People often ask me: How do I work with my colleagues and my boss to find a new way to work together? This is the foundational challenge of organization change.
Aim for a better understanding of the folks you work with and a heightened awareness of work’s importance to people.
You’ve invested your time, energy and heart into imagining effective ways to shift your organization toward a healthier way of working together. You’re excited about these ideas and believe they can benefit a number of people. And yet when you start to talk about them, it feels like rolling a boulder up a hill. A few colleagues (or direct reports!) might listen politely and even borrow your reading materials. But somehow the momentum to make a shift remains elusive.
So often, there is a gap between what we imagine—or are even yearning for—and what we are able to put into action.
It’s true that change is challenging for each of us as individuals (e.g., diets and exercise plans), and it’s definitely true when we talk about shifting the ways we work. We know we can’t do it alone. We are part of interdependent systems. The health of our working lives depends upon many people.
In order to shift your culture’s main focus from production and efficiency to a broader view of health for the whole system, conversations with your colleagues are essential. We must think and talk together about how to make work healthier for everyone involved.
I know how hard it is to translate personal insight into an organizational shift—after all, I design these conversations for a living!
Shifting toward health in a work system takes focused and sustained energy, but it’s definitely possible. And as we think about the changes we want to see in some of our country’s largest work systems (e.g., healthcare, education, finance, government, the military), and how we, personally, want to live our lives, we can see it’s necessary to move forward together in a new way, for all our sakes.
How to begin constructive conversations about healthy work, at work:
Start by asking a colleague to coffee
I give the physician-leaders I work with a homework assignment similar to this. I ask that they “interview” a colleague about work, preferably someone who is not also a physician. I give them this homework so they can practice meaningful conversations about work, in hopes they will be willing and able to replicate these discussions with their healthcare provider teams and administrative teams.
Note that aim of this initial conversation is not to solve a problem or share your ideas for change. Rather, it is simply to understand how your colleagues think and feel about work.
For most organizations, daily conversations center on the “whats” and “hows” of work, not the “whys.” So these one-on-one chats are practice in being together in new ways. That is, frequent conversations about work’s meaning, at work, are themselves a cultural intervention.
These conversations can reach some tender places. So tread lightly. Don’t take copious notes. Listen to understand, not to give advice, make a request or reach a decision.
Here are some questions you might ask:
- What does your work mean to you?
- What do you love about it?
- How did you come to your career?
- Where did you think your career would go?
- Where did it go?
- What are the healthiest parts of your work experience?
- What do you see as needing to change?
- What are you most excited about at work?
- Where do you hope your career goes next?
Then ask another person. And another.
Consider making time for coffee with a colleague a few times each month, so that meaningful conversations about work, at work, become a regular part of your own work life. These conversations are the seeds of a culture shift.
The conversations can be very revealing.
Work connects with people’s sense of identify and self-esteem. Many of us have dreams for our careers. Some of us feel we have callings.
You’ll likely bear witness to how different we all are. Even though we work in the same place, we experience that place differently. To make things even more complicated, we are changing all the time. We grow. We tire out. We have different levels of hope at different points in time.
If your colleagues see that you are sincere in wanting to understand their experience, these conversations can strengthen your relationships and build more trust.
But be careful.
You’re dealing with people’s inner-most experiences here. You want to deepen trust, not undermine it. Below are a handful of tips to keep the conversations constructive and safe for all involved.
Recommendations for your conversations about work:
Learn to listen
Challenge yourself to improve your ability to ask questions and listen for understanding. This is not the time to advocate for specific ideas or changes. This is a time devoted to relationship building. It’s also a time where you can create a more complex and nuanced framework for understanding your own work system and the people who share it with you.
Keep it short and do it frequently
Having more frequent, shorter conversations is better than one long one, no matter how interesting the first exchange may be. People need time to think about their experience. The thoughts they share with you initially might trigger other ideas afterward. You might be one of the first people to ask about their dreams and desires for their work. Think about the first conversation as opening the door for more going forward. These shorter, frequent conversations can begin to shift the culture while you’re building understanding.
One at a time
At the start, one-on-one conversations are more helpful than, say, inviting the gang to a “retreat” to talk about work. What you want to do is make it feel safe and normal to talk about work in a soulful way before placing people in a group situation. These low-key conversations invite self-reflection. People might need a number of conversations before they have some clarity about their own needs and desires, and feel confident enough to speak up in a group setting.
Clarify your intentions
Be clear about what you are and are not looking for from the conversation. After all, if someone shares with you information you feel you need to act upon, yet you are hesitant to do so, you risk causing that person to feel vulnerable, embarrassed and maybe even betrayed. For example, if you find out one of your colleagues is being bullied at work, you may well feel the need to act on that information immediately.
So make it clear you are not looking for problems to solve at this stage. If something of a serious nature does come up, be sure you ask about their expectations of you. Ask directly, “Is this something you’d like me to act upon?”
Refer to the Decision to Trust
Keep in mind that trust is a complex dynamic. It’s influenced by hierarchical power relationships, risk tolerance, people’s personal histories and situational factors. Make certain that these conversations are a caring and respectful experience for each of you, a foundation for change that you create together.
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