Making it safe for people to change

We’re often asked how we as leaders and managers can help people achieve their potential at work especially when the organisation needs to make changes.  It’s interesting how often organisations are seeking to optimise and leverage the talents of their teams. Yet, they often find it hard to create a climate in which employees feel safe to go for it!  Why is that?

It goes without saying that we judge our risk taking based on our perceived current experiences.  Having worked with many different organisations and professionals one thing holds true – we all essentially want the same things:  to feel safe in our work so we can be our best, and recognised for the value we bring.  

When an organisation embarks on any kind of change, we shift the balance.  Ranging from making us unconsciously aware of the power differential to full on stressed out employee, suffering sleepless nights. 

Here’s three things that you can immediately reflect on to consider how safe people will feel so that they’re prepared to change.

    1. What’s it like to work in this organisation?  This is about the organisational context. What do you get fired for here?  How do you get promoted? Who is influential? The first step to making it safe for people to change is to create a climate of psychological safety.  Organisations can be very focused at creating a safe physical workplace but, perhaps because it seems less tangible, find it harder to create that safe space mentally for people to excel.  Safety audits could include both physical and psychological safety checks. 
    2. What’s it like to work in this team?  This is the immediate experience the individual has of working here.  Questions such as, will my boss support me if I make a mistake? How supportive are my colleagues?  Is there a collaborative work ethic or is it everyone for themselves? If employees feel that their immediate team is not a great place to work, it will be harder for them to step out of their comfort zone and accept different work methods, processes, tools and so on if they fear reprisals from team members.  Your role as the leader is to address issues within the team. Often confrontation can seem scary, we get that. However, not addressing team issues as they occur sets you and the team up for future woes and will hamper any change approaches. Transparency, fairness, expectation setting and keeping promises go a long way to creating a supportive team.   
    3. What’s my confidence rating to be myself?  This goes to the heart of the psychological contract.  It’s about expectation setting and keeping promises. How much trust do I have in my boss?  What do I expect from them? What do they expect from me? What promises have I made to the organisation?  What promises has the organisation made to me? Can I trust them to keep their promise? The iceberg model below looks at some of the things we typically address because they’re tangible.  (This model is taken from Transactional Analysis created by Eric Berne.) As we go below the water line we see the things that can trip us up – often because they’re unspoken or avoided. Having conversations about tricky subjects and getting clear on each other’s expectations is better in the long run.  Similarly, it helps understand how something that might seem irrelevant to you as the leader might have huge significance for your employees.

It’s sometimes challenging for organisations that have been around for a long time to overcome their history.  However, the good news is that it seems if you’re not a perfect employer (and who is?) making some inroads to helping create safety for change will stand you in good stead. 

If you’re already doing well on this front, be mindful to keep it up. Kano’s Expectancy theory suggests that if we’re used to a certain standard and that standard drops, it’s a bigger dissatisfier than if it never existed.

What’s so important for you that you’d leave your comfort zone?  Hopefully the answer to that will help you create safety for your team to do the same.  Or even, just asking the question might help.

Ro Gorell

Ro Gorell

Ro Gorell is a co-director of Change Optimised and a multiple published author. One of her books, 50 Top Tools for Coaching, is a Kogan Page best seller with an audio version in production in 2020. She is driven by a desire to help individuals and organisations become future fit – so they can thrive no matter what. She also advocates for integrating work and life, valuing time spent in the gym and singing with West Australian Symphony Orchestra Choir.