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  • Nick Smith

R is for Refugee ...


It may not be the business change with which we work, but change experienced by refugees is undoubtedly among the most impactful and significant. On top of the loss of that which is known and familiar, there is the taking on of new roles; the need to develop new skills (frequently a new language); adjusting to a different culture; picking up on and adopting new ways of doing things - ways of working, procedures to be followed. And, if my friend who's worked in Moria and Juba is right (she is), all this with inadequate support. Maybe in some ways it does sound like a darker, tougher, more serious version of the challenges we can face in effecting difficult business change - much darker, much tougher, much more serious.

Against that background, it's been interesting to reflect on an email I got from the Refugee Council in the Autumn. It described a three-stage approach they offer recently-arrived refugees to equip them with the practical techniques and mindset / self-belief they need to move forward. The three stages, delivered in eight structured one-hour sessions are:

  • Three sessions focused on building trust and a sense of safety, so that the refugee can assess what they've been through. They're clear that only when someone feels safe can they move forward.

  • Three sessions helping the refugee move from feeling themselves to be a victim in someone else's story, to owning their story, with confidence for a potentially better future.

  • Finally, two sessions, on skills to cope with the effects of their past: techniques to help with self-care, sleep, anti-anxiety, and confidence building. This is so that 'refugees can begin to turn their lives around' - to change.

It made me think, and not just about all this in eight hours (one day!) for people who have been through situations I can't imagine. I reflected, too, on whether there might be some pointers for us working with business change. No way am I equating the experience of refugees with those adopting new organisational processes, systems and roles. But there are, nevertheless, business change situations in which those impacted have been through what they have experienced as difficult times and are fearful about the future - feeling that change is yet again being done to them, as 'victims'. Again, no equivalence claimed, just looking for pointers. Here's some that came to mind - you might identify others:

  • The priority of psychological safety: we're seeing increasing emphasis on this in change, and as a precursor to change, and we expect that as organisations emerge from covid-dominated life, it will gain even more attention. Minerva Engagement, whose Deborah Hulme guest-contributed an earlier blog in this series, brings real capability in this area (and partners with us). People who feel safe will more readily embrace - and then embed - change

  • The co-creation of story: the previous blog in this series looked at the relevance of story telling in change. The prompt here is to go beyond just offering those impacted by change a story into which they can step, instead also involving them in the creation of that story. If they do this, they can more readily become change agents, rather than 'victims'. This aligns with some of the 'open source' approach to change ideas we explored in the 'L is for Linux, Leaders & Language' blog. Again, enabling change, not just managing it.

  • The allocation of time: only 25% of the time spent with refugees so they can embrace change is devoted to skills and techniques. More time (37.5% on each) goes to creating safety and trust, and to co-creating the story. Yes, there may be more time later to build knowledge and ability around British laws and society and around job roles: but even so, it's worth contrasting with how we go about engaging people for upcoming change. Maybe more time on emotional foundations for change is worth exploring.

These are strange times, and while we can predict with some confidence many of the organisational changes that will follow, there's much we don't know. My instinct, and it's only an instinct, is that elements of this kind of thinking will become more important, not less, over the next few years.


And, please do take a look at the Refugee Council site. Thanks.




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