Last updated: 24 February 2020
It can feel like an impossible task if you work in an outdated or rigid organization, but it’s an important question to ponder: “How to inspire change in the workplace?”
Just remember that some of the greatest movements and victories in history were started by just one person fighting for what they believed in (this is also true for some of the greatest atrocities against humanity).
But it takes just one person to change the conscience of a company: one voice, one spark, to ignite the potential of change.
That voice could be yours.
You could be the inspiration that inspires the transformation. You could be the catalyst, the movement starter changing the consciousness or culture of your company for the better.
Daunting yes, impossible, no!
Inspiring Examples Of How To Inspire Change In The Workplace
Let’s take a look at two individuals who started as lone voice advocates for change. Extraordinary people who inspired revolutionary cultural and social change: Dr Tadataka Yamada and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Dr. Tadataka Yamada: Pharmaceutical Movement Starter
In the Harvard Business Review article, How One Person Can Change The Conscience of An Organization, Dr Tadataka Yamada is featured as the movement starter who changed policy at Glaxosmithkline from the inside out, with global results.
When Yamada stepped into the role of Research and Development Chairman, he was appalled to find that GSK was amongst a large bunch of big pharmaceutical companies filing a lawsuit against Nelson Mandela and the South African government.
For offering antiretroviral drugs, used to treat HIV and AIDS, at lower prices! Meaning that they were far more accessible to the quarter of the population suffering with the virus.
Yamada found he was not alone in opposition to the lawsuit, many of his board members were equally troubled by the motion. However, they felt powerless to change the company’s direction.
Yamada was not to be put off.
To him the company had a moral obligation to offer relief to long-term suffering; he saw this as key to the future success of the company.
Quite simply his stance was that the company should not be able to manufacture potentially life-saving medicines and disallow people in-need the access to them.
He recognized the implied PR disaster that the lawsuit could bring and set about articulating and creating a vision for how GSK could not only assist those with HIV and AIDS but also become a pioneering force against other global diseases primarily affecting poverty stricken nations, such as malaria and TB.
The movement for change gained momentum. Protests against Big Pharma’s unethical practices took place around the world. As a result the whole bunch of lawsuits against Mandela were dropped and the price of antiretroviral drugs were dropped by over 90%!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Badass Women’s Rights Advocate!
And onto the second game-changing individual who is a fine example of how to inspire change in the workplace: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Her life and key moment is portrayed in the recently released film On The Basis Of Sex
Mild spoiler alert!: She fought her way through law school in the late 1950’s where she was one of just 9 women in a class of around 500 men.
At the start of her legal career, Ginsburg was denied access to employment and clerkships on the basis of her gender.
Once established as a professor, being tangibly aware of the gender based discrimination facing women she began articulating her mission and galvanising support for women’s rights, and an end to gender discrimination (against women and men).
She co-founded the first law journal in the U.S. to focus on women’s rights, the Women’s Rights Law Reporter in 1970 and the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1972.
For Ginsberg, the injustice of gender based discrimination was unacceptable. It was something for which she was prepared to voice, albeit a lone (and then judged as lowly) female voice in a sea of male authoritarianism.
This institutionalized gender discrimination was entrenched in the social, cultural and political fabric of the U.S. at the time. Ginsberg takes it on and speaks out from a legal standpoint. A stand point which had not before been successfully articulated in the legal sphere, and certainly not by a woman.
Her mission was clear and her strategy precise: instead of proposing the court to immediately put an end to all gender discrimination she takes this change on in a tactical case-by-case basis.
Her tactic was to target specific discriminatory statutes, carefully choosing plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination was harmful to both women and men. Winning cases she is able to build on each successive victory: building support and generating huge social and cultural change.
She became the leading litigator on, and advocate for women’s rights. She is credited with making significant legal advances for women. The body of her legal victories discouraged legislatures from treating men and women differently under the law.
Her modus operandi was to change minds first, then change the law. And that she did!
So how can you inspire change in the workplace and channel your inner Yamada or Ginsberg?
Check out these 10 key mindsets and tips on how to inspire change in your organization:
How To Inspire Change In The Workplace: 10 Ways To Be A Powerful Voice For Change
1. Use Your Voice And Speak Out
Your voice is the spark to potentially ignite the fire of change. The power of speaking out when led by conscience, appeals to the collective wish to do-the-right-thing. It has the potential to have a significantly galvanising effect. One voice becomes the voice speaking for many others. If you know something feels ‘off’, or is unjust, unfair or outdated, name it.
If it feels too much to call a meeting and call it out to the collective, start small. Talk one-to-one or informally with your co-workers. Express your concerns and gauge theirs on the matter. You can be assured that even though no one else has said anything, there will be those on the same page as you.
2. Take A Step
“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears.” – Rudyard Kipling
The biggest thing in starting a motion for change is to take a step. The difference between potentially effecting a change or not, is between taking a step or taking no step at all. The step is the difference.
Like starting a standing ovation, it is the first clap, the first step or the first utterance that matters. It is the willingness to put yourself out there that counts.
These are all natural concerns. However, to take a step and start a movement means being aware of these concerns, but being willing to do it anyway.
So don’t let your fear stop you, take a step towards creating your standing ovation now.
Some folks have more natural communication skills than others. The good news is that these skills can be learned and developed, whatever your natural set point.
When it comes to starting a movement, it is important to combine authenticity with appropriateness, be honest yet appropriate to those with whom you are sharing.
It’s about striking a balance between being authentic, true to yourself, your values, effectively articulating this and giving it meaning to your team.
Articulate your vision – what do you want to accomplish and why?
