How to Create Psychological Safety for Culture Change?

Creating psychological safety for organizational members who are undergo­ing transformational learning involves eight activities that must be carried on almost simultaneously. They are listed chronologically, but the change leader must be prepared to implement all of them.

  1. A compelling positive vision: The targets of change must believe that the organization will be better off if they learn the new way of think­ing and working. Such a vision must be articulated and widely held by senior management and must spell out in clear behavioral terms what “the new way of working” will be. It must also be recognized that this new way of working is nonnegotiable.
  1. Formal training: If the new way of working requires new knowledge and skill, members must be provided with the necessary formal and informal training. For example, if the new way of working requires teamwork, then formal training on team building and maintenance must be pro­vided. As we will see, this will be especially relevant in multicultural groups.
  2. Involvement of the learner: If the formal training is to take hold, the learners must have a sense that they can manage their own informal learning process. Each learner will learn in a slightly different way, so it is essential to involve learners in designing their own optimal learn­ing process. The goals of learning are nonnegotiable, but the method of learning can be highly individualized.
  3. Informal training of relevant “family” groups, and teams: Because cultural assumptions are embedded in groups, informal training and practice must be provided to whole groups so that new norms and new assumptions can be jointly built. Learners should not feel like deviants if they decide to engage in the new learning.
  4. Practice fields, coaches, and feedback: Learners cannot learn some­thing fundamentally new if they don’t have the time, the resources, the coaching, and valid feedback on how they are doing. Practice fields are particularly important so that learners can make mistakes without disrupting the organization.
  5. Positive role models: The new way of thinking and behaving may be so different from what learners are used to that they may need to be able to see what it looks like before they can imagine themselves doing it. They must be able to see the new behavior and attitudes in others with whom they can identify.
  6. Support groups in which learning problems can be aired and dis­cussed: Learners need to be able to talk about their frustrations and dif­ficulties in learning with others who are experiencing similar difficulties so that they can support each other and jointly learn new ways of deal­ing with the difficulties.
  1. Systems and structures that are consistent with the new way of thinking and working: For example, if the goal of the change program is to learn how to be more of a team player, the reward system must be group oriented, the discipline system must punish individually aggres­sive selfish behavior, and the organizational structures must make it possible to work as a team.

Most transformational change programs fail because they do not create the eight conditions outlined here. And when we consider the difficulty of achieving all eight conditions and the energy and resources that have to be expended to achieve them, it is small wonder that changes are often short­lived or never get going at all. On the other hand, when an organization sets out to really transform itself by creating psychological safety, real and significant changes can be achieved.

When and how does culture become involved? The disconfirming data are only symptoms, which should trigger some diagnostic work, focusing on the underlying problem or issue that needs to be addressed. Before we even start to think about culture, we need to (1) have a clear definition of the operational problem or issue that started the change process, and to (2) formulate specific new behavioral goals. It is in this analysis that we may first encounter the need for some culture assessment to determine to what degree cultural elements are involved in the problem situation. At this point, an assessment of the kind I will describe in the next chapter first becomes relevant. It should not be undertaken, however, until some effort has been made to identify what changes are going to be made, what the “new way of working” will be to fix the problem, and how difficult and anxiety-provoking the learning of the “new way” will be (Coutu, 2002; Schein, 2009b).

After the desired changes have been made behaviorally specific, it is now relevant to ask: “How will the existing culture help us or hinder us?” Some form of cultural assessment now becomes relevant and will be described in detail in the next chapter. The remainder of this chapter must now examine how change actually takes place.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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