Fear can dominate workplace culture, undermine performance, morale, and the ability to evolve. But there are ways to diminish fear and empower change. Mindful and innovative companies have implemented practices before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in combination with a national atmosphere focused on obtaining a more equitable social contract, the pandemic presents a rare chance to pursue change, whether it is modest incremental process improvements or more dramatic changes to mission and structure.
Regardless of how large or small, implementing change requires confronting fear and embracing some of its opposites—trust, candor, flexibility, openness.
So how can we confront fear? My experience has lead me to a few steps.
Provide direction through a team charter
At a foundational level, start with a team charter, or a blueprint to define purpose for a group of people. It identifies and establishes a core set of values and behaviors designed to set the tone for a team and help achieve an organization’s goals. The charter is also a great reference tool and guide when coming upon obstacles, barriers, and, in today’s world, the unexpected.
In creating the team charter, examine what will create a more trusting and transparent environment—one that will embrace new ideas and honest critique. Teams can think of their work and collaboration as a “rehearsal space” vs. a “performance space,” and, as team members, work to cultivate that. It can help teams to be freer to experiment—and the freedom can create better ideas and product when it comes to “showtime.”
Foster a safe and transparent environment
Within any team, individuals have responsibility in building team culture. Team charters indeed help shape healthy dynamics and aid individuals in understanding and executing their roles, but professional development requires individual members to speak up about problems they see as soon as possible so that they do not metastasize.
Peer-to-peer mentoring among colleagues should be fostered and encouraged, and the mentor-mentee relationship should be valued as a two-way exchange regardless of levels of seniority. In fact, ideas bubble up as much as they trickle down. Mentors too, sometimes need an intervention of perspective, focus, or particular expertise.
Create safe environments
Leaders can create, and teams need, transparent environments where all stakeholders and team members are not fearful, and feel safe and empowered to share ideas and communicate openly. At a minimum, create a place where people are not punished for sharing their ideas. Transparency breeds trust, accountability, and cooperation. It motivates team members to become more involved and “take ownership.”
Using detailed project-status tracking methods will increase the ability for candid exchange and understanding among colleagues. It can improve workflow, boost creativity, resolve issues more effectively, and build individual and team accountability.
Experimenting is key to promoting an open, sharing environment and a growth culture.
Experimentation forces us into a confrontation with real-world fear—but incrementally. Some years ago, I worked on a public-private partnership involving the Department of Defense. I met with General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I began discussing how piloting this partnership would be beneficial to the U.S. military.
General Powell interjected and asked if I understood the difference between piloting and experimenting. He explained that piloting often means modeling something “in a vacuum”—where bias can be protected, where what we learn is still yet to be confirmed in the actual marketplace.
Powell continued, that when we experiment, we are essentially asking, “Can we do some percentage of this in a real setting today, live with honest feedback and potential mistakes, and then figure out next steps?” Experimenting in this instance allowed all stakeholders in this public private partnership to collaborate openly, test and validate hypotheses, and reach goals far more quickly than expected.
For corporations, experimentation also needs its defenders. Sometimes management looking from the outside believes that employing resources means instant actionable results. This is not so. The insight gained from trial and error is also its own valuable result regardless of whether one can act on it.
Creating an open environment that invites dialogue and experimentation allows everyone to develop a “growth” mindset focused on constant improvement. This mindset is as powerful a tool for your team’s functioning as any other skillset.
Focus on communication and feedback
Successful change involves enhancing internal and external communications. Remember to communicate at the individual, department, and company level. Establish as much information sharing as possible. Educate all your people, engage them all, experiment—and learn as you go.
- Do you have a feedback process for team members on projects?
- Do you keep a “recent lessons learned” catalogue to facilitate self and group examination? This helps show how and where mentorship is necessary.
Feedback in particular is a fundamental. It is tough to look at what you do not do well, but it is always worth confronting the fear. It gives you the opportunity to improve.
Ultimately, your efforts to evolve your culture are a project for all. Try taking incremental steps. Strive to create trust and a free-flowing exchange of ideas. Do not let the fear of being imperfect prevent you from taking meaningful action. Whatever stage you are in your career, do not be fearful of being the catalyst for change. Do not be fearful of speaking up and laying the groundwork for someone else to be that catalyst.
Jennifer S. Bankston is president of Bankston Marketing Solutions