Shaping the Riverbanks: A Metaphor for Sustained Change 

Shaping the Riverbanks: A Metaphor for Sustained Change 

Written by Chris White 


Imagine you want to change the course of the river. You wade in, trying to redirect the water’s flow with your hands. For a moment, it works. But quickly, the water flows around your hands and back to the existing current. Simply moving the water will not create your desired result. Instead, you must commit to the arduous process of reshaping the riverbanks. Once flowing along the reengineered riverbanks, the water will constantly reinforce the new structure, sustaining the river on its new path for years to come.  


Riverbanks have been a metaphor for one of my most deeply held beliefs about changing cultures since long before I worked in an office on the bank of the Huron River in Ann Arbor. Whether personal or organizational, culture change is hard. All too often, we just wade in, trying to move the water, missing an opportunity for sustained change.  


We can all think of times we’ve done this. In our personal lives – we feel we’ve been overeating or not exercising as we’d like. We adopt the latest fad diet with great gusto and lose a few pounds, only to lose our environmental support structures and find ourselves back at square one within a few months. In our leadership roles – one of our reports has received some negative feedback on his people skills. Deep down, he is a good guy, but he can come across as harsh to some people. As engaged leaders, we choose not to avoid the issue and set up a meeting to provide feedback and support a behavior change. Shaken and a bit embarrassed by the feedback, our colleague tries hard to change, but eventually, his workload piles up, and the old behaviors creep back in. The change didn’t last.   

When it comes to lasting change, willpower is not enough. To increase the chances of making change stick, you must change the whole system. As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits, “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.” If you really want to change your eating habits – remove the problem food groups from the places you would typically eat them – the house, the car, the office. Replenish these storage places with healthier, tasty options like nuts or fruits.  


If you want to support your colleague in changing his problematic people skills – help him refresh how he manages his people. For example, if he’s blending project-related feedback and personal development feedback too often for his direct reports, encourage him to schedule regular 1:1 development time with each of them. Instead of addressing issues with his people as they come up, he can track positive and negative observations throughout the month and focus their 1:1 time on coaching, providing feedback with themes and highquality examples. His people may be more likely to embrace his commitment to their growth if they are prepared to receive feedback. As an added benefit, other meetings can then focus on achieving the collective goals of the projects.   


In the context of broader organizational change, reshaping the riverbanks can take the shape (pun intended) of reflecting on how leaders are chosen, taught to lead, and rewarded. What is the way of leading that is special to your company? How can you make this type of leadership consistent throughout your organization? How does communication really happen? Is your theory (traditionally newsletters, emails, town halls) different from reality (likely a dynamic network of information sharing and sense-making)? How do you recruit, hire, onboard, and set people up for success? How do you off-board people with dignity, grace, pride, joy, and gratitude? What signals do people pick up from what they experience and see happening to others? These questions point to the processes that shape how your organization’s water flows. Otherwise, once your investment of resources, attention, and effort move elsewhere, the culture will revert to the path of least resistance: the preexisting status quo. If your organization requires a change, these are the riverbanks you must shift.  

Everyday Courage in Organizations

Everyday Courage in Organizations

When you think about courage at work, what comes to mind? Maybe it is fire fighters going into a crumbling, burning building to rescue people. Or our armed services deployed overseas, facing the threat of injury or death every day. Or even a pilot safely landing a plane on the Hudson River in critical conditions.


For me, the first image that comes to mind is taking one of the first flights back from New York to home in San Francisco after 9/11/2001. For a few days, no flights had taken off from New York as experts raced to understand and adapt to a new threat of items in our day-to-day experiences being weaponized. Throughout the flight, all passengers were told to stay in their seats. This wasn’t a recommendation, as it sometimes feels today. We were being closely watched by the multiple air marshals on the flight. After the plane safely landed, the flight crew hugged each other, the tension and relief evident on their faces.


These are examples of physical courage. Although most of us do not have working conditions that place us in harm’s way on a daily basis, we can recognize and appreciate the courage of those who do.


A simple working definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one”. If we are being honest (or self-aware), what scares us goes well beyond the threat of physical harm. Indeed, psychological fear is probably much more prevalent for most of us than fear for our physical safety. Let’s call managing this fear and moving ahead anyway “Everyday Courage”.


One of the ways that we have the opportunity to experience and enact Everyday Courage is in standing up for our values. Bullying is all too prevalent in our organizations, as it is too in other parts of our society. In fact, 20 years of studies by Christine Porath and others suggest that 99% of people have either experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace.Taking a stand against toxic behaviors — whether toward ourselves or others — is an important and inspiring form of Everyday Courage.


We also express Everyday Courage in what we stand for, not just what we stand against. When we take action to create change without authority, we can often be entering into psychologically threatening territory. It is likely that all of us have experienced being excited about an idea we have had, that we think will really help a colleague, our team or organization, or other stakeholders. It is equally likely that we have experienced our idea being rejected. In some cases, we may also have had our wrists slapped for making the effort. Stepping on invisible landmines in organizational politics can be treacherous!


