Change is GREAT! You Go First.

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“Change is great! You go first.”

That was my favorite line as an educational consultant when collaborating with clients moving through a whole school reform process. Everyone recognized the need to improve, wanted to improve, and was well aware that change was necessary to improve; however, when it came to implementing change, many shut down, grumbled, pushed against, and decided “the way it’s always been” was far less scary or inconvenient than doing things differently. Throughout my career in education, non-profit, and corporate, the trend is consistent; when presented with an opportunity to grow, we are hesitant to try something unfamiliar. Why?

Simple. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and disruptive, so much so, that even our brains challenge it without us consciously recognizing it. When change is occurring, the amygdala (a grouping of neurons in our brain that process emotions) perceives a threat, it releases hormones that drive a fear, fight, or flight response. Quite literally, our bodies are hardwired to resist change.

Think about a situation when you stepped out of your comfort zone; maybe you went on a roller coaster with loops for the first time as a child. Although you were choosing to try this experience, you noticed your heart rate go up, you were sweating a bit, and your thoughts got a bit muddled; these reactions were connected to fear and driven by your brain’s response to “new.” However, after spending two hours in line, and cheerful peer pressure from friends that had been on the ride before and survived, you took your seat, buckled up, and tried not to scream too loud as you whipped around the twists and turns.

Now, transition that example into the context of work; your company is launching a new product, and you’ve been selected to serve as the project manager for something you know little to nothing about. It’s a fantastic opportunity to grow, however you feel panicked and internally begin questioning if you are the right person for this role. With training on the product, a supportive leadership team, and a safe space to ask questions, you dive into the work with confidence, and a willingness to tackle uncertainty…you were able to quiet your amygdala and forge forward.

But what happens when change is forced upon us, and we don’t have friends or colleagues to turn to for support or advice, because no one has faced this type of change before? Well, how have you managed the past two years, because that is exactly what happened. How are you holding up?

With the exception of a few centenarians that survived the flu pandemic in 1920, none of us have confronted a change as extreme as the COVID-19 pandemic; we didn’t just pivot at work, we had to pivot in life, and continue to do so as the virus mutates, recommendations shift, and we try to figure out how to move forward with business goals despite not knowing what the future holds. Everyone has experienced some level of trauma, and it is demonstrated in the data. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 33 million people have left their jobs since the spring of 2021. The workforce is reevaluating priorities, seeking balance and flexibility, and they want careers that mirror their values; simply put, they want to enjoy work. In traditional corporate settings, creating a positive workspace has not always been a top priority, but it needs to be.

Although revenue and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are omnipresent in business, today’s workforce is demanding more than a paycheck. They want hope, to be a part of something, and they are willing to sacrifice stability to find it. Organizations must create a culture where employees can thrive in change…a POSITIVE space. Creating positive workspaces, now more than ever is the key to recruiting and retaining great employees, and they drive innovation and business growth. So, what components need to be present to make it a “positive workspace”? In my experience as a leader, coach, and trainer, I look for the following when assessing an organization: trust, open and honest communication, collaborative teams, being solutions-oriented, opportunities for growth, flexibility, appreciation, and motivated and happy employees.

Let’s break these down and learn a few simple strategies to lay the foundation for your organization if any are currently missing in your culture.

Research tells us that high trust organizations are more successful, but to build it, you must first have relationships. It is simple: when we truly know each other, we can understand and trust each other more deeply, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I read a statistic once that said 10% of the population provides trust freely (that is me, I’m part of the 10%), and 90% of people believe trust needs to be earned, and that takes time. Give your team an opportunity to get to know each other better with an activity like “Coffee Talk”; randomly match team members that may not get to talk about non-work-related issues often, and send them out (or over a screen) for coffee. Provide a set of questions to drive interesting conversation and understanding; “Where did you grow up?” “What was your first concert?” “Who do you consider a role model and why?” “How did you end up in this role?” Knowing more about what makes our coworkers tick, and finding commonalities is the baseline for trusting work relationships and is at the heart of building positive workspaces.

