Awhile back I took an assignment to assist an organization in south central Russia. Their desire was to make deep-seated and far-reaching improvements to their culture. Their leadership was well aware of the weaknesses that were keeping performance at a low level.

On the morning of on-site day one I met with my Russian counterpart, Alexey. I had anticipated a series of meetings with various staff members that would focus on determining their root cause issues and then beginning a process for Alexey’s organization to do something about them.

The language barrier was extreme, yet Alexey had an extremely good simultaneous translator in Anna. Like many of the simultaneous translators, this young lady had been very well trained by the KGB.

I was now concerned about the “real agenda.” Fortunately, one of our American team members then confided an interesting fact to me alone that she had once been a simultaneous translator for the CIA. Thank you, Nina, and let the intrigue begin. Comrades!

Hand grenades

Alexey tossed out the first “hand grenade,” so to speak, when he explained the plan for day two.

 “Dr. Williamsen, you will be giving a series of three speeches throughout the day. The first will be to leaders in our community. We are in the third largest city in all of Russia. These are very important people to us. Next you will address the academic community from our university. There will be faculty, administration and students who want to hear of your plans to assist us. These are very important people in our efforts to move forward. Toward the end of the day you will be interviewed on national television, and what you have to say will be widely broadcast. However, I must warn you of one thing, Dr. Williamsen; do not mention the word ‘change.’ As you know we have had very difficult times in our country, and so ‘change’ has become a very bad word.”

Maneuverings and denial

I was shocked in many ways. I had anticipated teamwork in determining the changes they needed to develop and implement, not a series of political maneuverings and denial. I was reminded of a time with my papa as he once told me, “Son the only people who really like change are people with wet pants.”

OK, so papa was quoting Mark Twain, but the message was still clear. And off I went to explain in three different speeches to these “very important people” the necessity of forward planning for gradual change, so they would not be blind-sided by events similar to their country’s economic collapse which drew them through the knothole of sudden change. Get out of the world of BS and denial and into planning what is necessary for you to avoid a trigger event that will bring on the excruciating, radical, revolutionary change that we all desire to avoid.

Wet corporate suits

My career in assisting organizations to develop meaningful, realistic safety culture change began at a Fortune 20 company that experienced yet another fatality. This event left all the executives with “wet pants” and the necessity of subsequent radical safety culture changes to their sick production- only focused culture.

My message to Alexey’s organization is the same as it is to you: Don’t wait for a trigger event to give you wet pants! Take a deep, realistic look into your safety culture and begin a quiet revolution which avoids trigger events that lead to “wet pants” for all.