I Believe You: Three Words to Inspire Cultural Change

“There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes” ~ Pablo Picasso

By: Megan Biles

Our differences are what make us unique. When everyone is able to perform at their highest capacity, organizations are more successful and effective. Transformation comes from ideas brought to life through individuals who are bold enough to share their concerns to challenge the status quo. The challenge facing our leaders is finding a path to inclusion, where all feel confident stepping forward and inspiring change that will lead to transformation. 

Creating this culture starts with believing those who come forward.

How we, as leaders, respond to individual issues and ideas will influence the culture of our organizations. We must believe their concern and experience is real to them, and more than likely, real to many others within that community. There is significant power when “my” problem becomes “our” problem. 

There are three responses to personal issues that I have experienced from leaders. The first response is to be discounted for the idea or concern. This may be because the leader does not believe it is a significant problem or does not feel they have the resources to address it. This may because the issue does not personally affect them, or they cannot relate. You can visibly see the dismissal or disregard for the issue in their eyes, tone, or lack of actions. When the dominant majority does not concern themselves with the needs and concerns of the minority, people have a tendency to stop contributing to the success of the mission. Additionally, studies have shown that creativity and innovation used for solving problems will decrease when individuals do not feel respected and fear their ideas will be publically criticized.1 Who would want to lead, or be a part of, that kind of team?

The second is the acknowledgment that it might be an issue, but then you are asked to prove it. You are asked to come back with more data “to convince” them there is an issue outside of your perspective. This may stem from a well-intended desire to want to help. It is natural to want proof and be equipped to be able to further the issue to a solution. The initial response of “prove it” as it stands alone, puts the burden of proof on the individual who may already be hesitant about coming forward and this action immediately breaks down trust. More than anything, a response of “prove it” states the problem is not believed at face value.

This response is often seen when trying to work through the chain of command and hoping to get to the actual policy maker. Interim leadership may be cautious or skeptical supporting an issue they do not understand or cannot relate to and thus freeze momentum under the guise of requiring supporting justification. This is used as a stall tactic, often driven by a stability bias, a desire to not rock the boat or maintain the status quo,2 or due to the fact that they do not want to associated their name and weight behind that particular issue. It can be difficult to get honest feedback on how your team is doing due to several layers of supervision before something filters up to your level. How can we get revolutionary ideas to those who can implement them? How can we prevent ideas and issues stalling due to interim leadership?

Both of these responses are discouraging and will deter that person, and others, from bringing forward issues in the future. It tears down trust and sends the message that individual needs are not prioritized. There are many who are watching when “the one” comes forward and is vulnerable with their problem. There are many who are waiting to see if “the one” is heard, and if they can inspire change. And, there are many who are learning as “the one” is brushed to the side and forgotten.

This will influence what “the many” do in the future, when they have their own problems and burdens to face. This will influence the trust they have in the system to bring their own problems forward, whether they too believe that their issues can be solved. In an organization, when my problem becomes our problem, that loudly proclaims that the institution values the individual’s needs. There is significant power, belonging and trust that stems from my problem becoming ourproblem.  

That brings us to the third, and the most powerful response we can give. The response that will change an organization and make all the difference is to say, “I believe you.” What can I do to help? How can you and I team up to make this change?

To create a cultural change where all feel valued and included, we must begin by saying, “I believe you.” The challenge of creating a cohesive culture is finding a way for every person within our organization to feel valued and heard. There is power in listening that is underestimated. Empathy can be just as powerful as action. 

By reacting with “I believe you,” this response immediately sends a message that their experience is valued. For anyone who cannot relate or does not understand the concern brought forward, spend time asking them to explain. Gaining understanding is not the same as being asked to prove it. Seeking to understand fosters trust and shows a willingness to accept an alternative way of thinking. Ask from a heart of wanting to empathize; make their problem your problem.

Instead of telling them to convince you, ask them to empower you to help. Ask them to give you the knowledge and background so you can understand and use that knowledge to convince others to fix the problem. The leaders who I have seen embody this approach not only tell me, but they also show me they care about the issue and have empowered me to come alongside them and make impactful change.

