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How to Create Lasting Change at Work: The Technical vs The Cultural

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Creating lasting change is no small task. Still, it’s frustrating when most organizations fail to create the sort of lasting change that is the hallmark of effective social justice and DEI work—and the reason why is complex.

If we were to boil it down to the simplest answer possible, it would be that organizations hyper-fixate on the technical while leaving the cultural unaddressed.

What does that mean, exactly?

Let’s use a relevant example to unravel this phenomenon. One of my clients works with a large organization, and that company recently found itself in a problematic situation.

Why Technical Solutions Fail Without Cultural Change

Usually, Governors will order their states to lower all the US flags to half-staff after an injustice or tragedy. It shows that we are in mourning or distress, and it is a sign of respect.

This was the case after George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. His death sparked a widespread awareness of and push back against police brutality and racial violence. Although the Black Lives Matter movement was officially founded in 2013 and the human rights movement long before then, 2020 became a year when organizations could no longer ignore the glaring racial injustices in America.

Well, this particular organization did not lower its flag as a response to Floyd’s murder, and many members of their community responded as you might expect. There was distrust, confusion, irritation, frustration, and outrage.

Why would a major organization that claims to stand behind BLM not lower its flag?

In this case, the answer was a simple technical error. No one decided they weren’t going to lower the flag. It was a detail that slipped through the cracks.

So, they created technical solutions to avoid this problem in the future. They created a collection of forms, put in place new systems for flag-lowering, and clearly outlined who was responsible for this task.

Although this was a technical error, there were cultural implications. And their technical solutions didn’t solve their new problem: growing distrust in their community, which now saw leadership on the wrong side of history.

A trauma-informed approach includes the technical, but the more important area of change is the cultural.

Cultural Change in Practice

The technical solutions didn't solve the problem. So, what would a cultural solution have looked like?

A trauma-informed coach would encourage leadership to release an authentic statement to their community. This public document would:

  • admit to making a specific mistake

  • acknowledge the hurt they caused through that mistake

  • apologize for the damage done

  • reassure the community of their values

  • reassert their stance on social justice issues and community needs

  • remind their community of their goal of creating safety at work (if they have one)

Although it seems like a simple solution, it’s difficult for many leaders to admit to their mistakes, acknowledge the damage done, and mend relationships.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy for individuals to accomplish this same task in their interpersonal lives (and while that struggle arises from trauma responses—it can also cause trauma responses in others).

Having these conversations is a small part of what it takes to create a safe space. Safe spaces are not devoid of mistakes and pain. But those who create safe spaces are quick to remedy these mistakes, make amends, and move forward.

Here's a sample of what that apology letter might look like.

Although this message implies other avenues of trauma-informed implementation (like providing resources and holding All Hands Meetings), the apology letter itself isn’t even half of the solution.

Trauma-informed solutions that create cultural change require much more than a single letter. That message is one small part of a larger atmosphere of open communication, accountability, honesty, and trust—which are notoriously difficult to build.

So, what other cultural solutions can we implement for this organization?

Here is where the interconnected and layered trauma-informed approach comes in. Our goal would be to create a culture of trust and safety in the organization.

Thought Project: The Same Mistake with a Different Company Culture

Imagine for a moment that we’ve already accomplished this goal. The same mistake is made. The flag is not lowered when it should be due to a minor technical error.

Instead of bringing out the already present distrust and resentment that many employees at this organization have, the employees feel safe and valued at work. When they see the mistake, they don’t see it as yet another example of how racist and unjust the company is.

Instead, they think it’s possible someone was too busy to do all the parts of their job. They give the leaders the benefit of the doubt. Since it’s a simple enough task, they lower the flag themselves. In this scenario, this employee is also empowered. They know that they will not face repercussions for this action.

So, the flag is lowered, albeit late. The mistake doesn’t further damage the relationship between community leaders and community members.

The question remains, how do we get there?

The Avenues of Cultural Change

Organizations are made of people, so it follows that change beings with people. So, when we discuss cultural changes, particularly within organizations, it’s essential that the people within that organization are on board.

That first step is critical.