked in different settings, I noticed that resistance was common at all levels of the industry. Resistance was evident in everything my progressive outlook called for: change, communication, collaboration, and building positive, professional relationships. Physicians and long-term employees were stuck in routines. Executives turned a blind eye to new ways of creating efficiencies. And managers, caught in the middle, burned out trying to juggle the expectations of patients, providers, regulations, and employees. This continued resistance—and lack of resilience—created an unhealthy life for me; so unhealthy that I eventually left the healthcare industry completely.


As I reflected on the source of the problem, I realized I was not alone. Something was, and is, not right.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many studies showed that burn-out among healthcare workers correlates with poor patient care and suicide risk is high amongst physicians and health care workers. Not surprisingly, things have worsened in the past two years. Turnover is now among the highest in the healthcare industry and this is not entirely due to the pandemic. Our capitalistic society—where profits outweigh health and well-being—often forces us to take on more and more stress, suck it up, and perform our job(s) no matter the personal costs. And those costs include physical, psychological, and social disease, which are not easily remedied.

It will take a monumental shift in our collective behavior to transform stress into lessons and then into action. In his book, “Raw Coping Power” (2014), Joel Bennett, PhD states that resilience is more than just “the ability to bounce back or adequately recover from adversity and stress.” It is also “the ability to learn and grow from the stress…learn[ing] to lean in, take on stress, and thrive.” This expanded definition calls us to make a choice: to merely survive or to thrive.

“Resilience can be a launching pad for thriving, not only a landing pad for stress.” (Bennett, 2021)

Pause for a moment, take a breath, and really absorb this statement.

Yes, we can take on more stress, even with the padding of a ‘thick skin.’ But toxins build up within us (and workplaces) that lead to burn-out, anxiety, depression, disease, absenteeism, substance use issues, lost productivity, turnover, and even failed business.

Alternatively, we can use stress for a common good, goal, or purpose. Stress as a lesson for growth is a revolutionary concept that has the potential to transform individuals, teams, and organizations.


“The Great Resignation” has been coined as a phrase for employees leaving organizations in search of a better quality of life. Organizations are being forced to take a hard look at the reality of their workplaces, identifying alternative strategies in an effort to keep their staff happy. Below I list several solutions for leaders and organizations to consider as they confront their situation:

  1. Put Human Capital Above Financial Capital. Humans drive an organization, and we are truly amazing! We are capable of incredible things, and tapping into those qualities (our raw coping power) can elevate a company to be a leader in any industry. When we prioritize profits over people, organizations run the risk of high turnover, or worse, an apathetic and complacent employee population.
  2. Give Employees a Voice. In a previous blog post, I highlight the importance of ensuring that there is a safe and productive place for issues to be raised and for professional relationships to improve. When employees don’t feel that they have a voice, that their ideas don’t matter, or the organization doesn’t communicate with them, they begin to shut down and can take on a very unpleasant attitude.
  3. Listen to (Rather than Ignore) the Resistance. Authentic communication is the only way for leadership to understand the complex stressors employees face. I am not talking about lip-service in the form of top-down email campaigns. This can actually backfire (even when promoting self-care) because employees feel patronized. Listen first and then take action where you can. This can begin a journey of discovery that has the potential to improve the company’s culture and become a place where employees actually WANT to work.
  4. Kindness. As I reflect back on my time as a healthcare administrator, I ask myself, “What would have made the difference for me to stay? What did I need that I didn’t get? What leader behaviors would have moved me from resistance to resilience, and even from resilience to thriving?” In one word, the answer is kindness (but also integrity, equity, and respect). The lack of kindness I felt led me to be unhappy. The lack of integrity created a deep mistrust. Had I received performance feedback with equity and respect, my self-esteem would have been boosted. All in all, had these qualities been in place, I am certain that I would’ve felt resilient and encouraged to grow within my role.


Hindsight is of course always 20/20, but the message to leaders in all industries is the same. In healthcare, physicians can’t do their job without their front office staff, billers, clinical staff, business office managers, etc. Employees who think they are replaceable, and that they don’t matter, will never perform at their full potential. I know I didn’t! I knew I wasn’t performing at my best. I started to withdraw, tune-out, and worse, not care. These classic signs of burn-out came with an awful feeling for someone who wanted to make a difference in the lives of others through my chosen occupation.

While difficult, it is not impossible to heal our situation.

Moving from resistance to resilience requires leaders to take a hard look at how they run their operations, admitting to their own shortcomings. It requires a company to acknowledge the reasons for why their employees are unhappy and/or are leaving. They must then make a 100% commitment do something about it.

As you go through this self-inventory, I strongly encourage you to start with my four recommendations:

  1. Emphasize human capital;
  2. Give employees a voice;
  3. Listen; and, most importantly,
  4. Be kind!

And that means leaders and managers (especially those middle managers) are also kind to themselves and to each other!

Today, I am passionate about guiding organizations to improve their company culture, retain dedicated staff, and support leaders in building resilient teams. I have taken what I learned from my career as a healthcare administrator to help organizations begin to thrive. I believe that we are capable of building work environments that are affirming and profitable. Kind and accountable. Sustainable and resilient!

It took a global pandemic to shine a light on this issue. It will take time and courage for organizations to move from resistance to resilience…and even to thriving!



Kelli holds a Master’s Degree in Healthcare Administration and is a Certified Professional Facilitator and Coach. She empowers organizations to invest in the wellbeing of their employees by strengthening relationships, building trust, and establishing community within the companies she works with. Kelli is highly skilled in interpersonal and team dynamics. Her work is practical and applicable, and will help to improve communication, kindness, and trust within all levels of the organization.

To learn more about Kelli Oberndorf and her services, please visit: or email her at

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