This is not a call to blind acceptance and action, but instead asking for self-reflection, to be intentional with our initial reactions to others. Does the initial reaction encourage a culture of trust, or does it make people feel marginalized? Do we hear the problem and immediately think they are wrong? Or can we say, I believe this is real to you and I want to understand better. The hope is to stimulate a candid dialogue, where the leader either better understands and is equipped to help or this response encourages a mentoring opportunity to grow the other.

That is where transformation happens, because people are always watching, seeing how leadership responds. If they see a leader who stands with the individual and shows that their problems matter, that will encourage others to bring theirs issues and ideas forward. Some of the best leaders view vulnerability as a strength.  Society at times has an incorrect correlation between vulnerability and weakness.  Your initial response will either validate the individual’s concerns or further deepen a divide of the majority and minorities of your organization. “I believe you” transforms the perception of vulnerability from weakness into strength. 

If we can approach individual challenges with an open mind, genuinely believing their issues matter, and ask how we can partner with them to make meaningful change, then we can create a culture of inclusion. There is nothing more powerful than acknowledging that another’s individual experience matters to you. Trust can be immediately earned by believing and offering to collaborate to inspire change. We can transform the culture and improve the lives of those around us through such a simple first step. Those who come forward will likely surprise you with their innovative solutions, and it will show your entire organization that we value each individual and what they bring to the table. Through simply believing, we can inspire cultural change. 

The next time someone brings you his or her problem, I hope your response is “I believe you.”

****

Edited by Jessica Ruttenber

Artwork created by Miranda Embrey. Instagram @ Miranda.e.creative

Citation:

[1] Benjamin Wolff “Is Diversity The Key To Creativity?” Nov 10, 2019 https://www.forbes.com/sites/benjaminwolff/2019/11/10/is-diversity-the-key-to-creativity/#55a730d5155b

[2] Eva Rykrsmith “5 Biases in Decision Making – Part 2” Jun 7, 2013 https://www.quickbase.com/blog/5-biases-in-decision-making-part-2

The Capt Crozier Paradigm: How to Stand Up and Influence Change

By Andrea Harrington

I was once told: “A great leader comes to work every day, ready to be fired for doing the right thing.” The Colonel who told me this was a mastermind of recognizing and undermining bias and barriers. I was amazed at his ability to tactfully communicate opposing views, identify and dismiss or work around others’ biases, and move a meeting in his intended direction despite direct opposition. He was not afraid to lead boldly and stand up for what was right. He is an example to our military culture on how to influence change within the confines of good order and discipline. 

The day the Captain Crozier story broke, I thought immediately of this mentor and his advice to be prepared to be fired. Unsurprisingly, Captain Crozier was relieved of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt shortly thereafter for authoring a four page plea to the Navy on behalf of the personnel under his command. The letter was published outside of military channels on public media. Although the details of the situation are unknown to me, I’d like to believe he wrote that letter knowing it could be leaked and ready to take the consequences. Due to his actions, the sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt are getting the care they need, the secretary of the Navy has resigned, and Captain Crozier received a hero’s send-off. What an impactful event to witness in military history.

Why is it such a struggle for some service members to stand up for what is right? Milgrams’ Agency Theory shows that in general, people have a readiness to obey authority and are unlikely to question it. Adding to this pre-disposition, military members take an oath to obey the lawful orders of those appointed over them and back their leaders up in every way. They are taught how to dress, act, and think within the confines of good order and discipline. After all this training on how to follow, it can be understandably challenging to stand out and lead, particularly when it requires going against the majority. It is intimidating and difficult to challenge the institution and be a sole or minority dissenting opinion. It could even be said to be contradictory to years of training and indoctrination of a military mindset that focuses on followership. However, there are times when speaking up and challenging the system is necessary and even vital for success. 

So how do we balance our career preservation, serving well, cultural expectations, and respect for the system and our superiors while still upholding what is right?  How did my mentor achieve greatness at identifying and working around those barriers? The following serves as guidance and encouragement on how you can best effect change within your organization. 

Choose your battles. To determine when to fight, consider others. If it affects a segment of the population (like minorities) or a lineage of people behind you (like a deployment billet triple filled), then it is time to stand up and fight. We owe it to each other and those who come after us to fix the system we are in. We are the check and balance. Every time we put our head down and accept the wrong solution, we are enabling the same thing to happen to everyone down the line. 

