Five years ago when people asked me how change happens in big organizations I couldn’t wait to share ideas on positioning, navigating organizational politics and conflict.

Now my advice is different.

Based on personal experiences and learning from successful Rebels at Work, Change Agents, social scientists and psychologists, I see the importance of appreciation, character strengths and safety. These have to come before the tactical strategies and skills.

When we practice these three things we build up our ability to adapt to change and increase the self-esteem needed to initiate change. Plus they’re contagious, infecting work mates in the best possible ways.

When I was first introduced to these practices I was skeptical, believing them “soft.” But almost a year into incorporating them into my life and work I’m singing that 1960s Monkees song, “I’m a Believer.” As are many of my clients who are using them to change how they work.

Not changing work like using Yammer, but changing work in how we work with people, appreciating strengths and making it safe to try new things, question the status quo, and wonder out loud about possibilities without being criticized for not thinking things through. (I was criticized about the latter during many a performance review early in my career.)

Appreciation: the greatest motivator

 A sense of appreciation is single most sustainable motivator at work, according to Dr. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and the Originals.

BUT we are less likely to express gratitude at work than any other place in their lives, according to research by the John Templeton Foundation

That’s right. After thanking the Starbucks barista for such an amazing latte, we walk into work grumpy and never think to thank a co-worker for some small thing that they’ve done especially well.

But here’s the deal: when we feel appreciated we become more trusting of others, our self-confidence increases and we’re more likely to help others. Plus we’re more open to new ideas.

So stop reading right here.

Think of someone at work who you especially value. What are three things they do that make a difference to your group? Write them down quick. OK, now share those things with that person. Wait until you see how much that person lights up. You’ll both feel good.

(Another research finding: 88% feel better after giving kudos to co-workers.)

Character science: what motivates YOU? Your team?

We all have 24 universal character strengths in various degrees, according to extensive research by psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. These are intrinsic strengths that give us energy. When we’re in “the flow” we’re probably using our top strengths.

It’s helpful to know what your top strengths are and value and use them because they build your self-esteem, creativity and confidence, all necessary to adapt to change at work. (You can take a free assessment at the VIA Character Institute.)

As helpful is to understand the character strengths of your co-workers. When we understand what different people bring to the organization and how they work they way do within a context of character science, we’re able to appreciate them in new ways. (There’s the connection back to appreciation.)

My top character strengths are honesty and bravery. So rather than seeing my frankness as a “fault” – or as a royal pain in the ass– colleagues can see how it brings value to our work together.

Guiding teams through this process is some of the most exciting work I’ve done in my career. It opens people up to people  — and themselves — in new ways, creating a more positive, open-minded, can-do environment.   And who doesn’t want more of that at work?

And the research to back up the benefits? According the VIA Institute on Character:

71% of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work.

For organizations that are focused on strengths, 77% of their employees report they are flourishing, engaged and able to make things happen at work.

(Note: this is what employee engagement is really about. Not surveys or p.r. campaigns, but being recognized for who we ware and appreciated for how we contribute based on our unique — aka genuine — strengths.)

Psychological safety: the secret to high-performing teams

If the environment doesn’t feel safe at work, you’re kind of, well, screwed because no one wants to make a wrong move, suggest an idea for which they’ll be laughed at, or call out a problem. If you start practicing appreciation and focus on strengths it will become safer, but creating a safe organizational environment requires much, much more.

Psychological safety is as important as physical safety at work, but it is largely overlooked and few managers are rewarded for creating this safety.

Check out the excellent New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by the journalist Charles Duhigg. The most important characteristic of high-performing teams? Safety.

You get what you give

One of my favorite songs is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It’s an upbeat song with a dark undercurrent about the challenges of our fast changing, crazy world.

This whole damn world can fall apart
You’ll be OK, follow your heart
You’re in harm’s way, I’m right behind.

Life and work is life — evolving, spinning, changing. We can’t separate the two. We can’t ever, despite the politicians’ promises, go back to what was.

What we can do is strengthen our resiliency and ability to adapt. Helping one another follow our hearts, using the strengths that make us each uniquely us, and appreciating what we are accomplishing.

Imagine if more of us felt that if we were in harm’s way  someone would be right behind us?

You get what you give.