My trusty canine companion, Seven, and I have recently been spending quite a bit of time hiking the trails in the local mountains. As we lumber along, we pass other walkers, some runners, mountain bikers, and even the occasional person on horseback. One thing is similar among all of them. They are exceedingly friendly.
Every person I pass says hello. Many ask how I’m doing. Some brave enough to reach out to an over anxious dog stop to pet Seven and amaze at his two different colored eyes. All in all, it’s a love fest at 7 o’clock in the morning.
I’ve noticed something else. The second I step off of the dusty trail and onto the cement of the street where all of these hearty walkers, bikers, and runners park their cars, the conversation immediately stops as if we had passed from a parallel universe and back into reality.
That slight shift in environment makes us strangers again.
On the trail, we all share something in common. Maybe it is the love of getting out of the hustle of the city and into the hills where the only sounds we hear for an hour or so come strictly from nature; maybe it is that we all drag ourselves out of a warm bed to do our bodies good; maybe it is that we are all trying to avoid the multitude of snake holes and the slithery denizens therein. Whatever it is, something creates a bond among this temporary community and it changes our typical behavior for the better.
Most leaders know that environment is key to creating a workplace community. Yet, it’s the really fantastic leaders who also know that even small, almost imperceptible, shifts in that environment can instantaneously change the dynamic of the group behavior.
I’ve worked with teams over the years that seemed to flourish in good times and bad and they invariably had an environment where you could feel the energy and the common bond in the air. Then something would shift and “poof” it became a different place. Ideas would become anemic, conflict would seep in, and the energy would drain from the room.
It was like stepping from the trail to the concrete.
Most of the time, the shifts were not the results of a major event. Instead, they were the by- product of something seemingly innocuous. Friends who had worked together as a team now had new partners; a singular new hire came aboard and unfavorably disrupted an existing dynamic; or someone had a personal life event, good or bad, that distracted them. You name it, the list is endless.
It’s those little things, happening in clusters or even on their own, that often change the community.
As a leader, it’s easy to spot the big events and plan for how they might impact the group, yet it’s the little things that sneak up and bite you in the butt if you don’t have your radar up every single day.
To be attuned to those little things, make it a daily priority to:
- Walk the halls with the purpose of noticing what’s happening in the environment, particularly noticing shifts in noise levels, casual interactions, and whether people hold your eye contact or duck out of sight when they see you coming
- Make time to talk informally with people of all levels about their jobs and about themselves
- Build a metaphoric campfire where people can gather throughout the day and spend some time there to absorb the conversation and body language of the gathering
- Notice if people who usually head out to lunch in groups are suddenly hunkered down alone at their desks with a brown bag day after day
- Catch changes in people’s tone of voice or choice of words when they describe assignments, relationships, or the organization itself
Bottom line, create opportunities for yourself to notice changes in daily patterns and then actually investigate further any that you think might actually be foreboding an environmental or cultural shift. Act on it before it takes on a life of its own.
And, yes, you do have the time.