With apologies to our friends in Ohio, the Cleveland Browns professional football team has been historically bad for decades, routinely changing quarterbacks and firing coaches. True, the Browns were on the upswing in 2018. Still, consider the New England Patriots. The Pats have had one coach and one starting quarterback since the turn of the century. They’ve also won six Super Bowl Championships. This provides key reminders: 1) change is not always good; 2) quick fixes are an illusion; and 3) moving from one “flavor of the month” to another is frivolous and damaging.

From professional football teams to energy companies, organizations need to be mindful when approaching change. Strong organizations always strive for continuous improvement. Smart ones do it in thoughtful, systematic ways. 

Here are some recommendations to consider before embarking on large-scale organizational change. 

1) Begin with the end in mind

 Stephen Covey encouraged readers to picture their funeral and consider what they should have done differently in their lives.1 This maudlin exercise is designed to remind us to consider big picture themes, and not just short-term objectives, when charting our lives. Organizational leaders should do the same. 

When Cynthia Carroll became the CEO of Anglo American Mining, her company had suffered nearly 200 fatalities in five years. Many company leaders and miners doing the work believed this was simply the cost of doing business in a dangerous industry. 

Beginning with the end in mind, Carroll immediately and indefinitely shut down the world’s largest platinum mine that employed nearly 90,000 South African employees.2 This was met with extreme resistance (including the resignation of the CEO for that mine). Carroll then established a working group with industry executives, government officials, and labor leaders to set an agenda for real change. They toured mines on four continents, studied worldwide best practices in safety, and visited industrial operations outside the mining sector. This established robust safety programs and extensive safety training for employees at all organizational levels once mining operations resumed. The result: a 50 percent reduction in lost-time injuries and a 62 percent decrease in fatalities. 

2) Incorporate safety as who we are – not something we do

 “Safety” is often viewed as an external element to managed and, in many cases, a hassle.

Not so for Jim Gallogly, current president of the University of Oklahoma and former CEO of LyondellBasell (one of the largest chemical/refining companies in the world). He was hired in 2009 to return the bankrupt corporation back to profitability. In his first meeting with employees, he stressed his absolute commitment to keeping everyone safe and didn’t mention the company’s financial challenges. He provided a report of the firm’s safety performance in every earnings meeting and withheld bonuses to managers for any serious incidents. In bringing his company back to profitability, he demonstrated an early, unwavering commitment to safety excellence during extreme economic distress. 

Integrating safety as part of “who we are” instead of “something we do” is critical. A recent study using both objective and subjective data from 19 manufacturing companies found: 

“As safety deteriorates, product quality and plant performance, based on internal and external measures, suffers. There is more scrap, more rework, and employees are less involved. Such outcomes are in line with the core concepts of total quality management which would suggest that employees who do not feel safe in their jobs are not likely to do their jobs well.... Safety and operating performance measures should be viewed as in concert with each rather than as competing entities.”3

3) Use positive means to engage employees

Too many organizational leaders use old-school, fear-based, stress-inducing means to try and push employees to perform better. But it does just the opposite. 

Recent estimates from the American Psychological Association conclude4:

  • High stress organizations have 50 percent higher health care expenditures.
  • Workplace stress causes the loss of 550 million work days and 500 billion dollars.
  • Stress contributes to 60-80 percent of workplace incidents.
  • Workplace stress increases turnover rates by 50 percent.

Neuroscience research shows that increasing stress levels leads to the release of cortisol and the inhibition of dopamine, which results in a host of cognitive problems including decreased brain volume in adults.5 Stress causes impaired decision-making, judgment, attention, and memory along with increased risk-taking behavior.6

Give employees realistic goals, autonomy over their work, and more voice in their own operations to lower stress and foster trust. Promoting more communication, building relationships, encouraging personal growth, and showing vulnerability also improves trust and decreases stress levels7.

A lot of hard work

Look to the future to get better... but proceed with caution before initiating quick fix solutions. Long-term organizational improvement requires strategic, systematic planning and execution. 


  1. Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Schuster.    
  2. Carroll, C. (2014). Moving to a safety culture in mining. Harvard Business Review online.
  3. Michaels, D. (2018). 7 ways to improve operations without sacrificing worker safety. Harvard Business Review online.  
  4. Seppala, E. & Cameron, K. (2015). Proof that positive work cultures are more productive. Harvard Business Review online. 
  5. Porter, J. (2015). How stress shrinks our brains and what to do about it. Fast Company online. 
  6. Elliott, V. (2015). Social neuroscience – the brains behind positive safety culture. The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Bulletin online.
  7. Levin, M. (2018). 8 ways to build a culture of trust based on Harvard's neuroscience research. Inc online.