ISHN is pleased to introduce a new column this month on how to build and sustain a positive safety culture in your organization, written by Dr. John Kello. Dr. Kello is an organizational development expert and professor at Davidson College.

Could this be you? As a safety & health pro, you often encourage people to make change, to do things differently, to challenge longstanding habits.

You’re usually more of an influencer than a director. Even with the full backing of top management, you probably don’t have line authority over the folks whose behavior you hope to change.

You aim to drive safety as a core value, to create and implement systems that will build a self-sustaining safety culture in your organization.

You sound to me like an internal consultant/change agent, with safety as your primary strategic focus. You help to weave positive change into the fabric of your organization — something I’ve done over a 25+ year career as an organizational development (OD) consultant.

So what can we do to increase our effectiveness in the change agent role? Here are some strategies used by successful OD consultant/change agents, and I think they can increase your impact, too.

1) Accept it — change really is hard.

It’s a Great Truth: most of us simply don’t want to “be changed” by someone, even when it’s in our best interest. Change is a major source of stress for many of us. If pressure is applied to change people, the natural, predictable response is resistance.

Push too hard and you go beyond “mere” resistance and encounter what psychologists call “reactance.” In a reactance mode, I not only fail to be persuaded by your idea — I actively fight against it, and try to invalidate it.

A full-frontal assault on resistance is intuitively appealing, but often it actually backfires. The “you oughtta wanna” strategy doesn’t work, and indeed may make matters worse.

2) Remember three natural laws.

In the 1960s, OD consultant Dick Beckhard saw clearly the futility of the “hardball,” full frontal assault approach to driving change.

He argued people are more willing to “be changed” only when three conditions prevail:

  • Personal “dissatisfaction” exists with the status quo. In one way or another people come to understand and accept that “good enough is not good enough.”

  • A vision of the organization’s “future-state” helps make sense of the internal change people must make. Leadership presents a compelling, inspiring image of an ultimate target we are aiming at.

  • Immediate marching orders are clear. Most organizations do this third step reasonably well, but short-sheet the first two crucial steps. As a stand-alone strategy, giving others short-term direction — telling them what we want them to do right now — is not sufficient.

    To the extent there is a personal sense of dissatisfaction, an understanding of an overall vision, and clarity on the first steps, people may overcome their own natural resistance to change. So to help people embrace change, you should be clear about the need for change, the ultimate goal, and the first necessary steps — not focused on trying to somehow directly reduce resistance.

    3) Move from “technical expert” to “trusted advisor.”

    As a safety and health pro, you have one key client: your employing organization. If your employer views you as a sort of internal contractor, someone to provide a service on demand, a one-dimensional specialist, your ability to make any significant, durable change in safety — or broader aspects of your organization’s culture — will be limited.

    As a trusted advisor, as a “deep generalist” with core areas of expertise surrounded by breadth of knowledge, you have the power to increase your impact, and even to get your client to take ultimate responsibility for safety. Like an effective consultant, you should build strong relationships and partner with your clients, know them deeply, and get clients to “own” issues and act on them without “push” from the consultant. A “fire-extinguisher” technical expert can’t bring about this kind of change.

    4) Make each contact count.

    Don’t “go through the motions… take a play off… mail it in.” Your value to the organization decreases proportionally to the extent you take clients for granted and become a reactive order-taker. Think, “what information will be most helpful to this individual or group in meeting their objectives?” Provide it better and faster, in a form that is easier to use and ultimately more likely to be effective, than anyone else.

    5) Think beyond your current “project.”

    Cultivate the ability to operate in the present (what I am working on now for my client), the past (what I need to be following up), and the future (what I need to be planning and preparing for) at all times. When you’re not delivering your service, attend to your own education and self-development.

    Keep networking with your internal clients, and keep expanding that critical network. Who do you need to keep in touch with in your organization? Market your services, increase your market penetration, and build the visibility and credibility of your role — build your practice — constantly.

    You are an agent for positive change in your organization. Use these five strategies to build deep relationships that allow you to effect constructive change through influence, even when your “clients” might not want to change.