Before the interview starts, Verwer wants to know if she’ll get to see the item before it’s published. Does she feel safe enough to talk freely? Together we agree on how we’ll handle things if in the end friction arises between what she intended to say and how things were written down. “What we’re doing now – agreeing on rules about how we want to treat each other in such a situation – is what should be happening within teams as well. For me, social safety is about collaborating and deciding together what a good collaboration looks like. This demands both a willingness to explore things together and a willingness to hold each other to whatever was agreed.”
It’s a theme that recurs in the team dialogues she held in many groups at several departments. In those dialogues, employees come together to spend three hours in the “place of effort”, as Verwer calls it, where they are willing to jointly explore how they wish to treat each other. It can be awkward to talk about this, Verwer says, so the goal is to teach the participants the language and skills that help them deal with that awkwardness and enter into an open dialogue where all perspectives matter.
Culture of accountability
“I also use statements in the dialogues. Here’s an example: ‘Yes, I think it’s important that we speak up about behavior, as long as it doesn’t affect the pace of the meeting, doesn’t create too much fuss, doesn’t involve too much emotion, and it’s not always the same person that wants to talk about it.’ Pretty much everyone recognizes that list. And realizes: oh yeah, right, that’s why we don’t talk about it. You have to work together to get rid of those conditions: we’ll make time for it, because it’s important.” According to Verwer, there are many reasons why people don’t speak up, and what’s not helpful in her opinion is that there’s no culture of accountability at the university. “I’m not talking about extended discussions on impact, along the lines of ‘you hurt me to my core’. I’m referring to discussions on the method of collaboration: what’s happening between us, what’s helpful and what’s not, what do I find unpleasant about that (if anything), and what should we agree to do about it.”
The key is keeping it simple. “To my mind, it’s fairly self-explanatory to look at how we act and whether that’s functional and desirable. Take ‘recovery language’. For some colleagues, a friendly nod after a conflict may be enough, but others need words.” Verwer realizes it may concern interactions that seem trivial, but she believes that especially in ‘times of peace’ you build the foundations for a socially safe environment. Once you’ve passed that point, haven’t said anything and therefore ‘allowed it to happen’, there will be an accumulation of problems. “So together we shouldn’t allow it to happen anymore. Addressing things on time keeps them clear and small.”
As a catalyst, Carla Maria Verwer has several tasks. She visits departments and administrative units and helps them launch initiatives that contribute to a socially safe working environment. She shapes team dialogues and other conversations, makes sure departments and services have access to the central support system, and, where necessary, contributes to the development of a social safety roadmap. She recently started the learning forum for the Social Safety Support network, which brings together such stakeholders as confidential counsellors, the ombudsman, occupational healthcare doctors and psychologists. The goal of the forum is for everyone involved to work together more decisively with respect to existing and future cases.
Generally, it appears Verwer is being greeted enthusiastically by all departments. At Electrical Engineering, for example, almost all groups have already participated in the team dialogues. But not everyone agrees a culture change would be useful or is already willing to help bring it about. Aren’t these the exact people who have room for growth when it comes to the area of social safety? “Indeed. Sometimes you first have to ‘awaken’ the sense of urgency, the sense of why it could be useful to talk about social safety or manners within a team. That’s also part of being a catalyst in this area.”
Verwer is also a theatre maker. As such, she has experience in visiting places where people aren’t necessarily open to having a dialogue. For example, she went around certain neighborhoods creating performances based on personal stories, with groups of people that had zero experience with theaters. “It’s for me to figure out how to get those people on board. I do that by listening to them, seeing what’s already there to build upon and work out how to get things moving. That’s what I do as a theatre maker and as a catalyst.”
Verwer believes the people you can get moving are the ones that are prepared to make a change, which is why she chose them as her target audience. “We’re starting with the people who are willing, fresh and upbeat. From there, things can spread across the university. If you demonstrate how important something is, the number of people resisting it decreases day by day.” That doesn’t mean everyone must have a team dialogue, Verwer stresses. Managers decide for themselves what they want to do. Some departments already have all kinds of ongoing initiatives, so Verwer goes there for information and inspiration instead of the other way around. “Other departments want to do something about the workload first. This also affects social safety, because a smaller workload leads to better manners. A lot of initiatives have the joint goal of working towards more pleasant collaborations.”
Defining how you wish to treat each other and making agreements about this are on the preventative side of social safety. But there are also things that didn’t go right in the past, such as situations in which people in power didn’t intervene when they should have. How can you recover from this? “For things that really go wrong, you have the confidential counsellors and the ombudsperson. But for subsequent moments, for example when an employee has to work together with a manager again, less support is in place.” Team coaches can be deployed for teams that need to recover. But not nearly everything is addressed and this is a cause of concern for Verwer. “For inspiration, I talked to Restorative Justice Nederland. Are the people involved able to put recovery first, rather than guilt? In spite of their personal pain? That can be very hard.”
In some cases, students or employees are in lower or dependent positions, which means they can’t directly influence what happens at the higher university levels. That’s why change in this respect really needs to come from people who do have the power to do something, Verwer believes. “If someone at those higher levels or with an equal position as the person in power knows about the inappropriate behavior and doesn’t act, I think that’s bad. Speaking up relates to all levels.” Do full professors, for instance, also speak up among themselves? “This can be difficult because you don’t want to undermine each other’s authority, for example.”
Verwer thinks that if a professor sees something happening in another group, they could ask their fellow professor holding the corresponding chair about the situation. What’s important to avoid in this respect, is pulling out the guilt card. “Learning also involves making a social mistake without being exposed right away. Language plays an important part in this respect. You can say: ‘You’re doing it wrong’, but you can also say: ‘This doesn’t feel right to me’. Also, there’s a difference between speaking up about someone’s behavior and rejecting them as a collaboration partner.”
As a catalyst, Verwer hears a lot about what’s still going wrong when it comes to social safety. “I could cry because of everything I’ve been told. Some of the things people have had to experience on the work floor are simply unacceptable. At times I feel like leaving my job and opening a butterfly garden. But my sensitivity is exactly what makes me want to contribute.”
She knows a culture change doesn’t happen overnight and demands a lot of patience and resilience of people in vulnerable positions. “I decided to recognize the position every single person at TU/e is in. Hit me with those stories. We’ll rip that Band-Aid off and, if necessary, poke around the wound until it’s clean.” It’s crucial for the people at the administrative level to be willing and, according to Verwer, they truly are. “There are people that want to learn and lead by example. If it were up to me, those people would be more visible. Sometimes you get it wrong five times before getting it right, and we can learn from all of those attempts. I believe what’s next for TU/e is learning to speak up while realizing that every single perspective counts.”