If you have done a raft of research, use facts and figures in a way that applies to and is relevant to your audience. Combine this with why this matters to you and the broader organization.
You will be most effective if you combine your drive and honesty with a language that the people you want to reach can relate to and understand. Truth is better delivered by using simple language. Don’t be tempted to overuse jargon or hide behind figures.
4. Tell the Story
Behind every movement for change there is a story. It is the story that enables others to rally around a common purpose. Combine this with a vision that articulates how you want the world to be, and notice how this mobilises other people around that.
Megan Grassell’s story is a great example: she is the founder of the bra company Yellowberry, specifically undergarments for teens.
When she took her younger sister first time bra shopping she found nothing that was age appropriate. Seeing this gap in the market for good quality, non-sexualizing bras for teens she developed and launched her own range with those core values front and centre of her mission.
Be clear about your story – remember why you are taking a stand and keep that at the forefront of your movement. Even if it is personal share it with others, make it relevant to them, to your supporters. The story brings your cause to life.
5. Be Bold, Be Innovative
In her book Purposeful, Are You A Manager Or A Movement Starter, Jennifer Dulski asserts that you all have the power to be Movement Starters. And there is a difference between managing and movement starting. Movement Starters are those of you who say:
“There must be more that we can do.”
You see something that’s not right, or not good and think, “Why not me? Why don’t I fix that?”
Back yourself and be bold.
It pays to be innovative. The example of Luanne Calvert is a case in point. She was responsible for creating a completely new and innovative safety video for Virgin Airlines. It was something that has never been done before and was a safety video set to music.
Although she was confident in the change and her product, she wasn’t sure how to get it approved by the CEO.
So she took another innovative approach – that of Influence Mapping. She mapped out all the people in the CEO’s circle who would be at the table and / or influence his decision making process.
From frequent fliers to other Exec’s she effectively pre-sold the idea to them, so that she had a groundswell of support to back her concept.
Understand all the people who have influence within your organization and create a positive network of influence throughout.
Be bold and do it now.
6. Use Setbacks
Take any setbacks as information, not as deal-breakers.
When you receive negative feedback use the points raised as points to address. Take the example of the groundbreaking project One Laptop Per Child: Mary Lou Jepson took her plans to the Executives of some of the largest Tech companies in Asia, in search of their critique.
They gave her 23 reasons why her project wouldn’t work. There and then she had 17 solved, and the others she took away to work on. It was the ultimate debugging of her product.
Use the information to your advantage and don’t take knock backs personally. Take time to understand your critics. Understanding them is the best way to address them.
So go on, take a risk and make another mistake… it might be just want you need to inspire change.
7. Gain Skills As You Go
It is off-putting to think: “I’d like to do that, but I don’t have what it takes.”
So start small and grow your skill base. Keep training your “challenge convention” muscle.
Don’t be put-off challenging the status quo.
Take up the challenge and trust that the skills gap that you perceive now will be filled as you progress. If you want to learn, you will. It is a trap to think you have to know it all to be able to do it all. Trust yourself.
Mobilize yourself and others by continually growing your skill set, admitting any skills gap, and motivating and empowering others to do the same. Make it a part of your job. Don’t avoid taking on something that is important to change and of value to you simply because of the fear of making a mistake.
8. Stay Focussed
Don’t let the unacceptable slip out of focus. It’s easy to blend in to keep the peace, or to stay quiet not to rock the proverbial boat. But this is when the time to act can pass you by.
Plus, by staying quiet, how can you inspire change?
Make it your mission to hone your focus on what it is you want to see, and build your determination through accepting the challenges that come your way.
One of the most effective means of affecting change as a leader is to be the example. Your team will respond best to you if you lead by example and guide from beside them rather than from in front or over.
9. Generate And Appreciate Your Followers
If you are the spark for change, your supporters are the kindling for your fire. Encouraging and supporting your followers is key to generating momentum and adding flames to the fire.
A movement can be started by standing up, speaking out, articulating your vision and telling your story, but you don’t have a movement until you have followers.
When you gain supporters acknowledge them. Decide how you will do this, and show your appreciation. If you have gained support it is because your cause has appealed to their core values, so they will want to help the cause.
As a token of your acknowledgement and appreciation bring them on board. Make progress together. Delegate and make them part of the vision with their skills and contribution.
10. Remember The Bigger Picture – And the Little Guys
A desire to help those less fortunate can be a cohesive force among your team. Helping those less privileged is not necessarily a stand alone pre-requisite for change, it makes the world a better place and is significantly more rewarding.
People care about purpose, let this allow your movement of how to inspire change to gain momentum.
When Sarah Kavanagh took on Gatorade, for example, successfully petitioning the company to take out BVO (Brominated Vegetable Oil – a chemical used to stop the bright colour separating in the drink, also used as a flame retardant!) she didn’t stop there.
Keeping the bigger picture, thinking of all the others in the world who would be potentially harmed by drinking BVO, she pressed on. As a result both Pepsi and Coca-cola took the harmful chemical out of all their soft drinks.
The spark that you make, as an individual, can set the precedent for wider change, from your organization, to the broader marketplace, and maybe it will be the spark to ignite a cultural, social or political change for the better.
So, back yourself and energize a positive cultural shift. Challenging the status quo is a skill that you can develop! It takes practice and a little bit of daring and tenacity.
Remember: change is not necessarily a top-down process, middle managers and supervisors with the courage and determination can make significant and notable changes.
Whatever your sphere of business there is always scope for making the world a better or fairer place.
By following and acting on this intention, this is how you inspire change in the workplace.
It all starts with you.