It is not pleasant to experience these mini (and sometimes not-so-mini) electric shocks from the organizational system. It is tempting to internalize them as a message to stop trying to make a difference. After all, as any parent or leader knows, we humans respond to pleasure and pain as we learn behaviors. We learn to do what earns us pleasure (or praise, or a bonus, or intrinsic satisfaction), and we learn to avoid what brings us pain (or criticism, or rejection). I believe that this cycle is a significant contributor to so many people checking out at work. Sure, they show up, but they stop trying to make a difference. Or, worse still, they ally with those knocking down the folks who are still trying. Because it is so much easier (i.e. Requires much less psychological courage) to be a Monday morning quarterback than the guy (or girl) on the field trying make plays.


So what can you do to bolster Everyday Courage in your organization?


1) Give yourself — and others who try to make a positive difference — credit for your efforts. This is an act of Everyday Courage. By giving this behavior this label you are narrating a positive identity for yourself and others. In doing so you are bolstering the resilience needed to keep going even when you run into resistance.


2) Prepare yourself psychologically for the interaction. The father-son team of Robert and Ryan Quinn suggest asking yourself four questions to help enter the “fundamental state of leadership”. What is the result you want to create? What do other people think about this? Who would I be in this situation if I lived up to the standards I expect of others? What are 3–5 strategies I could employ here?


3) Build your skills at creating change without authority. When plotting how to advance your idea, my co-author Jerry Davis and I recommend you consider four factors: When to move ahead? Who are the allies I need on board? Why is this a good idea for the people (and organization) affected? How should we organize around this?



Thank you for everyday courage in making a positive difference in your organization and the world. You inspire me!



Three Daily Habits for Positive Leaders

Three Daily Habits for Positive Leaders

Sometimes culture change can seem overwhelming. It is so big and complex that we can be feel paralyzed, unable to take the first step.


But small steps can make a big difference. Here are three ways to contribute toward flourishing in the workplace today.


Begin meetings on a good note.


Before jumping into the agenda, invite each person to celebrate one thing that is going well personally or professionally. Priming people with feelings of gratitude unlocks creativity and connection within the group, which can help the meeting proceed well from there.


Check in with a colleague.


Tom Peters called it “Managing By Walking Around”, but this doesn’t just have to be done between a supervisor and his or her employee. Anyone can initiate it.


Just demonstrating that you see people and care about them and their contributions helps them feel valued and more motivated to do their best work.


Not sure where to start? After politely saying “I just thought I’d come over and say hi. Is now a good time?”, just open yourself up to curiosity. Your goal is not to manage and problem solve in these conversations, per se, but to learn and support.


Here are some questions to get the ball rolling:

  • What are the big things you are working on today?
  • Which is your favorite project at the moment?
  • What do you enjoy so much about it?
  • What can I or others around here be doing to better support you?

Say a meaningful thank you.


People want to know their work has meaning, that it contributes in some way to the larger, noble mission of your organization, and that it makes a difference in peoples’ lives.


Here is the formula for a thank you that helps people see the impact they are having.


“Thank you for doing x. Because you did that, y is better in z ways.”


These actions are not time consuming. They are not difficult. Yet you may be surprised by their potency. Try them every day this week, and see what happens!

3 Ways to Create a Work Culture That Brings Out the Best in People

3 Ways to Create a Work Culture That Brings Out the Best in People

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here. 


Do you remember that day in November 2018 when 20,000 employees walked out of Google to protest over the handling of sexual harassment claims at the company? 


The protest was dramatic, headline-grabbing and done as a clear signal that employees would no longer check their identities and values at the workplace door. It was also the exception rather than the rule. While certainly brave, Google employees felt safe enough to organize without fear of reprisals. Even if they did lose their jobs, they’d still be highly employable somewhere else. Not everyone has that luxury, and not everyone feels OK about speaking up at work. 


When we feel psychologically unsafe or unvalued, we protest quietly and often unconsciously. 


Yet walkouts happen every day in the workplace; they’re just not usually done with our feet. Instead, they’re checkouts — invisible walkouts that happen with our hearts and our hands and our voices. 


But let’s be honest: All of us have checked out at some point in our careers, haven’t we? 


When we feel psychologically unsafe or unvalued, we protest quietly and often unconsciously. Maybe we stop trying as hard at work. Or maybe we act in ways that subtly undermine leadership or act against our organization’s objectives just a little bit. We become disengaged or actively disengaged — at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the global economy. 


So if you’re a leader and want to avoid walkouts or checkouts before they become issues at your organization, there are three things you can do.



1) Unblock communication


Walkouts and checkouts happen when we feel we’re not being heard or not being respected or considered. Just about all of us have had our ideas shot down or ignored in the workplace. When it happens, we tend to experience this as an identity threat. Some of us respond by closing down and shutting off when we feel that we don’t belong or that we’re unimportant. And we stop caring as much about our work and caring as much about the people around us. 


