September 5, 2022

Depending on what field you’re in, there are certain metaphors that pop up again and again. For my dad, who works in the defense industry, everything is an analogy for battle: fire for effect, steal the march, out-flank the competition. In Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), most of the imagery we use has to do with nature. In my class with Jane Dutton, she put on the first day’s slides, “Beware: serious love of gardening metaphors.” 


But in my conversations with Bankies, another metaphor has been coming into play: running a marathon. When I first joined Riverbank, I asked executive consultant Robin Klein about a topic we often talked about in class but that I was still trying to get a grasp of: How do you go about taking these positive practices and concepts and institute them in organizations in a way that doesn’t put the burden on the individual? I wanted to know how Riverbank approached systematic change in ways that weren’t just teaching people about positive practices and expecting people to start doing them on their own.  


Robin reframed my question for me: “What you’re talking about, to me, is how do you embed change? How do you take something that’s not working or not happening and introduce and sustain a change in a way where it naturally occurs at work on an ongoing basis? It does become, I wouldn’t say a burden, but it does become the responsibility of everyone. It’s not like you can wave a magic wand and suddenly everyone is doing it.” 


She then illustrated her point with an analogy: “Are you a runner? No? Ok, me neither, so let’s use that.” 


She set the scene: “Let’s decide that you and I have come to the conclusion that running is great for our health, and neither one of us wants to do it. We’re very happy with whatever exercise we have, and running just sounds gross to us, just not that appealing.” I have to say, she was pretty spot on with my attitude towards running. The mile was always the worst day in high school PE, except maybe for the dive test.  


People often have the same strong feelings about the way they work: “It’s the same way in business. If all of a sudden we want to improve relationships in the workplace by encouraging more high quality connections, people don’t really want to be told how to build better relationships — they think their relationships are fine. They don’t want Big Brother coming in and saying, please do it like this from now on.” 


In order to effectively implement change, Robin said that you have to approach the problem from all angles, starting with support from senior leadership. When someone whose opinion you care about starts encouraging you to try something, it’s bound to have some sway: “Because even though I don’t run, if everybody in my family ran and thought I should run, then you know, it’s like, ok, maybe I could try an occasional jog.” 


But just encouraging you to do something isn’t enough: “I don’t know. It hurts my back, and I’ve still got all of my excuses.” So the senior leadership needs to go further: “But the one thing you need is a system around you modeled from the top that isn’t just telling the lower levels to have high quality connections — they’re actually giving a testament to the change that it’s made in their life. For example, in your personal life if your best friend says, ‘It’s been so amazing for me. Just a short run every day makes me feel so much better” And my husband is like, ‘You’re going to sleep so much better. I’ll do it with you.’ You know, you’re going to feel like, ‘Ugh, you know, maybe I should give it a chance — still don’t want to do it. But maybe I should give it a chance.’” 


Once people have a bit more of an open mindset, you can start to support the change from other avenues, like sharing other employees’ peer testimonials or offering rewards: “What if my husband says, ‘You know, if we could just do a 5K, there are these 5Ks in Europe where we could go, and we could just do three 5Ks in three weeks, each in a different country, and it would be such an amazing experience together.’ So I start thinking, ok! I really want to go to Europe! There has to be rewards and encouragement.” I do admit, a proposal like that might tempt me to lace up my sneakers.  


Building excitement and buy-in for new positive practices or change isn’t enough though: “You have to make sure that existing practices aren’t standing in the way.” For high quality connections the organization could have a culture where the type of behaviors that would build higher quality connections are actually punished in the culture – like being open and authentic could come back to bite employees and used against them. This would create a lack of trust that stands in the way of positive change.  So, you must study the existing system and see if there are key things to stop doing as well.   


In order for the strategies of demonstrated leadership support, peer testimonials, and reward systems to work, you often have to dig deeper into the underlying culture of the organization. To really mix my metaphors and return to the idea of gardening, your plot won’t be very successful if you just scatter some seeds without taking the time to weed the soil or think about how a specific plant will fare in your climate. And that makes sense here because positive practices aren’t superficial tasks you add to a meeting agenda — used well, they are tools to tap into the human capital resources that are so abundant but underutilized in organizations. Positive practices are designed and proven to help foster cultures where people can work together to accomplish more than they could alone and find fulfillment in the process. 


Robin’s conclusion of her analogy surprised me. As a young person in this blossoming field, I know my hopes for what positive organizations could look like are often a bit idealistic. But Robin’s vision of success in change management resonated with me: “That’s how you launch it, and then you have to work on sustaining it until it becomes something where you and I still might not love doing it, but we go out and run a mile every week on a Saturday with our friends because we have been convinced it has benefits that matter. And that’s the amount of running we do. It doesn’t mean you have to become a high quality connection savant. It just means you need to participate.” 


When change is not sustained, the launch will become a distant memory and the organization won’t realize the true benefits of the change. Many will view it as just a “flavor of the month” effort. Some people hardened to seeing changes come and go in the workplace look at new change as “something that will pass” and they don’t give any discretionary effort to the change because they have seen so many changes fail. Riverbank helps organization diagnose and launch change. But we don’t stop there. We help organizations sustain change through a series of practices and efforts that embed the change into existing systems.  Refreshing meetings, policies, procedures, and aspects of operations in the sustainment phase are critical to ensure the change sticks. We also provide coaching to ensure leaders have the support and give the appropriate attention to sustaining the changes they put in motion.   


In order for a change to be worthwhile, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. Riverbank doesn’t go into our clients’ companies with the intention of overhauling the entire culture into some mythical paragon of positivity. Our approach to organizational changes is much gentler, helping people and organizations step into a new trajectory where work is better and giving them the tools so that it can continue to become better over time. I think that definition of success is much more attainable, sustainable, and fulfilling. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

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