Understanding the Cycle of Safety-Culture Change

Understanding the Cycle of Safety-Culture ChangeIn our last issue we began a series on understanding the dynamics of changing and leading a safety culture, and there we saw that the most difficult part about change is not the process per se, but the people you have to persuade. If you plan to undertake an effort like this then you have to anticipate the resistance that you will invariably encounter.  It’s not a question of whether you’ll encounter resistance, but what level of resistance you’ll encounter. A failure to recognize, and plan for, this resistance is a sure-fire way to derail the effort.  That means your implementation plan must include a way to manage the resistance effectively. [content_protector password=”cycle” identifier=”cycle”]

Five Stages of Response to Change cycle-of-change

You may be familiar with the five stages of grief:  Denial > Anger > Bargaining > Depression > Acceptance.  There’s a similar process that people go through in the face of change.  Any time you announce a change to a current practice you’re bound to get a variety of responses.  So keep in mind as we work through these five responses that we’re looking here at the overall trajectory of responses, not individual exceptions.  There will always be exceptions, and we’ll look at how to leverage those to your advantage.

Stage 1: Denial

Like the five stages of grief, the five stages of response to change starts with denial:

Go ahead and make your little change — just leave us out of it.  We’ve been doing it this way for 30 years.  You corporate types come and go every two or three years, and you always bring the newest flavor of the month.  We’ll just wait it out and someone else will come along and change it again.  Meanwhile, we’ll still be doing it the same way we’ve always done it.

This is where many change agents just give up (note the example of “Mark” in my previous article).  Attitudes are so entrenched that they just see it as a lost cause.

Stage 2: Resistance

After some time has passed, and after you’ve survived the initial stage, that denial moves to the next stage: Resistance!

I hate what you’re making us do and I’m going to fight you tooth and nail the entire way.  I’m not going willingly.  In fact, I’ll actively oppose your ideas to my peers.

You can probably see that this stage corresponds roughly to the “Anger” stage of the grieving process.  It seems like a giant obstacle to hurdle (and in many ways, it is!).  But the good news is that they now have at least come to terms with the fact that they are not exempt from that change!

Stage 3: Resignation10 Things You Absolutely MUST KNOW About Reinforcing Your Safety Culture By Building EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

After still more time has passed, that resistance eventually turns into Resignation — no, not the type of “resignation” you’re probably hoping for at this point!  During this stage the overarching sentiment is:

I’m tired of fighting this.  Go ahead and make your change.  I just don’t care any more one way or the other.

This stage is marked by a detached apathy in which people finally resign themselves to the fact that change is coming.  And, while still not active participants, they are at least willing to be led in that direction.

Stage 4: Acceptance

This stage in the change-response process doesn’t really correspond to the “Acceptance” stage of grief (which is much more like the “Resignation” stage we just addressed).  Instead, this stage actually marks the first truly “positive” stage in the process:

You know, I kind of like where we’re going with this.  I’ve seen some positive results.  This looks like it might be good change after all.”

Stage 4 is marked by an overarching “buy-in” to the new way of doing things by the general population

Stage 5: Champion

We call the final stage the “Champion” stage because this is where people will actually go to bat for the new way of doing things:

Of course this is the right way to do this!  I don’t know how we ever got along without this.  What took us so long!

If you’re old enough to remember the days before word processors came on the scene and you were stuck using a typewriter, you may be able to relate to the stages of this process.  Remember when you were asked to jettison your typewriter and learn how to use WordPerfect, WordStar, AmiPro, or any number of other applications back then?

fctc-online-bannerOr, maybe a better example is moving from DOS-based applications to Windows-based applications. After all, you just finished memorizing that WordPerfect function key template, and now they’re telling you that the function keys are obsolete! Or maybe the change was the transition from writing letters to sending email.

Whatever the example, can you recall your initial response to the change? It probably wasn’t positive.  Do you recall how you finally came to terms with the new way of doing things? And looking back, would you ever want to return to the old way?

The point is, there will always be resistance to new ways of doing things, at least in the initial stages.  But you can rest assured that once people are on board, they won’t want to go back to the old way of doing it.  The goals in the meantime include (1) to reduce the level of resistance as much as possible,  (2) to increase acceptance as much as possible, and (3) to shorten as much as possible the time it takes to go from the first stage to the final stage.

We’ll begin to look at ways of accomplishing those three goals in out next issue. But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.



About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.