When Safe is Dangerous

When times are tough, we play it safe. When the world feels unsafe, unpredictable, or unhealthy, it’s human nature to go home, close the door, pull down the shades and pull the covers over our heads. We find security in familiarity and want to protect what we feel is essential. We forego what we consider unnecessary; this is not the time for experimentation, risk taking, or frivolity.

The paradox is that in our search for safety, we isolate ourselves, lose touch with the world and risk being unprepared and irrelevant when we cautiously open the door to see if everything is okay.

Organizations do the same thing.

While it may seem rational to scale back, focus on the tried and true, embrace austerity and postpone innovation, the organization that survives may be incompatible with the needs of the changing world. And while leaders desperately hold on, waiting for the chaos to calm, they ask their workforce to trust in a future even they cannot describe, to do more with less, and to smile and be nice while doing it.

It may be counter-intuitive, but I suggest that tough times are precisely when we should reexamine our organization’s fundamental core, imagine new ways to contribute to an evolving world, take some calculated risks to transform what we do and how we do it, invest in enhancing the capacity of our workforce, and find ways to celebrate and even play a bit!

Question our fundamental core, you ask? All organizations have a foundational purpose, their reason for being. How could that change?  How indeed. The telephone company is now the telecommunications conglomerate; the neighborhood school is now the community learning center; the automobile manufacturer is now a transportation company; the hospital is now the heart of the health care system.

As leaders we must be open to exploring our organization’s role in a dynamic world and whether or not that role requires modification in line with the world’s needs.  Are the needs we once met still relevant? Are there new needs that create opportunities to apply our knowledge, skills and services in new ways? Is what we have always done still needed and valued? Will it be in the future?

Chances are, the answers to these questions will demand that we become change leaders, able to inspire others and help them understand how to address emerging needs in ways that are consistent with our tradition but transformed for the future. We must learn how to engage everyone in the organization in this work. We need them to find new solutions to new problems; and we need to learn how to open vertical, horizontal and diagonal communication channels to replace outdated organizational charts so that they can. We need new ways to lead that support and encourage everyone to contribute their ideas, their skills and their energy to our work.

The forward-thinking leaders at a state agency in Connecticut realized that as resources become scarcer, they need to do all these things in order to achieve their goals. By making leadership training available to all staff, nearly 30% of whom have now participated, this agency has increased its workforce’s competence, agility and engagement.

No one I know comes to work in the morning eagerly looking for tasks they will do poorly! No one I know wants to screw up! Rather, when offered the opportunity to develop new skills and master new knowledge, most people are motivated to come out from under the covers, open the door and be part of the exciting challenges taking place. Times are tough today. Rather than playing it safe, let’s give everyone in our organization the tools they need to help define and shape our future, discover how we can do things differently and develop our capacity to creatively take on challenges. If we do, we will have lots to celebrate!

Doe Hentschel, Ph.D., is the Vice President of Leadership Greater Hartford.

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