The Ins and Outs of Changing Culture

Never give up. Change is always possible by thinking and doing things differently.

Want to move past a performance plateau? Attained some improvements but momentum seems stalled? Stuck on doing more, yet getting the same old results? Tried "everything" but been disappointed? Jumping from one "flavor of the month" to the next without a blip of change on the floor? Frustrated that real improvement doesn't seem to happen, even when bringing in "expert" outside resources?

While it's ideal when an organization's internal leadership alone can actuate ongoing, substantive improvement, this doesn't work for all companies; at times. Even highest-performing leaders need input of new methods or energy boosts, or just an extra set of minds and hands. Existing leaders often work emaciatedly thin with their limbs so spillover-full they have to juggle tasks, keeping things up in the air at all times to prevent fumbling priorities, or they just drop some with regrets. So they understandably turn to outside resources for assistance.

However, outside help usually isn't enough just by itself--and I'm speaking from the perspective of one of those external people. You can't effectively offload critical leadership. Change--realizing multiple gains on many levels for a lasting time--has to occur in house, even with able "out house" help.

The title of my book, "Leading From Within," reflects our view that no matter how effective an outside resource might potentially be, change ultimately has to be driven and sustained internally--whether within an individual, site, business unit, or an organization overall. No matter how "positive" it may seem, external methods have to become part of a company's cultural DNA; otherwise, an intervention likely won't take, and it actually can set up another round of internal disappointment or (further) erosion of management credibility. Ideally, an outside resource helps shift the culture into one-step-ahead territory, not just give out more of the same (in effect actually hunkering down the culture). In other words, it has to go beyond providing more refined ways to basically do the same old things. (Better methods for making more enhanced buggy whips, anyone?) Finding more efficient ways to discipline workers for having and reporting accidents won't progress culture to a higher level, it just keeps it stuck in mediocrity.

Leaders on all levels--from executives to mid-managers to front-line supervisors to employee champions--have to become positively challenged to get better and do some things differently, but without shellshocking, overwhelming, or castigating them. I know that's possible because I've seen a host of companies attaining much better leading and trailing results than what they've historically had and currently have. It's more than possible to attain significant improvements; the challenge of an outside resource is to carefully and continually push the envelope in a way that neither backfires nor creates more dig-in-heels resistance.

What an external resource can best do is:

1. Provide energy and messaging to magnetize people on all levels to consider and dislodge old mindsets and inject new ones. The key here is moving away from "blaming" others toward a stronger "internal locus of control," as in, "How can I become a more effective leader within our current framework?" and "What can I do to take control of my personal safety and life?"

2. Help break through entrenched daily habits. This is critical and accomplishable even with highly experienced workers, many of whom may have limited perspective (either from not having worked for numerous employers or from only being employed within a limited geographical area).

3. Bring together older and newer workers around a common strategy and solutions that they see as valuable and want to use, both at work and at home.

4. Offer practical methods for daily applications that individually reinforce and anchor in small-but-significant, easily usable techniques.

5. Suggest workable structures for creating real and sustaining simultaneous improvement on multiple levels (safety performance, communications, engagement, employee-management relations, employee-employee relations).

I've heard some leaders question whether cultural change is readily attainable; perhaps this is because previously attempted approaches weren't effective for that company at that time? It seems as if everyone--internal and external--preaches "out of the box" adjurations that are effectively the same old thing. Talk, commitment, and mindset: while each is important, it is never enough by itself. Change requires tangibly different actions. I know that culture changes only when there is a coordinated combination of a) higher level/out-of-old-rut thinking and approaches, b) new and effective daily actions take place, and c) organizational structures are set for making it as easy as possible for everyone to change.

For those who effectively may be stuck, it's time to move past wishing or hoping or blaming or giving up and step toward action planning and real change. There’s a lot positive a company can do that requires relatively minimal internal time. Don't give up on believing it possible to move to next levels. Remember, again, real change is driven from within (both individually and organizationally); significant improvement will most quickly come with a company's leaders internally lead the way. This works best when leaders generate plans and practices for moving toward objectives one ladder step at a time, rather than attempting to skip up three rungs at a time. And, yes, sometimes it helps to have outside resources inspire receptivity, generate energy, and bring in methods for this process.

Even when situations seem without much hope, high-aspiring leaders have to discipline themselves to be persistently patient, holding on to strong expectations for change. We've seen significant safety culture and performance improvements even in companies that have self-assessed deep-rooted, self-limiting patterns and have "tried everything." Never give up. Change is always possible by thinking and doing things differently. And perhaps by enlisting the right help, inside and out.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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