Positive workspaces allow for dialogue; truthful dialogue…not “bless your heart” dialogue. Colleagues should feel comfortable voicing opinions, sharing feedback, and receiving feedback. Additionally, feedback should never be a one-and-done event; continuous feedback is necessary, and not just when something goes wrong, but also when things are going right. Balance the good and the bad; as a leader, let your team know where and how they are excelling, how they can improve, and create space for them to do the same with teammates. They need to see leadership that supports growth and achievement, and it begins with feedback.

Work teams need each other to succeed, but it takes time and trust. We are all different; different world views, life experiences, professional knowledge, and personality types…and that’s a good thing. Research tells us that diverse teams are more innovative because we challenge each other, so how can we leverage those differences to achieve team success? One idea: rotate meeting leaders; give everyone an opportunity to lead. Regardless of whether someone aspires to become a leader in title, we all lead at some point in every role, and building those skills generates confidence, which is a key factor for happiness. Consider weekly meetings, training opportunities, or simply an ice breaker kick-off, as an opportunity for employees to grow through leadership.

Another favorite line of mine is, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Complaining about a situation doesn’t change it; thinking about ways to improve it will! Host a “Make it Better Brainstorm” with your team. Identify one issue or problem your group or organization is facing, and then open the floor for ideas of how to fix it, and nothing is off-limits. Write down all suggestions, build off each other, and generate a list of ideas. Most employees want to be part of a solution; give them an opportunity to do so with this simple activity. Remember, we’re all human, and we want to contribute and be heard.

Today’s workforce, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, are motivated by growth; that doesn’t necessarily mean titles or money (not that those aren’t important), but they want to be developed, invested in. Consider how often you have conversations with employees about short- and long-term goals; if you’re waiting for the annual performance review, you may never have that conversation with some members of your team because they’re not going to stick around for it. If you need help getting started, try a “Career KWL”; it’s an easy tool to discuss job skills and needs simply by asking “what do you KNOW, what do you WANT to know, what do you still need to LEARN.” These questions provide an opportunity for employees to share what they feel confident about, things they want to know more about (their role, the company, training options), and it allows them to demonstrate what they’ve learned so far on their career journey. Simple questions, but the answers will drive discussion regarding what’s next, and how to get there.

Work-life balance no longer exists because it’s hard to achieve balance when your office is in your home, and emails ping to phones at all hours of the day. Today’s workforce demands that the way we work changes, and organizations must recognize employees will continue to produce, but they want to do it on their own terms. One example of that includes attention to health and wellness. Everyone’s mental health has taken a hit since March of 2020. In positive workspaces, employees are encouraged to take “mental health days,” or “camera off” virtual meetings; employers know that making time for mental and physical health matters, and they allow their workforce to make decisions that reflect.

This is the easiest way to create and support a positive workspace, however, it is often overlooked. Do not discount the power of “thank you.” There’s a reason companies like Snappy and THNKS are making a name for themselves; employees love recognition, but it’s important to demonstrate it in a way that is valued. Ask individual team members how they like to be celebrated: publicly or privately, big wins or small successes, individual bonus or team outing, mentor time with the company CEO, coffee or tea? Understanding the recognition needs of your team and acting on them will go a long way in building trust, joy, and loyalty; you get what you give.

What motivates your team? Everyone is different, and if you don’t know, don’t assume…ask. A lot of leaders believe that employees are motivated by money and status, but research tells us that peer relationships, opportunities for development, and making a difference are crucial factors. Ask your employees why they come to work; what drives them to show up every day? You may be surprised by what you hear! And as for happy employees, we all know what that looks like; smiles, and a willingness to collaborate. But do we really need it at work? YES! According to a recent study out of the University of Warwick, happy employees were 12% more productive. So expect positive ROI on roaring laughter coming from the break room or virtual meeting.

One thing a global pandemic has taught us, in an uncertain world, is the only thing we can count on is change. We build resilience and stronger team culture through positive workspaces, and the strategies listed above are simple ways to start.
So, remember, change is great…you go first. Seriously! But if you don’t think you can do it on your own, contact WNY People Development, and we’ll bring the positive energy, data, and maybe even some pom poms. We’ll partner to help develop your organization’s roadmap to create a more collaborative, happy, and inspirational environment where employees thrive.