What is Your Relationship to Your Environment?

I find that there are 4 dominant approaches:

Appease the Environment – The assumption here is that the environment is hostile and unpredictable. The best way to cope is to appease whatever “God” controls your environment. (ie: your boss and/or other people in a position of power; any higher power – gods, goddesses, spirits, etc)

Control the Environment – Most leadership training is about “controlling your environment.” Evaluating the environment so you can change it – ideally so that it works the way YOU want it to. Process improvement and system thinking approaches tend to fall into this category. The implicit assumption is that your way is the right way.

Become One With the Environment – This approach deals with the tension between what is best for the environment that surrounds you and what is best for you. It helps to know exactly what you are “becoming one with.” Most people who talk about “becoming one” approach it with an idealized vision of what the environment they are working with is (or should be – which starts sneaking into “control.” It’s good to have this idealized vision. It’s also good to be realistic about what you are working with right now. Sometimes, the best option is to go find an environment that best matches you and will help you thrive.

Get Perspective On the Environment – This approach aims to gain perspective, then optimize.

Key questions – What are we trying to accomplish? What does the environment look like right now? Is there enough within that environment where we can accomplish those goals – or do we need to set either preliminary goals OR set entirely new goals? What are the components within that environment that we can optimize so that it works for EVERYONE within that environment and still achieve our goals? What do we need to “weed”?

This approach reminds me of permaculture. Permaculture aims to use the environment you find yourself in and grow plants that will work best in that environment.

Depending upon your goals (such as – “I want a vegetable garden”), you plant seeds.

There are parts of your environment you can’t control – such as the weather.

There are other parts that you can – such as the seeds you plant

Some vegetables will thrive in your environment. For example, I live in Virginia. Lettuce does well here in the spring. If I were in the tropics, lettuce is do-able but more challenging. Lettuce (particularly varieties such as Iceberg) will bolt or rot in the heat and humidity.

What is your default?

Does your default change based on your context?


Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics has shaped my thinking around “fit your solution to the environment you find yourself in” vs. “solve the problem”

Two books provide excellent examples of “fitting your solution to your existing environment”:

  • Memenomics – Said Dawalbani’s analysis of the evolution of economies. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
  • Spiral Dynamics in Action – A series of case studies for applied Spiral Dynamics. The Case Studies focus on national-level solutions, but there is much here that we can pull for smaller-scale efforts.

Links are Amazon affiliate links. I earn a few cents if you purchase through these links. Thank you for supporting my work.

Building a Container

For those of us who find ourselves in “informal” positions of leadership (trainers, project managers, team leads, event organizers, etc) – it’s important to understand that we, too, are responsible for building a supportive container for the teams and people we work with.

I purposefully use the concept of “container” because we are often trying to protect our students or team members from the stresses of the larger organizational environment during the time we have them.

Containers have boundaries.

Containers, when built well, provide the safety and security people need to do the work they need to do.

Since much of my career has been spent inflicting unwanted change on people, I’ve become mindful of the container I have wanted to build.

The build starts with one question:

How do I want individuals to feel when they leave my container?

When I’m training, the answer is “confident.” Confident that they can function once the change hits. Confident that they are capable of learning new things in the future. Confident that they have a path to mastery within the new environment created by the change.

In project teams, the answer is “comfortable.” Comfortable that they have the resources needed to do the work. Comfortable that their work is valued and appreciated. Comfortable with the knowledge that they are being set up to succeed and (when possible) thrive. Comfortable with asking questions and with sharing challenges.

In a recent workshop, that answer was “safe.” Safe to explore potentially sensitive areas of themselves and their world. Safe to share with others. Safe to reach out for help.

Once you determine the desired emotional outcome (the Why), you can then consider how you want to encourage these outcomes (because you can’t control how others feel, you can only create a space where those feelings are more likely).

  • How do you wish to model this outcome?
    • Remember: your students and team members are looking to YOU for what this looks like.
    • It is hard to model when you are a ball of stress. I’m not asking you to pretend you have it all together. We’re human and we live in interesting times. Instead, I want you to make sure that you have your OWN support network as you do this.
  • What are the behavioral norms you need to set?
    • This is the core question behind “Classroom Management.”
    • What behaviors will you encourage?
    • What behaviors will you discourage and how will you address them when they appear?
  • What are the boundaries around that container?
    • Who are your allies outside of that container that can help you hold and maintain that container? Who can help you “run interference” as you and the others within the container do the work?
    • What exceptions will you need to make?
      • There WILL be exceptions. I have found that defining these exceptions up front makes it easier to maintain the boundaries of the container overall.
      • Example exceptions (these are IT examples because that’s where I came from): Power outages, Core application outages, the CIO wants something from the team ASAP.

These containers aren’t built to hold forever. YOU can’t hold the container together forever (unless you are a CEO). The containers I am describing are built to provide a temporary space to get real work done. They are built to provide the safety, security, and confidence that allows learning to happen.

Resources

Aaron Dignan’s Organizational Operating System Canvas works at the CEO-level. It’s overkill for the containers we are trying to build, but he provides some interesting questions for us to consider as we build our temporary containers – https://medium.com/the-ready/the-operating-system-canvas-420b8b4df062

Amy Edmonson’s research emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Containers are, fundamentally, all about creating that safety in often hostile environments. – The Fearless Workplace: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. (Amazon affiliate link)

The domain of Classroom Management (even in the K-12 space) contains many techniques I find useful when dealing with teams of professionals. Many K-12 teachers are masters at creating containers within hostile environments and without choosing who goes into the container. Better than Carrots or Sticks (Amazon affiliate link) specifically addresses the K-12 classroom. I would argue that what we observe as kids in school carries over into our adult lives. This book contains ideas that we can transfer into the workplace. Even encouraging people to bring their favorite “security blanket” may not be such a bad thing.