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  • Barry Wolfe

Everything I Know About Culture Change I Learned From Potty Training


Some years ago I moved my wife and four kids, which soon became six (yep, six), to take a job as the HR leader for a manufacturing company with an abysmal safety record. I discovered the company had been incurring two to eight recordable injuries a month for almost as far back as I could find OSHA 300 logs. Perhaps worse, the workforce was completely resigned to this situation. This wasn’t my first challenge leading culture change, but it was certainly my biggest. In less than two years we drove the incident rate from 19.2 (that’s really high) to 2.1. Sometime after that success I was asked where I learned to lead successful change like that. I wasn’t sure how to answer, but on later reflection I came to recognize that most of what I knew about culture change I had learned from my considerable experience with potty training.

That’s right; changing a company culture is a lot like potty training. It takes longer than you wish it would. You have to push for the change you’re seeking day after day after day, and you can’t afford to miss a single opportunity. You must relentlessly drive home the benefits of the change using newer and varied messages; but no matter how creative you are, your audience isn’t likely to internalize those benefits just from listening to your cajoling - you have to wait until people figure that out for themselves. Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you find a big unpleasant mess on the floor that somebody’s going to have clean up (most likely you). After wearying weeks and months of fitful progress you wonder if this change is ever going to happen. But if you’re constant and vigilant enough, at last comes that glorious day when a beautiful, beaming soul proudly shows you the results you’ve been wanting them to deliver. Lo and behold, people start to do the right thing! And they do it the next day, and the next, to their everlasting benefit and your everlasting relief.

I know it sounds weird, but if we reflect on how we lead others to this kind of lasting change in the bathroom, most all of us would agree that our success depends on employing the same critical approaches. For one thing, we discuss the value of the change we’re seeking only in terms of what our child would value, never what we value. We tell our children they should want to use the potty because feeling and smelling clean is nice. We never tell them to use the potty because we’re sick of cleaning up after them, because we know that we must appeal to their interests, not ours.

In addition, even if our toddler could read, we would never trust a string of memos to communicate to our little prodigy about something so important as the need to start using the potty. We know instinctually that getting someone to change behavior takes a level of trust in the messenger that only a personal relationship can create. Children must see our enthusiasm, hear our encouragement, and feel our investment in their well-being before they’ll take so momentous a step. That demands face time, and lots of it.

We also know that we have to demonstrate our commitment to the goal. While accidents will happen here and there, we can’t tolerate wholesale backsliding. We have to bring our little ones to the clear understanding that once we start down the path to the toilet, there is no going back.

But there is one rule most parents understand above all else; no matter how long and frustrating for us the change process may be, we know that we must keep our negative emotions in check. In moments of failure nothing will hinder our child’s success (and ours) more than our repeated venting of anger and frustration. Of course we’ll get a little exasperated here and there (which can actually help); but greeting setbacks and lack of progress with regular scoldings and flashes of anger only introduce guilt, fear, and erosion of self-confidence in our dear ones – all of which only get in the way of our clear goals.

Each one of these techniques apply when leading culture change in any organization. You can talk about the change as a shared goal, or in terms of why its in people’s best interests, but you can’t discuss it in terms of its benefits to the leadership. In all our communications with employees on the topic of safety, our management team never once shared incident rates, even when some employees asked us to. That was management’s measure, and we would not risk the effort becoming perceived as a numbers exercise (though we did share month-over-month recordable counts). Instead, we talked about the need to improve safety because we all wanted everyone to go home in pretty much the same shape they were when they came in. That was a reason the entire workforce could support, all the more so because it was a better one than incident rates or workers comp premiums.

As we’re engaging people on the need for change in ways that will help them want to drive the change we’re trying to introduce, one of the most effective techniques is to create dissatisfaction with the status quo. It’s not enough to get people to go along with what we’re proposing; we want them to see that the current state of things can’t be tolerated and help us drive the new ways of doing things. With toddlers, we point out the old ways are pungent and uncomfortable. In the safety culture change example above, we created urgency around the need for change by showing people the recent recordable injury history and then pointing out that, at the current pace, over fourteen more people would suffer a recordable injury before the year was out. Then I asked for volunteers. As you might expect, I got none. That created the buy-in to the need for change pretty quickly.

Because creating change requires trust, and trust only comes with personal interactions, communications about the change must be personal. We all know that nothing else would get our little ones potty trained, even if they could read a note from us about it. In that safety change initiative, our management team agreed that communications about this topic were too important to be entrusted to memos. Any messages we had to deliver about safety we would do in person, on all three shifts. Besides the always-verbal safety meetings, two senior leaders were on the safety committee as well as incident review teams. The visibility of leadership communicated more than the words ever did.

Perhaps most importantly, leadership must avoid anger or scolding to drive change. When we’re shown the first successes in the workplace or in the bathroom, no matter how tentative, we don’t shake our heads and exclaim, “well it’s about friggin’ time!” We celebrate, congratulate and reinforce every success, no matter how tentative, because we know that’s how we’ll get the next ones. I’ve come to think of this as relying on what I call the P’s of culture change:

- Patience – Understand from the outset that this will take time, and bury any frustration;

- Positivity – Reinforce every success. Always express your confidence that people will perform in the new way; and

- Persistence – Don’t ever give up.

Now, notice above I said that leading a culture change is a lot like potty training. To my mind, the two differ in what creates that tipping point at which a child uses the potty on her own, or when an organization adopts the change that leadership has been seeking to create. I don’t claim to know what it takes for a child (if I did, you’d be reading about this in a parenting journal); but I believe that both changes hinge on two prerequisites. In potty training they’re such implicit givens that nobody thinks about them, but in culture change they must be conscientiously demonstrated.

The first is that our children will never really wonder whether we’re serious. Oh sure, some parents may let the potty campaign flag, but even their kids will be entering second grade with diapers a distant memory. And those children don’t have a history of parents announcing some major change initiative only to see them abandon it because some other bright shiny object came along. That’s all too familiar a scenario to employees of companies run by leaders who can’t themselves stay the course they’ve set. Every such failure saps confidence in leadership for the next change effort.

The second prerequisite is the more subtle: Our children will never wonder whether we know what we’re talking about.

After all, there is one qualification above all others that gives us the credibility to urge our toddlers to use a potty, so easily missed from our perspective that I don’t think we realize its critical importance to the potty training process. It’s not just our status as the parents that influences our children to use the potty; it’s the fact they know that we use the potty. Imagine how much less effective our cajolery would be if our little ones saw and smelled us managing our pull-ups.

Virtually all change initiatives are inaugurated by management teams who themselves are not yet adept at modelling for employees the behaviors they’re seeking. So management has to be sure it can demonstrate competence in the change it seeks in employees. To put it more bluntly, leadership must give employees the confidence that it actually knows what it’s doing. Employees can often figure out fairly early on what you want from them in a culture change initiative. But leadership has to demonstrate its competence and commitment before employees will demonstrate theirs. Which, ultimately, is what makes potty training work.

Persistence, building trust through personal leadership, creating urgency in terms of the other person’s goals, staying positive and celebrating success, and demonstrating personal competence in the desired behaviors – these are the key elements of culture change. You can learn about these from some great books; but chances are you’ve already applied them in your home.


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