How to Create a Culture Where Team Members are Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 4, 2019

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a quote, a paragraph or small article that resonates with me – and today I want to share this clipping from PCMA’s Convene Magazine.  It came out in January and it is still sitting on my desk.  I ponder it from time to time as I believe many of my clients are struggling with this same challenge:  How to create a culture where team members are comfortable being uncomfortable.

The author of this “resolution,” Julie Krieger, Vice President at Marketing Design Group says, “The marketing landscape is changing at such a rapid pace that we’re all operating in unchartered territory [I call this the VUCA world!]. That’s why we have to create a space in which our team feels safe to ask for help when they need it, to take risks, fail on occasion, learn new skills, and admit when they don’t know how to do something.”

So how do you create that type of culture?

I believe you have five levers that you can move on a day-to-day basis to affect a cultural change:

  • Reinforce the Mission/Vision/Purpose.  I call these the “business fundamentals.”  It’s more than printing a poster on the wall.  It’s more about connecting the dots to how the cultural behaviors you are looking for contribute to the desired state.  Continually beat the drum about how the team needs to be comfortable being uncomfortable in order for them to fulfill the mission of the organization, achieve their vision and realize their purpose.  (Hint:  If you are tired of hearing yourself say the same messages, that’s probably about the time that your team is realistically hearing and/or believing you.)
  • Communicate, Model and Reinforce Core Values.  Every company has core values, beliefs, or commitments. Some call it a creed, a philosophy, or principles.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s a handful (I hope no more than 5 – I like 3) of core qualities or characteristics that the company holds dear.  My guess is that you can wind this behavior of being comfortable with the ambiguity as part of a core value.  I like Krieger’s list that actually spells out what that means (e.g. ask for help when they need it etc.).  But it has to be more than simply talking about your core values and the desired behaviors.  You, as the leader, need to model these behaviors.  Kreiger mentions, “If I don’t demonstrate an aversion to risk, others will likely stop trying to experiment with new ways of doing things.”  And, it is important to reinforce those core values and behaviors with a healthy dose of recognition – and the flip side of that reinforcement coin – consequences of non-performance.
  • Stories, Legends, and History. People remember stories, so don’t be shy of sharing stories that exemplify the desired shift in behavior.  When someone DID go out of their way to help a teammate, when someone DID fail and we shared the lessons learned (and didn’t chop off their head!).  Dig into the history of the company and you’ll find the “legendary” stories about how the company that created on gosh-only-knows-what (probably before the internet!).
  • Artifacts.  Look all around you.  There are “artifacts” – objects that serve as to clues about the organization’s culture. Something as simple as the company logo, website, marketing materials; the physical office environment and opportunities to share information, our activities within the office and in the community, our policies and procedures including the clothes we wear, the words we use and our work schedules.  It ALL contributes to the culture. That’s a pretty long list, if you think about it.  If you were an archeologist and had no idea of the organizational culture other than what you saw, what would you think and feel about that company and the people who worked there?
  • Underlying Assumptions.  This is a bit harder too discern, but every person has some underlying assumptions about the place in which they work.  Some are spelled out in the policies and procedures.  Others are learned during on-boarding.  And others are baked into the everyday work.  They aren’t explicitly stated, but everyone kinda knows them or follows them – for whatever reason.  It might be from a previous workplace, the previous leader, or even industry practices.  Here’s my short list of examples I often see:
    • The boss is always right.
    • That’s not my job.
    • I’ll believe it when I see it.
    • People are expendable and interchangeable.
    • Empowerment only works for managers.

If you have an underlying assumption that runs counter to being comfortable with being uncomfortable, then you are going to need to work hard to change it.  Challenge those assumptions if they don’t support the culture you are trying to build.

Shifting a culture takes time, energy, and passion.  More importantly, it requires intentionality.  Your organization HAS a culture…whether it has been deliberately created and cultivated is a different matter altogether.  Be deliberate in using these five levers to create the organizational culture you know is needed to be successful now and in the future.


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

Recent Articles:

The Top Five Most Annoying Office Habits…and What to Do About It

Leaders: Do You Need Strategic Planning or Do You Have Clear Vision?

Stretch your Leadership Team’s Ability to Think Strategically


Skip to content