It Only Takes One
I will get into how this relates to business, shortly, so please indulge me as I create context from a real-life experience I am betting most of us can relate to.
I am one of those drivers, who, while in heavy traffic, looks ahead to see who may be holding things up. Generally, I will see that there is one person ahead of me in the same lane with a four-to-five car following distance, and who is equally slow to accelerate. For some unknown reason they simply will not close the gap nor keep up with the general pace of traffic. The following distance alone is not the core issue. It’s that cars from the other lane are zipping in front of our lolly-gagging friend who then proceeds to back off further to maintain the four-to-five car following distance. Oh, and did I mention this is in the passing lane?
The net effect is the traffic in this lane continues to slow, and the lolly-gagger is now a one-person, rolling traffic jam. I mean, it’s bad enough we are all dealing with traffic to begin with, right? So, why make it worse? And, let’s not even delve into texting in the car.
What if We Are the Problem?
If you and I were in conversation, we could surely go on and on about human behaviors that annoy us. And, if we are honest, we may even identify and own instances where we are the problem. My traffic-related impatience aside, I bet you can also see the picture I am painting. It only takes one person to create a problem. The most extreme examples are rooted in history, with the likes of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler.
I have led many teams of varying sizes and complexity, and one of the most important aspects of developing a high-performing team is the focus on culture. Webster’s Dictionary defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Notably, the attitudes and values most often define the practices. Often, practices, including individual behavior, may denote an emotional response based on a value set and a related attitude which may or may not align with the organization as a whole.
One Individual Can Affect the Culture
A single individual can pollute the stream and cause a negative impact on team culture. I am reminded of an incident where an employee was quite vocal about our team’s culture and how certain things were or were not getting done. And, rather than offering to be part of the solution, this person persisted in playing the victim. The person expected that somehow a leader, like myself, would magically dump a bucket of “morale” on them and the team and all of the issues would dissipate. Unfortunately, the behaviors the individual exhibited were exactly the behaviors this person condemned. Most importantly, the behaviors stood in sharp contrast to our shared, documented values as a team, which included principles on how we would treat one another. This person was toxic to the culture, and the behaviors were damaging work relationships.
Lack of self-awareness or, plainly stated, selfishness, can have ripple effects on others and it only takes one person to create widely-felt consequences. But what about creating positive impacts? Can one person truly make a difference?
In the inspirational book and video 212o, authors Sam Parker and Mac Anderson demonstrate that, at 211o, water is just hot. One more degree and water boils. It literally transforms from water to steam. It only takes one degree to create the transformation.
Toward Greater Self-Awareness and Accountability
As I reflect on inspirational people from history, I think about examples like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Their steadfast, purposeful and quite individualized work transformed nations and ultimately had immense impact on the rest of the world.
So, for the rest of us average human beings, who will live our lives somewhere between the extremes, what can we do individually? In a number of recent posts, I have discussed self-awareness and mindfulness. How we choose to show up can have immensely positive results. In his book, Energy Leadership, Bruce Schneider discusses catabolic and anabolic energy. Catabolic energy is the negative and destructive energy, while anabolic is the positive energy we create. While it is natural for humans to experience both, we can teach ourselves how to cycle more quickly to the anabolic state and therefore have increasingly positive effects on others.
This can have tremendously positive outcomes on our relationships and the cultures of teams. My good friend and business consultant Joe Calhoon defines culture as simply, “how we behave.” I really like that definition, as it denotes equal accountability at the individual level.
Whether in traffic or in the office, our cultural experiences can absolutely be shaped by how we choose to show up as individuals. From a perspective of forgiveness, we will all goof up at one point or another and we need to acknowledge the “human” in us. But ask yourself how much of your impact on others is rooted in pattern behavior reflecting little self-awareness and even less self-accountability.