In 2020 I completed the Certificate in Creating Positive Change, which has been one of my most rewarding learning experiences.
It provided both inspiration and salvation, working alongside a diverse group of global thought leaders during the Covid-19 pandemic. It helped reinforce the immense power and opportunity that lies in stepping outside the norm, be it industry, profession, or location/country (in this case it was all three).
It also opened my eyes to the positive change movement: people from all walks of life and professions who are challenging the status quo when it comes to enabling change in workplaces and communities all around the world.
At the core of this movement is the authentic desire to embrace the mess and the magic that comes with inviting a diverse group of voices – who will be affected by a change – to be part of the solution. The end game is to improve people’s wellbeing and organisational performance.
Bad change hurts
You might ask: Why would anyone want to embrace the mess? (It’s more fun than it sounds!) And won’t everyone just run wild? (As it turns out, no).
For a start, poorly designed change efforts are one of thirteen factors that negatively impact a worker’s psychological health. This often manifests by way of outdated top-down command and control leadership styles and inadequate employee involvement and communication.
As H&S practitioners we are often responsible for change – but has it ever occurred to you that the techniques we employ could actually be harming people?
Change fatigue is the term for the effects of poorly designed practices, as people in modern workplaces seemingly suffer under conditions of constant change.
But what if it’s not the amount of change that’s wearing people out, but the way change is led? That is what the team from The Change Lab identified in their 2019 report into change and wellbeing in workplaces, being the most comprehensive empirical analysis to date on trends in organisational change.
People at the centre
So if the traditional top-down management approach to change isn’t serving us well, what is the alternative?
As it turns out there are multiple evidence-based alternatives, including human-centered design and appreciative inquiry. The evidence for learning teams is still building, but most people who have used them will tell you it is an effective change tool.
These more progressive forms of change approaches have several elements in common. Firstly, they put people at the centre of the entire change process. This requires a deep sense of empathy and appreciation for the unique strengths, experience and intelligence that each person brings to the workplace.
Second, these practices are founded on the understanding of systems thinking and the inherently complex nature of work. Through this lens, there is rarely a single obvious route to take when creating meaningful progress, nor is there a select few who can claim glory over a change, nor do the holes in the Swiss cheese of change ever line up perfectly.
Finally, it is the recognition that change, like safety, is emergent. It is a continuous, open-ended process that evolves moment by moment. “Human flourishing is not a static state but rather an emergent property of change that enables vitality to be sustained” (Carlsen, 2006). So change, in and of itself, can and should contribute to the wellbeing of people, but only with the right approach.
For an experienced learning team or appreciative inquiry facilitator it would seem absurd to even attempt to drive change from the top down, but that’s exactly what happens across most workplaces today.
Further, most of what I have detailed above will not be found in a traditional safety course curriculum. Ironically, it’s often when looking outside of the safety world that you learn the most about what actually enables it.
This reiterates the essential need for safety practitioners to be highly curious and to source their knowledge from non-traditional sources. In the words of one of the great change pioneers, Professor David Cooperrider: “We grow in the direction of the questions we ask.”
So, how will you gain knowledge and insight from less obvious sources that can help amplify change and safety in your workplace? And how will you evolve the way change is led, enabled, and activated in your organisation so that people and workplaces can truly thrive?
Amanda Clements is Executive Manager, HSEQ with Probuild Constructions in Melbourne.
Amanda Clements recommends getting knowledge from non-traditional sources. Which non-H&S source has given you most value to apply to your H&S role? In what way?