Make a coherent argument. This is vitally important. Nothing will change without accomplishing this step. If you go into it with a half-cocked idea fueled by emotions instead of sound reasoning, you will not succeed in impacting change. There is a common saying to bring the solution, not just the problem. This is decent but incomplete advice. Prepare multiple solutions, not one solution. Be prepared for all of your solutions to have holes you didn’t anticipate, but do enough research to be confident you know as much as possible. 

Be open to suggestions and compromises. Be willing to adjust your solutions or how you approach the problem based on the advice and guidance you receive.

Make your argument fit your audience. This may require you to build several different cases, one for each audience you must convince! Know what they value, why they will oppose or support your argument, and what they will and will not respond to. Do not make the argument YOU want to make; make the argument THEY will listen to and respond to. This doesn’t mean change your suggestion; it means tailor the way you present it. A good salesman can sell animal fur to a PETA member. You have to be an excellent salesman.


Fact-check. Ensure what you propose is legally and morally correct. Run your situation and your solutions by other people, not just your friends or peers, to understand outside opinions. Find subject matter experts, let them shoot holes in your plans. Ask an older mentor. Ask a younger airman. Be thorough. Ask for candid feedback and take it graciously. Adjust your solutions.
 

Use the chain command. The chain of command is a “chain”, and you can respectfully “climb” the chain. Rarely if ever do I hear of Airmen getting a “no” from their immediate supervisor. Once you have prepared your battle, it is time to climb up the chain as far as you need until you find an ally. To do this properly, you must inform each level of your intent to contact their supervisor. Do not do this backhandedly. People do not get themselves and their career into trouble for advocating for change and disrupting the system; they get in trouble for going about it the wrong way. 

Be gracious. At the end of the meeting with your supervisor, say “thank you for your time, and I hear your answer”. If they are not initially supportive, try and further expand upon the more substantial impact such an issue may be having on the force. DO NOT engage disrespectfully, use foul language, or become hostile in any way. If the other person’s emotions start to rise, try to remove yourself from the situation. 

Document the meeting. Take notes or document through an MFR. If you continue to meet resistance, continue up the chain until you have reached the highest member on your base, and document along the way!

Determine your next step. Ideally, you have found an advocate in your leadership chain. If you have, great! Check-in with them as often as is appropriate but be patient and let them help you. Change, unfortunately, take a lot of time. 

Consider other options. There are agencies designed to protect the member and support change. Utilize Equal Opportunity, the Inspector General, a congressional inquiry (as a civilian), or other advocate groups. Utilize the wing, command, or headquarters level diversity and inclusion working group or other applicable advocacy groups. They are set up just to remove barriers and fix the system’s inadequacies. 

Be patient. I cannot emphasize this enough. Change in bureaucracies requires persistence and time. Be the squeaky wheel, but be ready to squeak for a long time if you’re fighting for systematic change, especially at the department level. 

Build a network. Surround yourself with like-minded people, and advocate together. The higher up you find advocacy, the more likely change will occur on your timeline. 

Finally, lead fearlessly. Be willing to take a stand. Do your research. Be the smartest person in the room. Know and play to your audience. Know every argument your opposition will make against you. Then, fearlessly push forward. Above all else, be ready to be fired. If the cause is worth fighting for, you have to be willing to stand up and not take “no” for an answer. We owe this kind of leadership to our people and to the long line of outstanding Americans who sign up to serve behind us. We cannot continue to keep our heads down or look away.

Be willing to be fired for doing the right thing. 

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This is not a call to be disobedient or to reject authority. We cannot have a military consisting of Airmen who do not obey orders or who constantly undermine the military structure and its leaders. However, blindly following and never challenging the system is the enemy of progress. When the system or guidance in place does not represent best practices or, worse, actually hinders or harms the military member, stand up and change it. There are professional ways to challenge a supervisor’s decision or an institutional regulation without weakening the good order and discipline of the unit. Obedience occurs when you are told to do something (by an authority), conformity happens through social pressure (the norms of the majority ). Do not confuse obedience with conformity; I challenge you to not blindly conform. There are ways to professionally dissent and effect change. You can challenge the system or a supervisor without derailing the mission. And there are processes in place to elevate an issue should the supervisor be unwilling to listen and effect the change you believe in. Do not blindly follow; be willing to challenge the institution to make it better.