Did you ever have a job you loathed? Perhaps you’re in one right now. I’ve been there and it’s not until several years later I came to realize how much the situation impacted me and those around me.
In this job I was asked to help the teams improve how they’re working. At the same time I was being asked to help the teams, I was also told by the department’s VP I was not allowed to change the culture as it’s not broken.
It’s my belief culture is a reflection of how the organization delivers value. Therefore, you cannot change culture directly. You change the way the work is done and it will start to change the reflection we see in the culture. So when you think about what I’m being asked to do it’s a contradiction of direction. If I knew then what I know now!
I started working with the teams and we did some incredible things. They were transforming at the team level and the results were speaking for themselves! It didn’t take long though until I started visibly bumping into the culture and things needing to be examined at the management level. For me this is where things started heading south.
The management team started to get in my way. It’s been too long now so I won’t try to interpret the details of why this was happening. Read what you will into it. What I know now though is I create, choose and attract my own reality. So I’m sure I played a role in where things went from here …
Before long I found myself being blocked from working on anything significant. I found myself coming into work and any attempt to get involved in improving was met with resistance. Many days I would have a little work to do in the morning and then I found myself reading. I would go to my manager and tell him “you realize I don’t have anything to do and I’m just doing my own thing”. The answer I would get is “yeah that’s OK”. I started to feel like I was wasting my time and management seemed to care less about me as a person every day.
After a little while I came to believe management was really waiting for me to go away. I started looking for a new job. I was networking like crazy with people and when I met someone new would add them on LinkedIn. Apparently my LinkedIn profile was being monitored as I was questioned as to what I was up to based on the LinkedIn activity.
In hind sight I had gotten myself into a situation lacking safety. I am very passionate about being of service as people and teams improve their lives and work. This environment meant I was no longer allowed to bring this part of me to my work. So it was no longer safe to follow my heart. I started feeling excluded from the organization as if I was no longer a part of the team.
Before long I lost my motivation and coming to work could best be described as a dreaded thing I did every day. I certainly was not motivated and unless asked I didn’t do anything to help move the organization forward. I would put in my time and many days would find an excuse to escape early. I could feel I was becoming bitter.
What is safety?
In his 1954 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” Abraham Maslow describes a hierarchy of needs. As I understand it human motivations are based around this hierarchy. Starting from the top, to have self-actualization, we need esteem. To have esteem we need to feel as if we belong. To feel like we belong we need to feel safe. Finally to feel safe we need to have our most basic physiological needs (ie. food & shelter).
When one or more of the underlying items is not met our motivations are more directed to this underlying item. So in my example above my pyramid was eroding from the top down. For the last few months there I definitely lacked any self-actualization. I can now see this lack of self-actualization was predicated by an ever lowering level of esteem. My esteem was being impacted by the increasing distance between me and those around me (ie. I didn’t feel as if I belonged there any longer). This sense of not belonging was the result of not feeling as if it’s safe to be my most authentic self.
Leading for ChangeTM
I have observed organizations making already difficult working conditions worse when they try to change. With all the best intention the managers buy a model and use it to get the people to work different. We talk about how to create urgency, and get people to buy-in to the new way of doing things. We talk about people who are innovators, adopters and resistors. Then we publish papers on how 70% of all change initiatives fail.
It’s my dream that one day we can stop talking about change. Instead organizations become a living breathing entity which constantly evolves. There’s no need to talk about change as when someone has an idea for a better way to do something the work process is evolved. At times, those changes will fall flat on their face and that will be embraced for learning opportunity.
For my dream to be realized people need to be living and working in the top part of Maslow’s Hierarchy. To be fully motivated to the point of self-actualization people need safety. Without financial safety they will be more worried about their next pay cheque than trying to improve things. Without emotional safety they will be too guarded from feeling vulnerable and risk taking is not possible. Without making it safe to be their most authentic self they will feel unfulfilled and inauthentic.
I know many managers who really believe they’re creating safety for their people. They talk about how they have an open door policy, and how they value the opinion of their team members. Despite this open door policy they really don’t allow this to happen. For example, one organization I worked with the managers told me how everyone is following the process and they have audit results to prove it. They went on to tell me how they had an open door policy and they are open to feedback on their processes.
I then went and talked to the people and without exception everyone I talked to told me they had no choice but to follow the process. They went on to explain all the ways in which they were working around the process to get things done. As for the audit results … nothing copy/paste didn’t look after. When asked why they wouldn’t voice their thoughts … I heard how they’ve been yelled at, degraded and generally ignored. In other words, it wasn’t safe for them to voice their opinion.
Real improvement requires safety.
You and everyone around you already have everything needed. Lots of creativity, knowledge, experience and crazy ideas. How safe is it for them to unleash all they have inside them? How safe are you?