You used all of your skills to move your team from being dysfunctional to one with a high level of productivity, full engagement of all team members, and they even had some fun together. But will your success last? Will they revert back to dysfunction when you can’t be there? Did you built in the mechanisms to make your changes sustainable?
People and their human systems can revert back to habitual, automatic behaviors very quickly. So how do you make the change sustainable? This question always reminds me of Kurt Lewin’s three stages of change: Unfreezing (loosening the current state of a system), creating the change you want, and refreezing (stabilizing the system around the changes). Here are two core ways to make your changes Last: Accountability and Structure.
Much of the work of organization development practitioners focuses on helping clients and their team develop consensus around four basic areas. They are:
- Consensus about what their goals are
- Consensus around the problems that are keeping them from accomplishing their goals
- Consensus about what they will do to solve those problems
- Consensus around what they will do to keep those problems from coming back.
That’s all well and good, but it leaves the question of how to assure that those agreements will be kept. Many a member of a client system has said they’ve been to too many retreats where all kinds of optimistic agreements were made only to have them ignored the following week.
Accountability is a key way of making agreements stick. As often as not, issues of accountability, or rather its absence, turn out to be key systemic issues. A core example often pops up as a complaint in large bureaucratic organizations and often in wealthy organizations (both tend to have a good deal of budget flexibility): poor performers are rewarded with less work and good performers are penalized with more work. In such cases both sides of accountability are at play just in a “bass-ackward” way. The preferred use of accountability is to reward good performers and penalize the poor performers after positive support has proven to be ineffective. Many employees complain of a lack of accountability in their organizations. Accountability, seen as consequences, is really never lacking; whatever we do or don’t do has consequences. However, when they are not accompanied by clear intention, the results can be counter-productive.
Accountability as consequences has a lot to do with operant and classical conditioning: Behavior that is rewarded continues and behavior that is not rewarded disappears. Likewise, behavior that is penalized tends to be avoided. If agreements are to be kept and associated behaviors to stick, to last, they need to be rewarded just as not keeping agreements needs to be minimized. To accomplish this, I ask them what they will do when someone breaks one or more of the agreements they have developed? When that discussion is complete, I ask what they will do for those who keep the agreements? This set of conversations is often quite uncomfortable particularly when there has been a pattern of ignoring agreements condoned through inaction.
The discussions about accountability that I have with my clients before any team meeting are important. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, people tend to do what their leaders do. If their leaders keep their agreements, their followers tend to do the same. Also, leaders (in official positions) are the purveyors of official organizational accountability from promotions, bonuses, awards, and recognition through to the actions of progressive discipline. My client and I talk in depth about their willingness to use as needed the accountability mechanisms their position has afforded them. For some accountability has not been a strength. In such cases we discuss how they will garner the support they need from their boss and human resources.
The keeping of agreements is core to refreezing a system around the changes desired. There are many people who keep agreements from some set of personal standards. There are also many who will have a multitude of reasons for not keeping agreements unless they are held accountable for keeping them.
Structures create and maintain stability in almost any arena. The underlying structures of a building or bridge, its skeleton of steel or reinforced concrete, provide them with a sustainable strength that only the most devastating of circumstances can transcend. Likewise, the laws and values of a society provide boundaries of acceptable behavior without which societies would fail. The same is true of organizational structures.
The structures that maintain organizations are enforced rules of behavior which define who may enjoy employment within it. Such rules are formal and informal. The more the two are in sync, the more transparent the rules will be. Included in formal rules are an organization’s written policies and regulations. Its informal rules are enculturated behaviors that may or may not be congruent with the formal structures. In a dysfunctional organization there is too much latitude for dysfunctional behavior. For example, the #me-too movement has exposed the dysfunctional behavior rampant in many organizations that have caused harm to significant numbers of female employees. Such harm will always harm the organization as well.
Creating new healthy structures starts with the agreements created in the team meetings discussed above. Such agreements are themselves structures describing behaviors that the team has agreed will effectively move them toward their goals. As those agreements are reinforced, they become group norms and even part of the organizational culture. The stronger the reinforcement, the more the desired behaviors will stick. Imagine a team regularly discussing how well members are sticking to an agreement about proactively supporting each other.
Such informal feedback structures would go a long way to support the agreements being kept. The more such conversations are a consistent, therefore, structural part of group meetings, the better. The more such conversations are as frequent as discussions about other important organizational issues such as sales and production, the better. An agreement that team members will proactive support each other that also became codified in employee handbooks, personnel policy, performance evaluations, and job descriptions, all in sync with the accountability mechanisms described in the first part of this article, will be a change that will stick.
A large part of the success of my practice as an organizational development practitioner lay at the feet of supporting my clients to create the accountability processes and structures needed for sustainable change. Make it a part of your practice. Sustainable interventions make for a sustainable practice!
Michael is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein), and the upcoming The Dragon Principles. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.
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- Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO
- Center for Human Systems
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