When I was a new manager, I remember a time that I encountered this. I asked a colleague of mine with decades of work experience for a recommendation on a problem she brought to me. While she searched for an answer, we stood there in silence. After a long pause, she looked up and said to me, “I’ve never been asked what I think at work before now.” Her attitude was tragic, and it’s all too common. 


To avoid this pitfall, we need to continually invite people to speak up at work and make these invitations a routine part of how we engage with each other in the workplace. This lays the important groundwork that’s needed for those times when people want to speak up on issues that might be hard for management to hear. 


In that fragile moment when people have the courage to challenge us, leaders need to embrace them for it and be responsive.



2) Be responsive


Backed into a corner by the scale and the intensity of the protests in 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had a choice. He could respond in a way that would close the door to people who were acting in line with their values, or he could choose to open it wider. 


His public response was not defensive. He sent an email out to the whole company, saying he understood the anger and disappointment that many of them felt because he felt it too. And saying that he was fully committed to making progress on an issue that had persisted for far too long in society and at Google too. Pichai’s public response was admirable, but whether the protests were effective is still an open question. 


But invisible checkouts are much harder to notice and address than a 20,000 person walkout. Instead, leaders must proactively work to unblock the organization. They need to ask questions, invite input and foster creative conflict. And in that fragile moment when people have the courage to challenge us, we need to embrace them for it and be responsive. Because it’s not enough just to hear people out — words without action breed cynicism and leave seeds for future walkouts and checkouts. 


Now when leaders and employees are on the same page, action is a natural next step. 


Can we stay unified even in dissent? Or will we allow our relationships to become inauthentic and our identities to become diluted? 


But here’s the thing: We’re not always going to agree. Sometimes employee activists will raise issues that leaders don’t agree with, and in that fragile moment we will determine what kind of culture we will have. Will we engage in dialogue and debate? Can we stay unified even in dissent? Or will we choose to skate over our differences, allowing our relationships to become inauthentic and our identities to become diluted? Which will it be? 


At a minimum, we can have a dialogue. We can try to resolve our differences and find some common ground that even if it’s not ideal for any one party may be acceptable for all. At times, though, that’s just too hard; common ground simply can’t be found. In that difficult place, we have three choices. 


First, if we feel we can’t live with the resolution, we can choose to leave the company and find employers whose values are more closely aligned with our own. Second, we can choose to stay with the company. We can compartmentalize, keep doing a good job and look for a time to address the issue again in the future. Third, we can consider a tactic from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. He’ll say, “Let’s disagree and address the issue head on.” He’ll ask his team, “Look, I know we don’t agree here but will you gamble with me on it? Can we disagree and still commit?”Now you can’t do this every time. But if the reservoir of trust is deep enough, you can respectfully acknowledge your differences on important issues where you can’t find consensus. You aren’t walking out or checking out. You can continue to move forward on the work and agree to keep working on the issue as you go. 


Regardless of which choice you make, any of them are better than the alternative of checking out, which is a surefire path to organizational demise and professional misery. 


When everyone can bring the entirety of their life experiences, we have so much more to offer each other.



3) Aim higher


Doesn’t it seem like we’re setting a low bar if we’re just trying to avoid checkouts and walkouts? Shouldn’t we strive for more? Shouldn’t we aspire to invite people to bring their whole selves to work? 


When everyone can bring the entirety of their life experiences, we have so much more to offer each other. We are more than the sum of our resumes. 


Joan Bohan is a finance director at Disney Europe. She’s also a mother, and her son Roman has dyslexia. Did you know that 1 in 10 people live with dyslexia? That’s a huge population to serve for a company like Disney. So when Disney announced an internal contest for new and impactful business ideas, Joan applied. She’d heard about modifications that could make it easier for dyslexics to read — changes like different and larger fonts; wider spaces between letters; ruling between lines. Her idea was put into practice. And because Disney invited Joan to bring her whole self to work and all of her unique strengths, values, passions and experiences — not just her finance resume — they can now better serve millions of people with dyslexia. 


If this — unblocking communication, becoming responsive, aiming higher — all sounds good to you as a leader, where should you begin? 


Here’s a quick way for you to find out. 


On Monday morning, I’d like you to go to work, talk to 10 different people in your organization — in person or online — and ask them this question: “What don’t we talk about around here that we really should be talking about?” 


You’ll probably experience one of those awkward silences, and that’s OK. They’ll probably come to you later with an answer. But if no one has any answers, then your organization is probably blocked. Still, by asking this question, you have signaled an openness to keep going and keep asking questions. 


Ari Weinzwig, CEO of Zingerman’s Deli, likes to say that success doesn’t mean you have no problems — it just means you have better problems.

My closing wish for you is that you earn your organization some better problems by unblocking communication, becoming responsive, and aiming higher. 


As more and more people open up and start sharing more of themselves, their ideas and their unique offerings, over time you will have a new better problem — harnessing all of their energy and creativity. 


This post was adapted from Chris White’s TEDxAtlanta Talk. You can watch it here.